Words by Jim Testa
Jim Testa founded the highly influential zine, Jersey Beat in 1982 which he continues to edit to this day. Through writing for his own publication and a number of other outlets, including as a staff writer for Hudson County’s Jersey Journal, he has championed local, regional and national up-and-coming bands. Punk has always shunned credentials, but rest assured that Jim won’t lead you astray.
Dan Vapid has been a pop-punk songwriting machine through four decades, in bands as diverse as his teenage hardcore band Generation Waste, the funky Sludgeworth, the classic lineup of Screeching Weasel, the Methadones, the Mopes, the Riverdales, and Noise By Numbers. Since 2011, his primary outlet has been Dan Vapid & The Cheats, but his new album “Welcome To Dystopia” goes somewhere new: politics. The 16-track opus, Vapid’s first post-covid release, might have been split into two; the first a collection of enjoyable pop punk whose influences range from Nick Lowe pub rock (“Sour Pauline,” “I Didn’t Get An Invitation” to ’79 in-your-face punk (“Strapped,” “Let Me Out”) to Fifties blue-based rock ‘n’ roll (“Bad Blood”) to the Lookout style of pop-punk he helped define. But a good half of the album lets Vapid vent on the state of America and everything that’s wrong with it, from the Green Day-tinged “Pacify Me” to angry rants against disinformation (“Fact And Fiction,” “Anti-Science”) to economic injustice (“Junk Bonds.”) The title track is the kind of anthem you might expect from Bad Religion, and a few others just let us know how pissed off Vapid feels about all this (“Let Me Out,” “Boiling Over.”) The band follows Vapid’s lead, sounding angry or whimsical as the lyrics demand, but always bringing melody and urgency.
Vortis is another Chicago band, this one a bit more underground but nonetheless well-established punk-rock lifers who have been hitting the clubs and releasing quality albums for over two decades. Wiry (and Wire-y,) perpetually pissed off and reactive, Vortis takes its name from the Vorticist movement of the early 20th-century, a group of artists and writers whose basic tenet was to “perpetuate violent structures of adolescent clarity” throughout life. As drummer (and noted rock writer, now college professor) Jim DeRogatis has said, that’s a pretty damn good definition of rock ‘n’ roll coined a good 50 years before Chuck Berry and Elvis brought the idea to life. On “The Miasmic Years,” Vortis continues its assault against complacency and instutional injustices, this time with the addition of looping technology that adds ethereal notes to the usual barrage of distorted guitar, bass, and clobbering drums. With 17 songs that clock in at under 30 minutes, “The Miasmic Years” reveals both the band’s prescience (“Quarantine,” inspired by the true-life story of a luxury line stricken by an onboard virus, predates the pandemic) and its ability to reshape the past into cogent commentary on today’s news (their “Covid Blues” is a reinterpretation of a 1919 blues song about the influenza epidemic that decimated a generation during Woodrow Wilson’s administration.) The band takes aim at the working class blind to its own plight on “Everything’s Going My Way” (“got no future, got no say/ what the fuck is an IRA?/ everything’s going my way”) and pronounces a dire forecast if things don’t change (“This Ain’t Gonna End Well,”) paying homage to predecessors like Black Flag, Dead Boys, Big Black, Bad Religion, and Wire while bringing the unique talents of guitarist Tonee Vortis and bassist Louise Vortis to the fore. Vortis accomplishes with sarcasm and nihilism what Michaelangelo did with clay and marble, transforming the mundane into art.
When the Buzzcocks’ extraordinary frontman and primary songwriter Pete Shelley passed away in 2018, one might imagine remaining original member Steve Diggle and cohorts keeping the ban’ds catalog alive on the road, but surely there wouldn’t be a new Buzzcocks album, right? Wrong. With Diggle handling lead vocals and most of the songwriting, the Buzzcocks live on with “Sonics In The Soul,” an album much better than any of us had any right to hope for. It sounds like classic Buzzcocks in that the tunes are resolutely catchy and there’s those one-note guitar riffs Shelley specialized in. But these new Buzzcocks also stake out new territory. Diggle hasn’t sounded this good or written this well since the classics “Harmony In My Head” and “Autonomy.” While the band still has a punky sound, this isn’t strictly speaking punk. There are nostalgic odes to the band’s Manchester roots and forays into Byrdsy folk-rock; “Don’t Mess With My Brain” messes with Nuggets-y psychedelic garage rock. But there are enough moments – “Senses Out Of My Control,” “Just Got To Let It Go,” “Venus Eyes” – that capture the old Buzzcocks magic and answer the musical question “Can You Hear Tomorrow?” with a resounding “Yes!”
Two songs each from Phoenix’ Pop Icons and St. Pete, FL’s Rutterkin, with proceeds going to The Tampa Bay Abortion Fund. Not familiar with either band, I found Rutterkin’s earnest and heartfelt “Grieving Cathedral” to be uplifting and – to borrow a word from the Hold Steady – positive, and the angry, shouty “Eveline” to be bracing, even exciting, with its runaway guitars and raw-throated vocals. I wish they’d print the vocals, though, because I can’t tell if the song is celebrating Eveline or damning her. Pop Icons, as the name suggests, are poppier, catchier, and happier sounding. “Hell And High Water” (a song that might make more sense coming from the hurricane-prone St. Pete band than the guys from the dessert) got my head bobbing (and I would have been singing along if, again, there were lyrics.) “Pop Song Dialtones” gets a little snottier and even catchier. I like. And it’s for a good cause, although please feel welcome to donate a few bucks to any reproductive rights organization near you.
Florida’s Kid You Not sound like every band that every played the Warped Tour in the mid-00’s, rife with big brawny singalongs, a dash of emo self-pity (“Last Of A Lost Generation,” which is ironically followed by the more upbeat “First Of A Dying Breed,”) a bit of humor (“I’m Not Superstitious But I Am A Little Stitious,” although the title’s more clever than the song,) and some impressive harmony vocals (“This Is A Fire Sale, Everything Must Go.”) There’s a melancholy undercurrent that runs through all these songs that naggingly asks the question, “Are we getting too old for this shit,” a sentiment probably shared by both the band and a large part of its audience.
SWING AND A MISS
The name of this band inspired a listen: Were they riffing off Husker Du’s “Celebrated Summer” or the social movement that swept through D.C.’s vaunted hardcore scene in the summer of 1985? The answer turns out to be neither; this is more of the gruff-throated punk that has everyone screaming along to every word and pumping their firsts into the air without really saying much and, after the first few opening bars, all sounding pretty much the same. I do give the band props for covering Tiltwheel, a less than memorable attempt at pop-punk whose career was summed up by the San Diego Reader thusly: “A lot of their songs are about beer. They’re most often seen in bars that serve beer. The members tend to smell like beer. When you hear their music, you will probably crave beer.”