Blackmarket Syndicate, And the Peasants Rejoiced
There was a time when I was really, really into politics; I had a lot more time on my hands back then, both because I worked for a slow-moving Big Evil Company that didn’t give a damn what I did at the office, so long as I made my deadlines, and because my daughter was still napping multiple times throughout the day. So what I ended up spending my time on was obsessing over and writing about and arguing about politics — it made up a pretty big chunk of my life, for a while there.
Eventually, though, I just had to walk away. I’m not sure what the straw that broke the camel’s back ended up being, but I’m pretty sure it had a lot to do with feeling like I was just yelling into a dead mic, angry and doing everything I could think of to push for some kind of change and seeing nothing for it but stupidity and apathy. It was exhausting.
So I’m no longer some bright-eyed idealist, but I still don’t consider myself totally jaded or cynical — I think change is possible, but now I’ve realized it takes a heck of a lot more time than I used to believe/hope it would, and I’ve come to terms with the fact that even the people you think are going to be your heroes, who’ll fight for what you believe in, will turn out to be just as bought as anybody else. The only person who’s going to truly care about what you believe in, ever, is you.
When I first heard Blackmarket Syndicate’s latest album, And the Peasants Rejoiced, then, a few months back, I immediately said, “ah, yeah — these guys are pretty much where I am; they’re tired of fighting and struggling, too.” I mean, take lead-in track “Plead the 5th,” which is a damning indictment of our corporate-controlled modern life, where the police can seemingly tase and tear-gas peaceful protesters just for opening their mouths at the wrong place and time, all while bank executives who bankrupt hundreds of thousands walk away with a slap on the wrist (or, hell, a severance package).
(And yes, the track has a nice little nod to the band’s previous “Deathbed Repentance” moniker, so I chuckled to hear that, too…)
Then there’s “Great Leap Forward,” which sees frontman/guitarist Randy Rost pleading for somebody to follow, some leader who’ll lift us all up and show us which way to go towards that nebulous, as-yet-unimagined Future, or “Greed and Hate,” where Rost declares that taking’s so much easier than giving, so why bother with the latter? “Greed and hate / the only way to survive,” he sings, “an ideal world’s an impossibility.” The lyrics are cynical and beaten-down, world-weary and jaded, painting a grim picture of this modern world of ours as a prison where we’re all spoonfed shit ’til we die.
Music-wise, there’s still a strong Social Distortion influence shining through, and some Street Dogs (appropriately, since Dog Johnny Rioux produced the album), but more than that, I hear a whole lot of The Clash going on this time, as well. It’s there not just in the Rancid-like street-punk tempos and snarl but also in the song structures — I swear, a couple of the tracks here sound like they could’ve come off of London Calling (see “Victorious,” in particular) — and in Rost’s and fellow vocalist/guitarist Nathan Allan’s Strummer-ian, just-distorted-enough guitar. And sneaking ’round the side, there’s even a resemblance to Billy Bragg, especially on “Burn It All Down” and “Disenfranchised Rebellions,” and that’s never a bad thing, in my book.
Best of all, Blackmarket Syndicate manage to put together that rough-edged, old-school sound so that it sounds like it’s theirs, not some hand-me-down copy of your favorite late-’70s Britpunk LPs. They take it all, couple it with Rost’s smoke-shredded throat (which he uses to great effect, scratched and damaged as it is), and make the sound their own, and there’s not a wasted moment in the end product, not a damn one. Even the songs I’m not as keen on, like the sarcastic, fuck-yr-job rant of “Working for Someone,” are still really freaking good — they’re just not as good as some of the other songs on here, like highlights “Plead the 5th,” “Great Leap Forward,” or “Unknown Fate.”
The latter, by the way, is one of the most heartfelt, affecting songs I’ve heard in a while, depicting the day-to-day struggle of being in an unknown, seat-of-your-pants indie band out roaming the roads, playing for packed houses or nobody at all and barely scraping together enough money to keep gas in the van. It’s about the grind, the tedium, the amped-up excitement of a show where the kids are going apeshit, the sleeping on couches and floors in some town you’ve never even heard of.
And despite the pain and disappointment when Rost sings “At a bar by the pool tables tonight / The best show we’ve ever played / But no one was there,” it’s still apparent that there’s a love there for the music. And it’s awesome, the kind of song that makes you grin and feel warmth spread through your chest.
Weirdly enough, that one completely non-political song, that joy despite being downtrodden and ignored, that’s what made me realize how wrong I was about this album. Sure, there’s a cynical streak a mile wide here, but so what? The cynicism’s not directed at the world at large, but at the political parties and apparatus we foolishly believe restrain us. The guys in Blackmarket Syndicate can see it’s broken, and they’ll happily point that out, but that doesn’t mean they’ve given up, by any means.
Because despite the dark picture of modern life on Peasants, there’s also a strong, strong current of defiance. There’s a fight coming, they seem to be saying, but it’s not a fight at polling stations, it’s a fight in the streets, the Occupy movement writ large. The justice system is a setup, and working for somebody else sucks, and the politicians may be corrupt, but that doesn’t make a damn bit of difference, in the grand scheme of things.
See, that’s what I missed those first several listens. On “Great Leap Fowrward,” I heard Rost asking where our leaders have gone, but I missed the part where he declares that we are those leaders, because nobody else is coming to save us. And hey, “Greed and Hate” is followed immediately by the aforementioned “Burn It All Down,” an anarchist anthem worthy of Billy Bragg or Chumbawumba (and no, I’m not thinking that godawful, overplayed and misunderstood “Tubthumping,” I’m thinking “Give the Anarchist a Cigarette,” here), where the band proclaims that the only way forward is to knock everything down and “take from the richest to give to the least.”
In the end, what is punk rock if it’s not struggle? That’s what it’s always been about — struggling against the system, against fashion, against conformity, against apathy. There’s always been a fight, and there always will be. So what I heard as the band giving up, well, that was just them telling you how it is before standing you up and throwing you back into the fray.
Just because you’re the underdog, that doesn’t mean you roll over and give up the ghost. Because come what may, Blackmarket Syndicate are going to keep on fighting, defiant ’til the end, because fuck you, that’s why.