In 1886, Chicago was a struggling, working-class immigrant’s town. Tensions were high between the police and the immigrant neighborhoods, and the city’s merchant elite — people such as George Pullman, Cyrus McCormick Jr., and Marshall Field — often took advantage of workers. In May of that year, a group of revolutionaries decided to organize pre-union protests, calling for the then-unheard-of eight-hour workday and the right to organize. The most famous of these became known as the Haymarket Riots.
On May 4, 1886, during what had been a peaceful protest, the police and protesters tangled, and someone — to this day no one is sure who — threw a bomb into the crowd, killing several officers and wounding others. Several working-class immigrants associated with the “anarchist” movement were arrested and convicted in a farcical trial. Of the “Haymarket Eight,” as the accused and convicted were known, three were executed, one committed suicide, one was sentenced to fifteen years hard labor, and three were pardoned by Illinois Gov. John Altgeld in 1893, nine years after the riot. It is widely believed that all those convicted were not involved in the manufacture or throwing of the bomb that killed the officers.
The legacy of the Haymarket Riots is still felt today when union workers strike or in the laws that govern our safety and well-being as employees. Its effects carried to Europe and beyond, and the workers’ rebellious and defiant spirit carries on, though questionably, in the work of the Chicago band Haymarket Riot.
By choosing a historically charged name in such an ethnically and socio-economically diverse city as Chicago, this band has set itself up for high expectations. Taking its cue from the sounds of punk and the earnest delivery of emo, the band’s second long-player, Mog, is a mix of discordant guitars and dry-cracking drums. The band’s tour history and work ethic would certainly resonate with Haymarket widow and labor activist Lucy Parsons, but it is doubtful she would condone the detached hipster irony that weighs down songs such as “You Might Know Who We R, But We Know Who You R.”
All is not cool irony, though, as the band picks itself up on songs such as “Uneasy Consequence” and “Sleep.” Here, the lyrics intelligently address apathy and the insurmountable tedium of trying to get ahead in this rat race of consumerism. References to modern food conveniences could actually be construed as a statement on the insipid materialism of America. Then again, perhaps that goes too far, considering the average age of audience members for this type of music hovers between 16 and 24 and similar bands such as Jawbox and Alkaline Trio have never really been considered the socio-political-artistic vanguard. For that, turn to Fugazi.
Mog, the fourteenth overall entry in the band’s catalog, was produced by John Congleton of the Paper Chase and recorded by Steve Albini. And it sounds crisp and distinctive — an Albini trademark. But the question is why the man who gave the Pixies their sound and who ripped our faces off with his wall-of-noise project Big Black would take on a lesser-known project like Haymarket Riot. Perhaps it was their credentials; the band’s members have logged time in Check Engine and Sweep the Leg Johnny. Or maybe he was just bored and needed some quick cash.
The result is a dual-guitar sound heavy on the high end and a rhythm section more trebly than most prog-rock guitars. Disjointed and angular, this is arguably formulaic pop-punk. More artistic than technical, Mog at times suffers from the “form over content” syndrome but on the whole doesn’t quite become saddled with the “pretentious” curse, either.
A quick look at the band’s Web site shows furious punk-rock poses and energy leaping from their figures as they play. What you don’t see is how that translates to Mog. Mog is a study in how the punk aesthetic of the ’70s and ’80s has been warped into a lot of moving around on stage and very little real passion in the vocal delivery, regardless of whether the lyrics are passionate subject matter. Ultimately, a band such as Haymarket Riot reinforces the lessons of the protest and riot: What it has gained only serves to show us what has yet to be accomplished.