by Jordan Green
For the feral animal that is punk rock to translate into popular appeal — think of the Sex Pistols and the Ramones rising from the primordial swamp in the late ’70s and still later Nirvana and Green Day surfacing from the underground — the inchoate rage has to be replaced by a clear hook and a discernible vocal.
The muffled vocals and squalling guitars with just the hint of a melody on display on the first night of Suckfest at the Blind Tiger in Greensboro on Nov. 7 suggested a rarified, wild joy — a piece of secret history transmitted from distant and obscure locales by short-wave radio. The two-day festival organized by Danni Brower made its inaugural run on Nov. 7 and 8.
Take Wymyns Prysyn, a gritty three-piece unit from Atlanta with vocals traded between the guitarist and bassist. The vocals were authoritative one moment and snarling the next, then suddenly melodramatic like cartoon thought-bubbles. The guitar and bass chugged along in a fairly straight-ahead manner, but with an oddly dissonant quality. It was easy to imagine these young men of the new millennium working a bar in Cleveland in 1975, playing punk rock before anyone knew to call it that. The guitarist’s black leather jacket, T-shirt and ripped jeans only added to the impression, not to mention the bass player’s hoodie and toboggan, as if he were ready for a cold walk along the Lake Erie shoreline.
Chapel Hill’s Flesh Wounds, who followed Wymyns Prysyn, draw from the great, fertile period of the American underground circa 1983-’85 between the popular peaks of the Sex Pistols and Nirvana. Like many of the bands on the Nov. 7 lineup, they operate as a three piece, but set themselves apart by playing with drums front and center. The intimacy of their music suggests the close quarters of a band stuffed into a van for a cross-country trip with no privacy, no quarter for respite. The guitarist wielded his instrument like a machine gun, spitting out chunky, barbed chords that would do Black Flag proud, while literally foaming at the mouth as he barked the vocals. The drummer locked into a relentless beat, final as a steel trap, and seemed ready to levitate off her stool. The bassist, his playing primal and sinewy, seemed to throw back to an earlier era with grooves suggesting Grand Funk Railroad, while meshing perfectly with the other players.
With Flesh Wounds as a prelude, the set by Dumpster came across as unfocused. Almost de rigueur for the festival, Dumpster is a three piece, and like Flesh Wounds, a woman holds the crucial role of drummer. That’s where the similarities break down. Far from the get-in-get-out dispatch exhibited by Flesh Wounds, Dumpster began its set with a miasma of feedback amidst tentative drumming that could have been mistaken for tuning up. Only a few songs in, the bassist laid down his instrument and started pounding on a bass drum. The double-duty drumming accompanied by throbbing guitar feedback was the most powerful part of the set, eliciting hearty cheering.
After a mid-set lull while the guitarist found a replacement pick, it was on again. They certainly had a lot happening. The guitarist, who resembles a young Andy Warhol, got a disembodied vocal effect by singing through a pedal, contrasted by the low growl of the bassist’s singing.
Roomrunner, the first in a pair of bands from Baltimore, proved the exception to the rule with a stoner-punk sound that owes a debt to Nirvana, albeit a Nirvana in rebellion against its own success with mumbled vocals and sludgy instrumentation. At times their energy seemed to ebb, but what their sound lacked in immediacy it made up for in a thrilling undercurrent that evoked a cave river.
Junior Astronomers, of all the bands on the lineup for Nov. 7, probably had the most up-to-date sound. If you consider that popular music tends to sample from styles already articulated over the past 50 years, and punk specifically draws from a history that is about 40 years old, then Junior Astronomers take their cues from the most recent decade. Emotive vocals that suggest TV On the Radio, a spirit of celebratory camaraderie, they were the least angry act on the bill. Loose and joyous, the music built from a melodically intertwined six-string bassline and energetic drumming. Exquisite and powerful at the same time, the guitars punched in and out of the groove with syncopation, weaving between angular leads and tremolo textures, with pyrotechnics that go way beyond the conventions of punk. The Charlotte band gave props to Greensboro producer Kris Hilbert of Legitimate Business, who has recorded at least two of their albums and was in the audience, creating a warming local tie-in.
Next, Nashville’s Designer brought the music to the people by playing their set on the floor in front of the stage. By then the crowd had thinned out substantially, and the band beckoned all who were left to draw near. A trio with tribal drumming, pronounced bass and squealing guitar that went from quiet to explosively loud and pulverizing within a matter of seconds, they did not always connect.
Playing for 20 people, Baltimore’s Dope Body earned its headliner status with a set that defied classification. Perhaps in a cultural moment that’s rife with recycled ideas, that’s the hallmark of a band that’s pushing forward. Opening their set with tribal drumming and noisy psychedelic guitar awash in feedback for “Repo Man,” the lead single for the band’s new album Lifer, singer Andrew Laumann’s vocals emerged with a shamanic quality.
Laumann prowled the stage, thrashing his body when the band erupted in sonic outbursts and slurring soulful vocals in a display of damaged charisma.
On “Hired Gun” Laumann seemed to tap into a transmission of the soaring harmonies from the Ronettes and the Jesus & Mary Chain over a monster groove that periodically mutated and exploded. The future is here — and it’s the past chopped up and reconstituted into a workable framework for the present.