Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Fucked Up's Chinese Zodiac-Driven Progressive Punk

When punk rose up in England around 1976-78, one of its purposes was to slay the grandiose, out-of-touch, silly beast that progressive rock had become. I’m not so sure that punk killed prog (it was never anywhere near the level of commercial force as prog, especially in the states), but the fact of the matter is that punk endured while prog went into an extended hibernation. A few bands such as Porcupine Tree attempted to revive the disgraced genre in the ‘90s, with mixed success.

Then, around the turn of the century, prog became a little less uncool. Critics started reevaluating bands like Yes and Gentle Giant. The post-hardcore powerhouse At the Drive-In morphed into The Mars Volta,[1] a band that redefined musical excess for the twenty-first century, releasing between one and three great albums in the process, depending on who you ask.[2] Suddenly it was acceptable for punks to admit that they liked King Crimson or Hawkwind.

Enter Fucked Up, the Canadian hardcore band that has written punk songs with an increasingly prog sensibility over the past decade. Their earliest singles, most of which were collected on the great Epics in Minutes (2004), mostly consisted of great if fairly boilerplate, short and fast hardcore tunes. But they began stretching out once they started toying with the long player format. Their debut album Hidden World shows right away that the band had changed its stripes with the terrific opener “Crusades,” which clocks in at almost seven minutes. The last track “Vivian Girls” is nearly ten.

The band’s first masterpiece, The Chemistry of Common Life (2008), doesn’t have any songs quite as long as “Vivian Girls,” but they had stretched their sound to allow for songs to have multiple movements, soaring backup vocals, and more melodic guitar work. They pushed their new melodic sensibilities even further on David Comes to Life (2011), an honest to god rock opera centered on the love between two young people in late 70s England. As a result, Fucked Up might be the first hardcore band that has ever had the ambition or hubris—you can decide which—to try to make a record in the vein of Tommy.

The band’s three albums have (somewhat understandably) gotten most of the attention, but their best outlet for their proggiest impulses can be found in their series of Zodiac Singles. Since 2006, they’ve released five 12” singles, beginning with Year of the Dog and continuing on through Year of the Pig, Rat, Ox, and Tiger. They’ve been sitting on Year of the Hare for a while, and they just premiered the title track from Year of the Dragon at a show in New York this past Saturday.

“Year of the Dog” and “Year of the Pig” both have the band starting to find their way within greatly elongated song formats. The nine-minute “Year of the Dog” is just as effective is most of the material on Hidden World, and its shorter b-side “Last Man Standing” has the band mining similar territory as well. Two years later the band bit off more than it could chew with “Year of the Pig,” which doesn’t quite justify its eighteen minute runtime. Having to occasionally plod along in order to fill time is not a good look, so the band curbed its ambitions a bit for the shorter (eleven minutes) “Year of the Rat” the year after. The results are astounding. “Rat” is the band mining their gift for the epic more completely than they have in almost any time of their career, and Pink Eyes’ lyrics are some of his career best. The b-side “First Born” is also great, transforming from a kind of punk blues into the triumphant sounds that they did so well on The Chemistry of Common Life over the course of six minutes.

“Year of the Ox” marked something of a turning point for the Zodiac Singles, as the song is much more melodic than anything in the series before it—not too much of a surprise seeing as it came out while the band was working on David Comes to Life. The thirteen minute song prominently features a violin, which isn’t exactly an instrument that screams punk, but the band makes it work excellently within the context. Even more surprisingly, if you flip the record over to “Solomons Song,” you’re greeted by a solo saxophone intro, and there is an extended sax, drums, bass breakdown in the middle of the song that is unlike anything I’ve ever heard a punk band try. That it all works is something of a minor miracle. They pushed even further away from the punk template on the piano-driven “Year of the Tiger,” which aside from Pink Eye’s never-changing hardcore bark doesn’t sound much like the work of a punk band at all.[3] The band also shows that they’re more ready for “Year of the Pig” length songs at this point in their career, as “Tiger” clocks in at 15:29 and the synthy instrumental b-side “ONNO” chugs along for an absurd twenty-two minutes.

From the sound of the video recorded at Le Poisson Rouge on Saturday, “Year of the Dragon” ratchets back up the volume and intensity that was missing from “Ox” and “Tiger.” This is only fitting for a song meant to channel the fearsomeness of the only mythical creature on the Chinese zodiac. Fortunately, the video and audio quality aren’t bad at all, and they more than ably fill a quarter hour with several distinct movements.

When they finally finish the Zodiac Singles series—if the band is to be believed about being done with Year of the Hare and Year of the Dragon they should have five left to record—it wouldn’t be surprising if they put together some kind of vinyl box set collecting all twelve records.[4] If they do, I hope they get Roger Dean to do the cover art. His visual style isn’t quite in line with Fucked Up’s music, but considering the ambition and the prog-leanings of this project, Dean would be a perfect choice. The Complete Zodiac Singles could be the band’s Tales from Topographic Oceans, although the Chinese Zodiac is a much better overarching concept than pretension, which is what Yes went for with that album.[5]

The link between the two bands is still fitting though. Punk has been a frequently dogmatic genre and culture throughout its nearly forty years, from the resistance of many early eighties hardcore fans to change, to the more intense segments of the straight-edge movement, but Fucked Up has managed to find their place as one of the most highly regarded bands in punk today through the most unlikely of means. Fucked Up found their own form of post-hardcore by circling back to the music punk was designed to destroy. 

[1] Well, At the Drive-In’s members split apart to found the Mars Volta and Sparta, but we don’t like to talk about Sparta.
[2] I’ll personally stand behind De-Loused in the Comatorium, The Bedlam in Goliath and about half of Frances the Mute.
[3] Shades of several bands (Husker Du, The Replacements, etc.) moving away from punk and toward more straight ahead rock in the mid-eighties.
[4] The cost of this size box set would probably necessitate it being a limited for-diehards-only type of thing. A Record Store Day exclusive seems possible.
[5] Disclaimer: I actually like Tales from Topographic Oceans, but I’ll freely admit that it is one of the high watermarks for seventies prog excess, up there with almost every bit of overblown nonsense Emerson, Lake & Palmer ever put out.

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