Anti-Flag, For Blood and Empire / Strike Anywhere, Dead FM

Anti-Flag, For Blood and Empire / Strike Anywhere, Dead FM

I’ve tried to write reviews for both of these discs, Anti-Flag’s For Blood and Empire and Strike Anywhere’s Dead FM, for a while now, and it just hasn’t worked. I keep finding myself viewing them both together, rather than separately. And given the similarities between the two bands, that makes some sense — both are deeply, ferociously political, both come from a punk background, and both are, well, bands that I’ve tried unsuccessfully to get into in the past. With the exception of a few standout Strike Anywhere tracks (“Infrared,” for one, off of 2003’s Exit English), I’ve just never really been able to like much of the music either band has made in the past. Which is nuts, since I definitely empathize with both groups and recognize the impact they’ve had on the punk scene as a whole — I’ve always listened to their stuff thinking, “y’know, I wish I could say that this is great music, but…”

Luckily, For Blood and Empire and Dead FM have another similarity, in that they’ve each forced me to revise my opinion of their respective bands. From where I sit, these two albums blow the bands’ previous work out of the water, and given the cult-like status each group seems to hold in the scene, that’s no mean feat. For starters, Anti-Flag’s latest is a barnburner of an album that rages against any injustice or horror you can think of, from genocide to bulimia (no, seriously). The band tackles roughly an issue a song — although yes, the Iraq War and the President do dominate the proceedings — ripping it apart and dissecting it in verse-chorus-verse punk rawk that would make Joe Strummer proud. (Note to Fox viewers: this album is not going to be something you’ll enjoy listening to. Go watch O’Reilly instead.) They don’t always hit the mark, admittedly, as on opening track “I’d Tell You But…,” which seizes as its klunky premise the idea that the song’s being sung from the point of view of an Iraqi civilian who’s been killed by American bombs (meaning that yes, he/she is dead; like I said, klunky). There’s also “1 Trillion Dollars,” which is a somewhat tongue-in-cheek jab at the ridiculousness of military spending done as a folky protest song; unfortunately, it’s more Green Day Unplugged than Billy Bragg.

When Anti-Flag’s on, though, they’re on. “The Press Corpse” is hands-down the best political song I’ve heard since Steve Earle’s “The Gringo’s Tale,” tearing the complacent “biased liberal media” a new one for blithely smiling and nodding as crime after crime zips by on the television screen. Oh, and the music behind is almost jaunty and Jam-like, with a poppy, catchy tinge to it that almost lets the sharp, smartly bitter lyrics slide by unnoticed. And of course, like any good politico-punk song, it’s yell-along catchy. “Emigre” follows up with a fiery blast, channeling the fury of Scandinavian anarcho-punks Refused (albeit with somewhat smoother usage of the English language) and marrying it to a Warped Tour-worthy punk chorus. “Hymn for the Dead” is sweet and painful at the same time, nailing home the point that in death, everybody’s equal. “Confessions of an Economic Hit Man” and “The Project for a New American Century” hit Alkaline Trio-style rock and old-school punk, respectively, while “Cities Burn” could be a long-lost Clash (or at least Rancid) track — the latter’s poignant and melodic, a reaffirmation that hope still lives.

The most intriguing part of For Blood and Empire, when you get down to it, is the utter specificity Justin Sane (guitar/vocals), Chris Head (guitar/vocals), Chris #2 (bass/vocals), and Pat Thetic (drums/vocals — woo-hoo, everybody sings!) bring to the tracks. There’s no mumblemouthed ranting about The Man on here (okay, not much, anyway), no mindless “punk anthems” that really aren’t any more substantial than a night of hanging with your bros and bitching about chicks. These guys name-drop so much you’d think this was a Beastie Boys record, seriously.

“The Project for a New American Century”? Yes, that’d be a punk anti-anthem about a now-notorious neoconservative think tank. “Confessions of an Economic Hit Man” is loosely based on the book of the same name, written by former World Bank/U.S. Agency for International Development consultant John Perkins, and in the lyrics the band rattles off the names of former foreign leaders like Jacobo Arbenz Guzman (Guatemala), Mohammed Mossadeq (Iran), and Jean-Bertrand Aristide (Haiti), all duly-elected folks whom the U.S. has kindly either helped or pushed out of power. “Emigre” uses Pastor Niemöller’s famous “First they came for the communists…” poem about German complacency in the face of the rise of the Nazis as its jumping-off point. “State Funeral” slams Bush for his Yalie Skull & Bones connections. “The W.T.O. Kills Farmers” name-checks agribusiness giants Monsanto and Syngenta (the latter of which I’ve never even heard of), and then closer “Depleted Uranium Is A War Crime” incorporates a chilling interview Sane did with Rep. Jim McDermott into the song itself.

Oh, and then there’s the liner notes. Sane and company have assembled a veritable primer on the progressive/”radical” causes they’re fighting/singing for, complete with essays by folks like Medea Benjamin, Peter Hart, and Dahr Jamail, quick little history lessons, political diatribes, and addresses for resources on everything from bulimia to war profiteering to genocide. And y’know, I have to respect the work the band put into this — rather than simply telling their listeners “Fuck The Man!” and leaving it at that, they offer listeners a detailed look at the issues and problems behind the red-white-and-black artwork and punk haircuts. Hell, I consider myself to be fairly up on stuff like this, and even I found the booklet pretty informative. It’s hard not to respect Anti-Flag for putting all their cards on the table and trying to inform the kids at the same time.

Strike Anywhere, Dead FM
I don’t mean, by the way, to demean the Strike Anywhere disc in this duo. Dead FM is also a highly political, highly charged album, albeit in a different way. Where Anti-Flag go head-on, delving into polemicism and statistics and pointing to history and the often-horrifying reality to make their case, Strike Anywhere goes for the gut. I know, I know — right there above I made fun of bands who crank out vague punk anthems with nothing to back it up, but as with anything, there’s a bad and a good way to do it. Strike Anywhere, happily, have hit on the latter.

When I first heard about the new album, I remember something about it being a “more personal, less political” effort. At the time, I laughed. There’s no way these guys — hardcore vegetarians, longtime promoters of women’s rights, fighters against globalization — are going to soften and get all Dashboard Confessional on us. Right? Short answer: well, kinda. What Strike Anywhere have done with Dead FM is nearly the reverse of what Anti-Flag have done with For Blood and Empire. They have toned down the politics a bit, in order to personalize it.

On tracks like “Allies” (which features the most poignant lyric on either album: “Don’t let them tell you who you cannot love”), “Iron Trees,” and “How to Pray,” the band takes a personal look at the fight both bands are waging. Strike Anywhere aren’t that interested in dissecting the various crimes committed during the Dubya Regime but are instead trying to step back and view it all on a more ground-floor level, touching on the ways in which all this bad shit affects us directly, not some random other person out there in the world. And hey, after all, we’re all selfish bastards at heart, right?

“Speak to Our Empty Pockets” sums the whole thing up, really. Dreadlocked singer Thomas Barnett rails beautifully against the “preachers from the pulpits of power,” talking-head pundits and politicos that use our own shrinking wallets to turn us against one another, and it’s not about how people who are in the minority in this country only get blah-blah percent of the jobs or how crime rates rise across the board when wages are low. There are no statistics here; instead, the song’s about, dammit, The Man using our own pettiness and bitterness to distract us from the people who could actually fix things if they wanted to. Who can’t relate to that? Is there anybody out there who likes the idea that they’re being swindled or lied to? If so, I’ve never met ’em.

“Speak” is probably the standout track here, but there are several other highlights, including “Prisoner Echoes,” which is jaded and ragged but sing-song-y, like a punk drinking song, the aforementioned “Allies,” and “The Promise,” a defiant meditation on the often-unfulfilled promise this country holds out to us. “Sedition” actually veers close to Anti-Flag territory when it talks about the Bhopal disaster, but even then Barnett puts a personal spin on it, reaching back to his grandpa’s life to channel his fury and shame at the way even not doing something can wreck the lives of others. “How to Pray” spurns the hypocrisies of so much of organized religion, while “Instinct” is a sorrowful memory of a friend’s abuse at the hands of a parent.

Taken all together, where For Blood and Empire is the more clinical, let’s-lay-the-facts-out-and-prove-it-to-you disc, Dead FM is about that sick feeling you get in your gut when you hear stories about prisoners being tortured or families killed. It’s not about the reasoning, but about the bare-bones human reaction. With their new album, Anti-Flag are standing on the street corner with their arms in the air, telling you what you need to know; Strike Anywhere, on the other hand, are sitting with their buds at the bar, watching the TV and talking about how their dad just lost his job at the factory or their sister’s kid will have to breathe through a tube for the rest of his life. And from my standpoint, there’s a place in the world for both those kinds of punk rock radicalism.

(RCA Records -- 1540 Broadway, New York, NY. 10036; http://www.rcarecords.com/; Fat Wreck Chords -- P.O. Box 193690, San Francisco, CA. 94119; http://www.fatwreck.com/; Anti-Flag -- http://www.anti-flag.com/; Strike Anywhere -- http://www.strikeanywhere.org/)
BUY ME: Amazon

Review by . Review posted Thursday, October 19th, 2006. Filed under Reviews.

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One Response to “Anti-Flag, For Blood and Empire / Strike Anywhere, Dead FM

  1. Mary Philip on October 11th, 2010 at 6:52 pm

    Just found this from google and like the way you write.

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