No matter how much growing up we’ve done, we’ll always have a burning seed inside that screams at us to smash windows, start fires, and puke blood in the face of authority. That hot adolescent rebellion might be cooled by postures of adulthood, but anyone who’s ever been in a mosh pit as an adult knows that it’s quickly incensed again by the right tunes and the right crowd. More than many contemporary punk bands, Unnatural Helpers epitomize that seed. Each track on Land Grab, their third LP and their second on Hardly Art, blazes along its two-minute length like a dry knot of thorns struck by lightning.
This Seattle quartet’s toolkit isn’t dramatically different than that of most other Northwestern garage rockers, but the sounds aren’t really what’s at stake here. Shrugging off the ultra-lo-fi trend that’s been infecting the DIY world lately, Unnatural Helpers opt for a crisp aesthetic full of juicy leads and crunchy rhythms. Dean Whitmore’s vocals are well-articulated while still deliberately rough around the edges, while Andrew Sullivan churns out the low end as solidly as a punk bassist might be expected to. Sonically, everything’s competent. But it’s the songcraft that lifts Land Grab, at points, out from baseline solid into that place that makes your friend riding shotgun look up from his iPhone and ask, “who’s this?”
Lead single “Hate Your Teachers” bares its teeth at all the right places, a yelpy spot of “oi” that delves face-first into that adolescent need for a consistent enemy. “Waiting Girl” and “Stiff Wind” thread gentle classic whoops into their choruses like they know they’re going to be bouncing around your sleepless skull at the end of the day. But it’s on “Toil” that Unnatural Helpers soar up and beyond their typical cues into something more urgent, something with real weight. Lyrically and melodically, this is heavy stuff. “Close your eyes. The song goes on forever.” Blink and you might miss it–at 1:47, this particular song may be a far cry from forever, but the hints of eternity it cooks up inside its brief stint are darn near close enough.
And then, as if to flip off anyone who’s ever asked them why their songs are so short, Unnatural Helpers close Land Grab with a tune that takes up damn near a third of the album’s running time. “Julie Jewel” makes no pretense of its ten-minute length, beginning the same as any of its preceding tunes. But then the brass kicks in, and the song spirals on, and on, and on. What’s more, it doesn’t get old. It feels like someone left the mic on while the band jammed out over one of their more typical numbers–as raw and brash as anything they’ve done, just for longer. But maybe this is what was hinted at in “Toil’s” elusive poignancy–a transcendental aggression, a roaring nostalgia that’s as self-injurious as it is sentimental. “We had it made. We were eager, young, and unafraid,” repeats Whitmore as “Julie” smolders along. How do we reconcile that young burn with the layers of self we heap on top of it? Play punk rock, for starters.