All Or Nothing
When Epitaph sent me the new Pennywise album, my reaction was the same it has been since I first heard the band.
Don’t get me wrong, I know Pennywise are considered by many to be a punk rock staple. I’m just not one of those people. Outside of Bad Religion I have never had much in common with this kind of California anthem-chorus high-octane punk. I’m a Black Flag man; I like my shit dirty and pissed off. I cracked into the new Pennywise album All Or Nothing with the same excitement I’d fire up for a root canal or a Hole reunion.
When I first learned that All Or Nothing would feature a new vocalist (long time front man Jim Lindberg left the band in 2009) it peaked my interest. Perhaps the time away (Pennywise hasn’t released an album since 2008’s Reason To Live) and the new vocalist, Zoli Teglas, would give the band some depth.
By the second track I saw the writing on the wall. This is the same record Pennywise has always made and with the same boring cliches. The jerky tempos, the high-speed pop chords, the chants of doing something about something and for something. It’s essentially high school rhetoric done just covertly enough to sound like a political stance. All Or Nothing is lunchroom theme music, the kind of stuff that kids with mohawks sitting in the food court would listen to. If you live in suburbia and think of Green Day as a seminal punk band, then you might be into this album. My friend Tank said when he thinks of Pennywise all he can see is “A guy wearing Black Fly sunglasses and doing a keg stand”. Yep, that sounds about right.
Pick any song off All Or Nothing and you get the same thing. “Revolution” is a call to arms without really giving us anything to revolt against. Are we to understand that having sing-along vocals and “whoa oh oha” in the chorus is enough for kids to take to the streets? “Stand Strong” is pop punk chords played really fast and catchy, just like every other song Pennywise has. The tune talks about friendship, but in that same pedestrian way that bands in the hardcore days did with songs about “Unity in the scene”. “X Generation” involves, shockingly, power pop chords in a song about how Generation X is disillusioned now that we’re older. That’s an interesting premise, one that’s lost in a wash of saturated guitar riffs and high school girl diary lyrics.
Even the production takes zero risks on All Or Nothing. Clean guitars with similar harmonies and solos, clean drums, and high-end crisp bass are the blueprints here. None of the songs are distinguishable from the others. Halfway through the album I had no idea what the first song sounded like and by the end of the record I was drunk on repetition. After a few more listens I still found nothing gripping or exciting about All Or Nothing. If you’re ever in need of background music while you dress for the WARP Tour, then this album might be the one for you.
I’m not here to argue the punk rock merits of Pennywise. These guys have been touring and putting out albums for twenty years. I can’t even begin to challenge their dedication to this genre. It just isn’t interesting. Pennywise does nothing challenging, which to me, and so many others, is what punk rock is about. The only band that can get away with making the same record over and over is AC/DC and Pennywise is no AC/DC. Give me something to work with, anything. Dynamics, odd song structure, a slow song, anything. Instead All Or Nothing is the steroid version of music that Bad Religion made way before and much better.
Deep Cuts From Dark Clouds
Meanwhile, in a darker and more violent side of town, the sludge-rock, dirty guitar band 16 have a new album out. For those who scratch their heads and say “16? Who are they?”, let me fill you in. Twenty years after their inception, 16 should be one of the biggest bands in the entire realm of extreme music. Their records are nearly flawless, especially “Curves That Kick”, “Drop Out”, and “Zoloft Smile”. These are classics of the sludge genre. Sadly, bouts with drugs, alcohol, stints in rehab and all other forms of the rock n roll lifestyle screwed with the stability of 16’s lineup and, thusly, they never reached the status so richly deserved.
In 2009 the band signed with Relapse Records and released Bridges To Burn. This year 16 returns with Deep Cuts From Dark Clouds, another collection of mean, angry and bitter songs for a mean, angry and bitter world. 16 are smart, they don’t dabble in the feedback drenched sound of sludge Godfathers like Eyehategod or Grief. Instead 16 take more traditional heavy metal song structures and dose them with heavy acid.
Deep Cuts opens with “Theme From “Pillpopper”. Wait, did I say open? More like the song walks up to you in line for the happy theme park with blood running from its slashed wrists. The song is an angry beehive of pounding drums and fuzzed out guitars. Vocalist Cris Jerue screams and wails on the track. This guy bleeds his demons on every song and the power is undeniable.
Right when you think 16 have gotten lazy, they bloody your nose with a song like “The Sad Clown”. Sheer fuzzed out heaviness gives way to a thick groove and some cool guitar noodling. While the guitars groove, the drums play all around them. Drummer Mateo Pinkerton is a monster with ADD. He can’t just lay into the groove; he has to pound around it, through it and over it before resting in it.
“Bowels Of A Baby Killer” is a hybrid. The sound of 16 if they decided to cover the Unsane covering Helmet. It grooves with that jerky Helmet vibe but with the dirty guitar groove of Unsane with the overall sound remaining flawlessly 16. “Beyond Fixable” is the most driving tune on all of Dark Clouds. The riff is high energy for 16 but it never loses the weight. That’s the key to what makes 16 so good. They not only write heavy songs but songs that have real weight to them. You feel them laying on your chest and constricting your breathing.
Deep Cuts From Dark Clouds doesn’t have the young and pissed off drive of Curves That Kick or Drop Out. Replacing that jump-off-the-bride-first style is a more mature band; one that has though deeply on how fucked up life is and decided to share some of their wisdom. 16 has been through it all and come out the other side. Now they can focus on writing songs and locking down their place in musical history. The amp may go up to 11 but the roots of sludge metal start at 16.