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.
GHOST FOREST – self-titled (self released)
A trio of punk rock lifers – singer-guitarist Scott “Gub” Conway (Gauge, Even In Blackouts,) drummer James Kimball (Jesus Lizard, Denison/Kimball Trio) and bassist Brant McCrea (the Streetwisemen) – team up on this debut release as Ghost Forest. A brutal mix of churning hard rock and angular post-punk, with urgent vocals and churning guitars, never lets up over a dozen powerful tracks. The droning intensity and surging rhythms on tracks like “Le Savage,” “Living In Hard Times,” and “Jobs,” which assaults the dehumanizing work of drudge labor, deliver an irresistible momentum that’s utterly captivating. While originally planned for a 2020 release, this album perfectly encapsulates where we are in post-covid 2022 – weary, scared, angry, and lost in a malestorm of forces beyond our control.
SE VENDE – Happy Accidents (Paper Street Cuts)
These San Diegans revive that brand of early 90s pop-punk when the music’s hardcore roots still showed and singers made every song sounded like their life depended on getting this music out of their system. The raw-throated, screamy vocals here turn even Jawbreaker’s delivery up a notch, and the band excels at thumping, rousing melodies and rhythms. Se Vende carries on the tradition of the kind of punk rock that simultaneously turned ABC No Rio and Gilman Street into places that changed people’s lives, with music (and bands) you believed in. Sam McPheeters, you did not ruin your throat in vain.
OMNI OF HALOS – self-titled (Lovely Records)
Sweden’s Omni Of Halos dropped their debut full-length in December after an impressive EP earlier this year, and the results do not disappoint. The band utilizes an epic wall-of-sound production typical of dreampop or shoegaze, but delivers melodic post-punk that manages to convey subtle emotions like wistfulness, yearning, and sadness. They also sound as American as Dan Vapid or, on “Empty Shell,” like a turn-of-the-millennium emo band that’s been swallowed by the Jesus & Mary Chain. This album comes out of nowhere to create an impressive and compelling impression.
POP UPS & GROUND OUTS
NOFX – Double Album (Fat Wreck Chords)
It actually makes sense – in a sad sort of way – that NOFX’s swan song, the sequel to Single Album and supposedly their final release – would be a slapdash collection of leftovers, and not the brilliant career summation fans undoubtedly hoped for. NOFX were always the first to claim how much they sucked, even when (after a crappy start) they released some of the best punk on the planet. This band can do fast & catchy in their sleep, but they truly seem to be sleepwalking through most of these tracks; ven the humor falls pretty lame (Steven Hawkins jokes, really?). And while Fat Mike – punk rock’s Pavarotti – has mined his history of childhood abuse, mental illness, and addiction for some truly powerful songs, “Three Against Me” (about being bullied by his siblings) manages neither to shock nor move the listener; the chorus “it’s not called child abuse, it’s called sibling rivalry, it’s always three against me” actually seems more whiney than tragic. Sorry, NOFX, it was a good run, but you probably should have stopped with Single Album.
KOMODOS – “K.O.” EP (self released)
This Gen Z NYC quintet claims they were founded on “the ethos of unadulterated rock & roll,” but they clearly didn’t grow up listening to Little Richard and Jerry Lee. Given their age, predictably “Rock & Roll” here means the Strokes (“Narcisse,” “Over/Under”) or Interpol on “Orpheus (Let It Burn”) or something a bit more proggy like Cage The Elephant (“Shoot The Messenger”). I don’t have a problem with young bands sounding a bit derivative on their first release, and the four songs here showcase the group’s musicianship and ear for arrangements. But claiming that this EP ““sublimates the complex and infamous affair that is living in NYC as a young 20-something” stretches things just a bit, unless their moms wheeled their strollers to the Luna Lounge on a regular basis two decades ago.
SLUDGEWORTH – Loser Of The Year (Red Scare Industries)
Dan Vapid and Brian Vermin played took a break from Screeching Weasel in 1989 to form Sludgeworth, a popular if short-lived Chicago quintet Losers Of The Year was a best-of compilation originally released on CD by Lookout (and hence long out-of-print) and now remastered and reissued by Red Scare on vinyl (and digitally). It’s amazing to hear how good a songwriter Vapid already was at 19, although you can definitely hear his influences: The Descendents on the excellent “Someday,” Naked Raygun on “Anytime” and “Over And Over.” But harbingers of the sound Vapid would perfect later in his career are here too, on “Another Day” and “She’s Not Disposable.” Not every track is a keeper, and the two hardcore bangers barely rise above the generic, but there’s a lot here you’ll want to hear if you know Vapid and Vermin from their later work and never got to experience Sludgeworth.
THE PELICANS – London’s Crawling (Mint 400 Records)
You might know San Francisco’s Ari Vais as the frontman for The Campbell Apartment, but back in the early 2000’s – after returning from a college year abroad in England – Vais settled in NYC and formed The Pelicans. In those pre-Internet days, the band never managed to be heard outside of a few club shows (one of which wound up on TV when Ari got a makeover on the original Queer Eye For The Straight Guy.) Mint 400 has digitally re-released the Pelican’s catalog as London Crawling, a punk-adjacent collection of catchy indie-pop and angsty love songs. Vais’ time in England definitely makes its presence felt on “Penny’s On The Dole,” the jaunty, almost Beatlesque “Waiting For The Moon,” and the Elvis Costello-ish rocker “Friday Night,” and there are some truly lovely songs here (“Trip To Action,” “We Really Don’t Get Along”).