The Explosion, Black Tape

The Explosion, Black Tape

There’re only a handful of ways a band can go, really, in terms of musical progression. It’s an axiom of the music business that second albums are a bitch and third albums are even worse, and there’s a good reason for that — unless you’re phenomenally lucky and/or a talented genius, you’re screwed no matter which way you go. On the one hand, who wants to keep making the same damn album over and over again? No songwriter wants to write the same song twenty times over the course of three albums, and just playing the same album for the duration of a tour can get pretty dull. Besides, everybody gets older — what was fun to play at age 20 isn’t necessarily as cool at age 30. So, it’s natural to want to move on, to make some kind of change in your sound, your songwriting, or whatever else.

At the same time, though, any attempt at change will likely be perceived as selling out. This is pretty much an industry-wide phenomenon, but it’s especially dangerous in the punk/hardcore world, where any hint that you’ve gone “soft” can get you eaten alive (or worse yet, tagged as “emo”). Things’re a little better these days than they used to be, thankfully, with bands more willing to take chances and risk alienating their audiences, but the fickleness of punk fans is legendary. Throw in some melody, turn down the guitars a bit, and try to actually sing, and you’re liable to get some punk purists somewhere deriding you as a has-been poseur.

That’s pretty much the boat erstwhile punk rockers The Explosion find themselves in with their third full-length, Black Tape. After two albums (the excellent Flash Flash Flash and 2003’s Sick of Modern Art) and a handful of EPs full of politicized punk that alternated between ’77-style punk/Oi! and hyperspeed hardcore, the Boston band’s back on a major label, and they’ve traded the breakneck tempos and mindless slogans for big-time production, mid-speed rockers, sweet harmonies, and thoughtful, soul-searching lyrics. You can almost hear the gutter punks who loved the group’s debut Jade Tree EP — which earned a lot of comparisons to L.E.S. Stitches and U.S. Bombs — cutting their throats with the broken shards of their vintage Business LPs. The cries of “Sellout!” are practically telegraphed from the album’s first chords.

And you know what? Ignore ’em, because despite all the hoopla, Black Tape is a step forward, not evidence that the members of The Explosion have sold their souls to The Man. Yep, the guitars aren’t as grungy as they used to be, there’s nary a hint of vocalist Matt Hock’s old throat-shredding scream (sorry, kids, but nobody can do that forever), and there’re fewer chant-along lyrics, and good riddance — this time out, the guitars burn cold and clean, the way Jawbreaker did in its best moments, Hock proves he’s got a knack for actually singing a beautiful, triumphant vocal line, and (best of all, to my mind) the sloganeering’s been replaced by lyrics that have some genuine insight. While Flash Flash Flash was a fine album, full of righteous anger and energy, it’s always felt to me like a self-directed fury, like that of a teenage kid who’s mad as hell but not sure what to do about it. The songs all ranted vaguely about “the scene” and politics in general, with seemingly no connection to actual reality.

On Black Tape, though, the anger’s filtered down and directed, the product of a more mature mind and voice. Hock roars about greed, secrecy, growing up, materialism, corrupt cops, and the pointlessness of war, and this time he sounds like he not only means it, but that he’s old enough to be talking from actual experience. Which makes sense, considering that the band’s career pretty much began just as George W. Bush was taking office; if the anger on Flash felt undirected, it might’ve been because there was no clear target. Here opener “Deliver Us” takes on the near-constant barrage of death and carnage in the news that desensitizes us all, while “Atrocity” throws out a stirring condemnation of the current political climate, promising that “If you want a better world / Then I’ll be right behind you.” The most affecting track on the album, though, is “Mothers Cry,” which sounds as if it’s addressed to an old friend in “the scene” who’s fallen back on self-destructive behavior, even after other friends have died along the way. Read between the lines, and it’s obvious that the guys in the band have all done a lot of growing up between the first album and now.

Of course, since The Explosion’s left its revivalist roots essentially behind (the lone throwback on here is “No Revolution,” a remake of one of the better songs on Flash Flash Flash, and it almost feels like the band threw it in for the sake of comparison), what are these guys now? Are they even punk? Yeah…kinda. They’re a far cry from the likes of U.S. Bombs, it’s true, but the punk spirit’s definitely still there — and hell, if the Clash (and Joe Strummer) had survived ’til today, does anybody in their right mind think they’d still sound like they just recorded “London’s Burning”? Of course not; they’d be innovating and adapting, changing their sound to grow with the times. The Explosion, for their part, are doing the same thing. Rather than continuing to mine the sounds of the past, they’ve taken it and melded it into a significantly more tuneful present.

The result is an album full of anthemic rock songs, ear-blisteringly loud but still clean and as sharp as a surgeon’s scalpel. “Here I Am” (currently the album’s “hit” single), “Deliver Us,” “Atrocity,” “Mothers Cry,” and “Grace” all blaze with fiery guitars, soaring, almost heroic vocals, and a kind of urgency most punk bands can only hope to somehow inject into their songs. And it’s all rock, even if it eschews some of the rules of “punk” rock (who knew punk was about rules, anyway?). There are some resemblances to the current crop of pop-punkers cluttering up the scene, but the closest parallel I can come up with is Richmond hardcore stalwarts Avail — both bands blend the best elements of hardcore, punk, pop, and metal to make a whole that’s better than its parts. Who cares if you can label it or not?

(Virgin Records -- 150 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY. 10011; http://www.virginrecords.com/; The Explosion -- http://www.theexplosion.net/)
BUY ME: Amazon

Review by . Review posted Saturday, October 1st, 2005. Filed under Reviews.

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