Hardware Records HWR047 2013, DD & LP album, 24m 12s
€5+ DD €11 LP
LPs look and feel superb. I don’t know if they looked and felt so great when they were the standard format for album length releases; I mean I remember loving them, for their artwork, the music they contained, the convenience of their spliff-making surfaces, but given that they were all there was (other than the sad, sad second-best of the pre-recorded cassette), I think I appreciate them a lot more now than I ever did before. When this one landed on my doormat (or next to the garden fence to be more accurate), it was a moment of great excitement and sensual fetishism; somehow the size, the prominent packaging and the sheer materiality of the medium promise that whatever sounds have been encoded on it, they must be worth the effort. Of course that’s not necessarily true, and as much truly terrible music has been released on vinyl as good stuff, but the rituality of playback, and the tangible electro-acousticity of the sound (over and above the warm subliminal distortions of the signal path) predispose the listener to attend carefully and respectfully to the music. The affordances of vinyl extend beyond the audition of recorded music into a realm of active engagement related, but not identical to, the attendance of a live performance, or even to the act of performance itself. Blank Pages comes in a beautiful matt gatefold, with the lyrics printed inside, conveniently accessible while listening in a way that those printed in a CD booklet never are (not least because the text is several times larger!) This is one of the principal changes for me, from LP to CD: I was far more likely to allocate a significant proportion of the time I spent listening to a record, each time I listened to it, to examining the packaging. All these reflections and musings, and not a single reference to the sound of the music! But this is exactly the point I’m making. Twelve inches of artfully packaged black vinyl set the scene far more dramatically than a CD ever will.
The scene being set, assuming you buy the LP rather than the download, Blank Pages’ music will reward the attention the physical medium suggests you pay it. That’s not to say that this is an album properly experienced via reverent close listening on headphones with your eyes shut; it’s visceral music this, energetic and melodic punk tunes with an old school sound and production that somehow invite a more committed engagement than the over-compressed, super-heavy crunch that passes for pop-punk texture nowadays. Blank Pages is a short record, and the range of the music it contains is relatively constrained; that’s no criticism, as the band has by no means exhausted the possibilities of its creative practice by the time it comes to a close. In fact, my first instinct is usually to flip it back to side A and listen again. Some tunes are faster, some are slower, but none are frantic, and none are slow. The most reflective moment on the album is probably an instrumental passage, the intro to ‘Drained’, which is very atmospheric, and taken at a measured tempo, but the body of the song kicks up a gear into the mid-tempo that represents Blank Pages’ apparent minimum. The style of the music is very much that of the punk rock I grew up with; it’s a lot more catchy and melodic than much of the underground punk and hardcore I hear nowadays, and while it’s raw, its distortions are not the sort that obscure the constituent voices of the guitar chords. At times there are hints of surf-twang, for example in the guitar melodies of the opener and closer, ‘Shelter’ and ‘Do Not Resuscitate’ respectively, and the sound overall is entertaining and infectious; the melodies swoop around dramatically while the simple, triadic chord sequences journey and yearn, just as they usually do in pop-punk.
All this musical positivity is a bit of a sham however, or a subterfuge at least; the lyrics pack something of a sucker-punch. The perspective they express is considerably darker than the inchoate frustration and youthful optimism of much comparably melodic and kinetic punk music. Almost every song examines, with a compelling combination of critical distance and empathy, the negative effects of society on its constituent individuals; the characters in these songs are damaged and alienated, from the alcoholic in ‘From The Outside’ to the exhausted wage-slave in ‘All In Due Time’, or the lost and unfulfilled protagonist of ‘Do Not Resuscitate’. For all the evils that are identified there are no cures prescribed, but that’s all to the good; music like this enacts a positive response, an act of creative and autonomous resistance. It leads by example, and avoids the inevitable hubris of offering singular answers to problems that are as complex as they are various. The tone of the lyrics is not optimistic, but the music is so energetic, and so melodically uplifting that the meanings of the songs are far from depressing or resigned. Only in ‘Open Wounds’ is there anything resembling a call to arms, an explicit exhortation to resist, or at least to face the future with strength or pride; but the whole album is alight with the same anger that animated the first wave of politically motivated punk music in the 1970s, the same cry of rage still pouring forth from the same collective open mouth, its demands unsatisfied but far from forgotten. Blank Pages’ aims are as simple and as pressing as those of their many illustrious predecessors, another generation finding in music a place where they can exercise the liberty, agency and creativity that the hierarchies of capitalist society deny to all but the wealthy. Simple aims are well served by straightforward musical materials, but simple does not equate to unsophisticated, and the music on this album is informed by an unusually apt ear for a good tune and a driving groove; the performances are exactly right, and the songs are finely honed instruments of critical resistance, disguised as sing-along pop music. It’s that sing-along quality that makes them so powerful, building community, at least for the duration of a gig or a side of an LP, in the face of the forces that seek to atomise and alienate. This is a superb, rabble-rousing record, as coherent as it is exciting.