Friday, 11 December 2015

Five Underated Punk Rock Guitar Duos by Omar Ramlugon

In my experience, there’s a pretty common consensus amongst music fans about which guitar duos seem to make the synapses tingle. From classic rock for example, you have AC/DC’s Young brothers, The Rolling Stones with Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood, or even Aerosmith’s Brad Whitford and Joe Perry. For those of a more – ahem – alternative bent, the open tuned textural droning of Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moor and Lee Ranaldo might first spring to mind, or perhaps Television’s Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd. Metal, of course, comes into this as well, with Metallica’s James Hetfield and Kirk Hammett, or Megadeth’s Marty Friedman and Dave Mustaine. Each one of these is known, and rightly so, for contributing something unique, interesting and far more powerful than the sum of its parts.

However, while I’m not disagreeing with any of the above, I think it’s high time punk rock got a word in edgeways. It’s a genre that sometimes is a little unfairly dismissed as being more about the message than the music but, upon closer examination, there’s levels of startling musical intellect at play that is at the very least the equal in power and relevance to all of the above. It’s particularly interesting to note given the new crop of guitar bands that are paying tribute, unwittingly or not, to every one of the pairings I’m about to mention. But hey, that can only be a good thing in my book. Let’s get started.

1. Ian MacKaye and Guy Picciotto (Fugazi)

It was always going to start with Fugazi. To my mind, it’s pretty much impossible to think of an incredible guitar pairing without thinking of this D.C. quartet’s rule-defying, genre-busting duo. Although Picciotto didn’t actually pick up his Rickenbacker 330 until after their first two EPs, when he did it took the blunt force of MacKaye’s early riffing and honed it to a fine edge. They completely flew in the face of traditional lead and rhythm guitar parts, instead approaching their music like sparring partners. MacKaye’s thick crunch was neatly counterpointed by Picciotto’s trebly jangle, which took a guitar normally seen in the hands of jangle-rockers and mods and cranked it to ten, resulting in a searing, pinwheeling sound that was always tightly controlled, even when it sounded the complete opposite.

In the sake of brevity, I’ll cite one example of this on their 1990 LP Repeater, where the duo alternate between employing lacerating feedback and – I kid you not – pop-inflected choruses. And it somehow works. Have a listen below.

2. J. Robbins and Bill Barbot (Jawbox)

Proving once again that the ‘90s Washington D.C punk rock scene was one of the most fertile musical breeding grounds in recorded history, Jawbox’s guitar team are perhaps second only in their sheer innovative attack and mastery of the team dynamic to their Fugazi. That sounds like a disservice, but believe me when I say it couldn’t be more of a compliment. Again, Barbot didn’t join until the band had put out some material – 1991’s Grippe – and his arrival heralded the follow up to that record, Novelty, which was a strong piece of work but a little hamstrung by murky production. It wasn’t until 1994’s For Your Own Special Sweetheart that Jawbox proved themselves to be a musical force equal to or surpassing any of their contemporaries.

Robbins and Barbot’s guitar lines jabbed and thrusted like fencers, again employing contrasting base sounds to excite the ear. Instead of the dullard’s approach to punk rock guitar parts, namely, play the same power chords as each other and hope no one notices – I’m looking at you, All Time Low – Barbot and Robbins never played the same thing at the same time, and at times didn’t playing anything at all, letting the silence and the rhythm section set the mood. These heart-stopping dynamic shifts are perhaps best displayed by one of FYOSS’s best cuts, the J.G Ballard-inspired ‘Motorist’. Have a listen.

3. Chuck Ragan and Chris Wollard (Hot Water Music)

Hot Water Music are one of those bands that, if you’re up together with recent efforts from contemporary punk rockers, take about one listen before your internal monologue goes “Oh, that’s where they got it from.” Cited as proponents of the hilariously named subgenre ‘beard-core’, they nevertheless seem to inspire a deep and profound adoration into all of their listeners, with their fire-over-water symbol being a frequently spotted tattoo at their shows. While it’s no secret that they are blessed with an incredible rhythm section, it’s their guitar slinging, raspy-singing pair of Chuck Ragan and Chris Wollard that I bring to your attention in this case.

Compared to the previous two on the list, Hot Water Music are perhaps of a more melodic bent, which, given their frontmen’s later career journeys into folk, isn’t that surprising in retrospect. Not that it makes them any less powerful; they carefully balance gravel and sweetness in equal measure, taking a cue from Fugazi in their song structuring. Ragan and Wollard’s crunching guitars blend into one musical roar on first appearance, but on closer inspection reveal a focused, driving approach that always is in the interest of the song, with no macho posturing or jostling for position. Take a look at ‘All Heads Down’ from 2004’s The New What Next – the chunking rhythm from Wollard grounds Ragan’s piercing counterpoint, until they swap completely in the verses, with Ragan instead charging ahead with burst of power chords while Wollard’s ringing lead line cuts through it all.

4. Frankie Stubbs and Dickie Hammond (Leatherface)

I would be absolutely remiss in my duty if I didn’t mention this most mercurial of duos, especially in light of Dickie Hammond’s tragic recent passing at only 50 years of age. For the record, the Guardian actually did an excellent and very respectful article concerning this, which you can find here. But rather than mourn the man’s passing, I will attempt to celebrate his legacy, which goes hand in hand with his bandmate Frankie Stubbs. Out of the unglamorous depths of Sunderland, these two men crafted a sound that is simultaneously bone rattling and yet tugs at the heartstring – one which the aforementioned Hot Water Music pilfered liberally, and I say that as a staunch fan of both groups.

Although Hammond wasn’t on every single Leatherface record, he did feature on what is arguably the band’s best known and best loved record – 1991’s Mush. Here the duo’s work perhaps hits its zenith; sonically, the album is quite guitar focused, but I have to point out that this is no detriment whatsoever. Stubbs’ Tom Waits-esque holler rides on a six-stringed maelstrom, with as many killer melodic hooks packed into each song as lesser bands manage over an entire record. Furthermore, Stubbs and Hammond didn’t have any of the usual punk reticence to solo in the traditional sense, ripping off lead lines that can stand toe to toe with any player worth their salt. To demonstrate all of the above, take a listen to this later cut from Mush, ‘Bowl of Flies’, which incidentally features one of my favourite chorus lyrics; “Do you understand what it's like to be a laughing stock in life?/Do you understand what it's like or who you are?"

5. Rick Froberg and Jon Reis (Drive Like Jehu)

Finally, we move from the mire and grimness of Sunderland to San Diego, USA. In spite of having a markedly smaller creative output than all of the above, Drive Like Jehu’s name is one that echoes pretty strongly in the alternative-punk pantheon. Wilfully difficult but not pretentious, Jehu’s Froberg and Reis’s guitars clashed and clattered like competing stags in frequent and breathless no-holds-barred assaults on the senses. That is, until they decided to pull the rug out from under your feet and break into a gorgeously layered and melodic chorus, which they weren’t afraid to do from time to time.

It was clear there was a striking and powerful intellect going on beneath all the mayhem, which unfortunately appears to be lost on the pig-squealing ‘core bands we’re cursed with in some cases today. Froberg and Reis continue to be active in the music world, but Drive Like Jehu left a mark which remains to this day unique. In the vein of Fugazi and Jawbox, they took the simple ingredients of guitars through loud amps, fused it with outside techniques and a daring, leftfield approach to melody. I’ll finish things with a song of theirs that perhaps microcosms everything described above – ‘Step On Chameleon’ from their self-titled 1991 debut. It alternates between a gutsy, churning verse anchored by Reis’ throaty howl, before folding into melodic, surging choruses that gives the lie to the pounding riffs surrounding them.

I hope you agree with all of the above; if you’ve read this far, why not comment with some of your own favourites? I am one hundred per cent certain I’ve left out more than a few people than need mentioning; sound off and chastise my ignorance!