Every few years, someone will start a debate about what punk really is. Most recently, this debate was sparked by a Seattle Weekly piece titled “Punk Rock is Bullshit,” in which ostensibly grown-up punk (and Talkhouse contributor) John Roderick very eloquently deconstructs his wasted life of misguided punk rock ideals. He reduces the music to fun, albeit stupid, rock & roll and claims that its only redeeming value, the DIY movement, is nothing but small business capitalism at work. He sheds a lot of insight on the subject while somehow missing some of the key ingredients that actually make punk a vibrant, unpredictable and, ultimately, freeing form.
Punk rock has always been a kind of countermeasure. Born as a reaction to the excess of leftover ’60s flower power and bloated ’70s prog-rock, punk was crude and offensive. The early bands celebrated primitive music that could be played by anyone and enjoyed a provocative stance that alienated previous generations. Bands like the Sex Pistols and the Ramones sneered and bashed their way through short, simple songs and rode a wave to (relative) commercial success.
In response to the mainstream acceptance of punk and the perception that it had become too soft to sufficiently speak for an increasingly disenfranchised generation, hardcore punk was born and bands like Bad Brains, Black Flag and D.O.A. added rage and fury to punk’s lean speed. Meanwhile, as a reaction to the oversimplified nature of punk rock’s three-chords-and-the-truth nature, post-punk bands like Wire, the Fall and Television began to introduce an experimental musical prowess and an overt awareness of art and appreciation for subtlety to the message.
Punk was becoming less of an indictment of its forebears and more of a reaction to itself. It began to form new waves that tore down the generation of musicians that immediately preceded and inspired it. In that way it was a self-cleaning engine, always ready to kill its idols and start again, in the process breaking one of the golden rules of art: always separate creation and critique. In essence, punk rock became creation as critique and, by extension, critique as creation.
This cycle of destroy-to-build-to-destroy, ad infinitum, had undergone countless revolutions before I became a cog in its machine. In New Brunswick, New Jersey, circa 1997, we were tired of pretending to be tough New York Hardcore types and started getting interested in a new style coming out of San Diego. A group of bands associated with the small label Gravity Records were taking the wild fury of hardcore and combining it with artsy post-punk musicianship, the sensitivity of “emo,” the attention to fashion of goth bands and the DIY presentation of the early Dischord Records scene. Bands like Heroin, Antioch Arrow and the VSS crushed up the disparate waves of punk and snorted them, resulting in a kind of musical high that reverberated throughout the basements and youth centers of America. The form became labeled screamo, with a tongue firmly in cheek.
It was 1998 when I started putting on basement shows and these bands spoke to me. Orchid, Reversal of Man, Four Hundred Years, Saetia, You and I. To me, these were the unsung heroes of DIY punk. There was blistering volume and chaos, vocals untethered from melody, a disregard for monetary success and a focus on music’s power to connect people. For a few years, it felt like punk had taken a break from destroying in order to build something worthwhile: socially conscious people gathering to discuss gender politics, social justice, activism, art, literature and friendship, while making music that was easily played by anyone willing to pour themselves into it.
The dream was short-lived. Most of these bands broke up after a couple releases to focus on careers. Others (like my own band, Thursday) became commercially successful, thereby defeating the original spirit of the genre and discouraging DIY bands from playing the style.
The scene was dying. (Oh, the horror and tragedy of it all.) In its place, younger bands returned punk rock to its traditional roots, this time the unpretentious honesty of three chords representing the no-bullshit aesthetics of the blue-collar working man. Screamo was a joke: art students and effete aesthetes whining about Sartre and wearing tight clothes. Bruce Springsteen became a punk icon. Damian from Fucked Up became an intelligent neo-G.G. Allin. The punk rock engine was chewing up and spitting out all the bullshit again. So it goes.
And yet it was a shame to lose the baby with the bath water. So many valid ideas flourished in the hallways of screamo: the anarchist bookstores and the commitment to vulnerability. But it simply wasn’t cool anymore. The tongue-in-cheek tag was now simply a joke. But…
Quietly, in Europe, it seems that no one got the memo. Screamo bands were popping up all over the continent, in squats and cafes, adding their own fingerprints to the genre. Among them, La Quiete, Amanda Woodward and Suis La Lune were all unique and essential bands in this nearly unheard revival of a dead genre. However, the undisputed kings of European screamo are a band hailing from Italy: Raein.
Unlike most bands of the genre, who warm up on their first release, perfect the form on their second and disband after a disappointing third release, Raein continue to grow and evolve, record after record after record. They have a dexterity and finesse to their musicianship that makes it clear that they could play any style they choose and that this isn’t simply a default mode for them. The guitars attack without distortion; they are angular and pointed, in the D.C. style, winding around each other and accentuating the melodic, counter-melodic and dissonant elements all within the same measure.
The drums are chaotic, schizophrenic and expressive. Tempos shift wildly and create a push-pull dynamic, reminiscent of the jazz gymnastics of Max Roach. The drummer is able to turn a melodic figure from triumphant to melancholy on a dime. He plays like a speeding locomotive and when he derails, the crash is a glorious sound. On their fourth and latest record, Sulla Linea D’Orizzonte Tra Questa Mia Vita e Quella di Tutti, Raein play with such confidence, such abandon, that you can see the full potential of the genre unfold.
Stylistically, Raein are spiritual counterparts to the Italian film score genius Ennio Morricone. The music bears the rolling tension of the cavalry coming over the mountains in a spaghetti western. Even the vocals (from singer Andrea Console and singer/guitarists Alessio Valmori and Giuseppe Coluccelli), which are screamed in Italian, add to the overall foreign cinema effect. Being unable to understand a single word makes it easier to connect directly to the human element of the voice. Desperation, hope, mourning: these are all on display in the final moments of “Dopo di Noi la Libertà.” The absence of literal meaning only enhances the ability to relate to pure universal emotion. If you’ve ever loved a song and wished its subject matter was about something else, this record is for you. (Assuming you’re not fluent in Italian.)
Raein often play against the grain. Many of the tempo changes are technically incorrect and they match guitar parts that may actually be in different keys. At times, the three guitars all play different melodies over a stuttering, fast beat from drummer Michele Camorani . The result is most reminiscent of Ornette Coleman’s Shape of Jazz to Come and similarly flirts with free jazz and blues ideas. On “Costellazione Secondo le Leggi Del Caso” the drums and guitars coalesce into a dramatic ritardando that actually surprises the listener by being both unorthodox and completely effective. On the sixth track “Oggi Ho Deciso di Diventare Oro,” they break into a singalong “la la la la” part that’s both tuneful and imperfect. The move is uncharacteristic for the band and certainly not in keeping with the rigid rules of the genre. This only makes it more satisfying. Finally, the song “Nirvana” starts in a painfully self-aware-sounding monologue, before dissolving into waves of wordless crescendos. The overall effect is self-abnegation, true nirvana. Maybe this is the ultimate freedom of music: freedom from the self, the ego.
In practice, the band are equally free. They produce their music themselves, when they want to. They tour when they want to, with whom they want to. They don’t feel the need to explain themselves when they release a record for free or when they charge. They practice DIY, not as a capitalist business model, but as a way not to have to think about the uneasy rub of art and commerce.
So, really, punk is about freedom as much as it is critique. Punk is Pussy Riot and true freedom of expression where it’s not allowed. Punk is Bikini Kill and smashing the patriarchy. Punk is Fugazi and a business that doesn’t cater to corporate bottom lines. Punk is Against Me! and transgender rights. Punk is the all ages movement and freedom to empower the youth, even in the face of local ordinances to the contrary. Punk rock is the freedom to truly be yourself. I don’t care if you’re in Crass or Green Day. If you can’t see that punk is just you, free, then maybe it’s you that’s bullshit.