Staying true

There’s a sense that musicians (and other artists) are supposed to keep innovating, to follow an endless quest for the holy grail of ‘originality’, but there’s also a competing imperative, particularly in cultures like those of punk and metal, to stay true to your roots. Especially for bands that have never achieved overwhelming commercial success, maintaining contact with the needs of a loyal fanbase often trumps any desire to make waves stylistically—and the function of the music, for both artists and fans, is often primarily to constitute and maintain a community. That community is what Suicidal Tendencies are all about.

13 was released in 2013, thirteen years after the band’s previous studio album of new material. Its name may also be a reference to Venice 13, a Mexican American street gang that at least one band member was associated with in its early days. The long release hiatus doesn’t represent a lack of activity—the band was busy touring throughout, giving its hardcore fans (‘Cycos’) what they needed—but I’d guess that in that era of globally collapsing music sales they didn’t feel the need to shoot albums into commercial oblivion. By all accounts they continued to record, the band being one that spends most of its downtime in the studio.

This record doesn’t break new ground for the band. It’s an angry, anthemic call to arms, sitting right on the boundary between hardcore punk and thrash metal—with leader and vocalist Mike Muir’s trademark taste for funk running through it like a single thread of contrasting colour. The band has a history with funk, with its spin-off act Infectious Grooves helping to found the funk-metal genre. At the time both bands were anchored by Robert Trujillo, one of the best bass players in rock, who has since attained mythic success with Ozzy Osbourne and Metallica, and on this record the tradition of hosting a jaw-dropping bottom-ender continued.

Stephen Bruner, better known as Thundercat, had been touring with the band for some years, and left shortly before the recording of 13, but he came back to record it. This is one of the more unlikely alliances in recent music history, given that Bruner is best known as an alt-R’n’B producer and a jaw dropping jazz bassist, but along with his brother, the jazz drummer Ronald Bruner, he first came to prominence in this most non-nonsense of blue-collar thrash bands. It’s to Muir’s credit that he makes a place in his band for such excellent musicians with such seemingly left-field backgrounds. Thundercat doesn’t overplay, and nor does his playing produce a strong sense of fusion, but he frequently contributes displays of eye-watering bass gymnastics that add another layer of listening pleasure to an album that is fundamentally about cartoonish intensity.

13 didn’t receive an overwhelmingly positive critical response, and the presence of Slayer’s legendary drummer Dave Lombardo has brought their more recent releases greater plaudits. But for me, it does exactly what I’d want a Suicidal Tendencies album to do, and with the addition of Bruner’s low-end flash I’ve found it irresistibly entertaining. I first became aware of the band because of the rumour of spectacular bass skills, so it’s good to find them playing host to more of the same. Really however, it’s just great to find such an old-school band staying true to its principles, its politics and its audience. As ‘Cyco’ Mike Muir puts it here: ‘until my last breath/ I’ll be pissing on the rich.’

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