For a small faction of indie fans, the original anti-corporate, anti-complacency ethic to music still rings true. For years, those music fans have been longing for a band that not only maintained those ethics, but also had the musical bark to match the bite. Last year, Fucked Up brought a welcome rush of musically and ethically strong hardcore punk on The Chemistry of Common Life. Nonetheless, the supposed maturity that came after pure loud/fast hardcore subsided in 1980s indie-rock was still lacking.
Enter the Poison Arrows. With cool kids and jocks joining what was once a musical harbor for outcasts, The Poison Arrows are pure outcasts. Forget “indie”; these guys are sub-indie, C.H.U.D. rock. After a handful of EPs, the band’s long-awaited debut full-length — the chilling, enthralling, and masterfully executed First Class, and Forever — is unquestionably music for those who don’t fit in anywhere else. The Poison Arrows seem hell bent on making their music damn very important to a certain number of people, but only the people who have nowhere else to go.
The Chicago band consists of local indie veterans Patrick Morris (bass), Adam Reach (drums), and at the head of it all, Justin Sinkovich, founder of the websites Epitonic and BetterPropaganda. In the early 2000s, Epitonic was a rival on equal standing with Pitchfork, focusing more on band profiles and audio and video streaming half a decade before YouTube. Sinkovich could have become one of this decade’s most important indie business pioneers. Instead, he sold the site and took a job at Touch and Go, turning Epitonic into something of a footnote in the history of music media.
Despite Sinkovich’s reputation of having a remarkably astute business sense (I should probably disclose here that I am friends with some of Sinkovich’s contemporaries in Chicago), the Chicago Reader reported in 2007 that “Morris and Sinkovich are both burned out on the careerist approach to bands…They’ve all got day jobs; they don’t tour and have no plans to.” Crucially, The Poison Arrows realize the farce of the dream of rock fame unlike most of today’s self-aggrandizing indie acts. Instead, they focus on music as a passion project, true to Steve Albini’s vision that once music becomes a job, it ceases to be interesting.
Recorded at Electrical Audio, Albini’s influence is all over First Class, and Forever. In a way, The Poison Arrows have achieved what Albini, as a musician, has been striving for all his life. From the very onset of the Big Black through his work with Shellac, Albini and his successors have tried to mix the unbridled fury of hardcore punk with the more reserved, caustic agony found in Krautrock and post-rock. Shellac’s most ambitious attempt at this goal, 1998’s Terraform, flopped, and Albini returned to the biliousness he had long ago mastered with 2000’s 1000 Hurts and 2007’s Excellent Italian Greyhound, both of which were well-received.
First Class, and Forever shows exactly why Albini has striven to mix hardcore and post-rock: When done right, it turns righteous anger of hardcore into something that exists on a universal scale. Normally, you would never hear the Jesus Lizard noise of “Fire Up the Happiness Center” on the same album as the Kraftwerk-recalling “An Unexploded Dream.” Punk-infused post-rock has generally consisted of things like repetitive, slowly, building grooves, sparse synths that bleed more than they soothe, and emotionless, detached singing. Albini pioneered the style with the Big Black, and Slint’s Spiderland is generally considered to be its greatest expression. The Poison Arrows, however, are possibly the first band to realize that the key to making that brand of slow repetition work is the occasional breaks from that repetition. Seemingly minor variations on First Class, and Forever, many of which only become apparent after repeated listens turn much more unpredictable and frightening. You can hear deeply inspired flourishes in shockingly aggressive rhythm section behind “Total Beverage” or the “Marquee Moon”-on-PCP progression of “To Meet Eyes.” Sinkovich’s voice may seem emotionless, but the rare occasions when he does emote — ever so slightly — have as much of an impact as the loudest Steven Tyler wail.
The Poison Arrows have been working on First Class, and Forever for years — Sinkovich has joked that it’s his Chinese Democracy — but the payoffs from that discipline are astounding. Today, most bands big and small now record albums in a couple of weeks, presumably because it’s more punk (read: more cheap). The Poison Arrows fully embrace value of careful, precise arrangements, spending time on your craft, and engaging in the sort of Germanic discipline that has produced more classic albums than has needless thrift. You can see the meshing of these two worldviews — disciplined musicology and reckless punk abandon — in the German Expressionist album design, distorting a photo (taken by Patrick Morris, formerly of Pittsburgh’s Don Caballero) of an escalator in a train station in the Steel City.
First Class, and Forever combines all of what made Trans-Europe Express and Songs About Fucking classics without sacrificing anything, be it ethics, art, or lifestyle. It’s a virtually flawless album that accomplishes all its goals; its only flaw is its lack of universal appeal. That’s okay: C.H.U.D.s were meant to stay underground, anyway.