Thursday, 28 September 2017

Top Tens: Top Ten Propagandhi Songs (by Omar Ramlugon)


Propagandhi began as a Canadian trio of irreverent punks who purveyed songs shot through with heavy doses of irony, melody, and sometimes just full on piss-taking. But as time wore on, and the line-up shifted around the two remaining members of the original threesome – singer/guitarist Chris Hannah and drummer Jordan Samolesky – their music began to shift and mutate in concurrence with the increasing technical proficiency of the band’s members. All of them are avowed metal/thrash fans, namechecking bands such as Venom, Voivod, Final Conflict and Sacrifice in interviews and on their t-shirts, so on reflection their increasing thrash metal leanings shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise, but it’s often a point of contention among their fans; some argue that they peaked with 1996’s Less Talk, More Rock, others say their indulging in a love of metal has only strengthened their sound and that their early material pales in comparison.

Whatever the argument, the simple version is that they are one of the best bands in the world today, with their socio-political venom and uncompromising music serving as a fitting soundtrack to the terrifying turmoil of modern events. And with their new record, Victory Lap, due to be released on September 29, I figured now is as good a time as any to run down some of the brightest spots in a very consistent body of work, and provide a gateway into their music before the new record drops. Because, if the singles ‘Failed Imagineer’ and ‘Victory Lap’ show anything, it’s on track to be their best one yet.

1. Anti-Manifesto (from How To Clean Everything, 1994)

A fond favourite amongst Propagandhi fans on either side of the divide, the opening track of Propagandhi’s first album is arguably the best song on it, fusing fat powerchords, jaunty ska-influence upstrokes and even a brief moment of shred, knowingly lampshaded by Chris Hannah with his sung admission “By the way, I stole this riff.” Lyrically the song is a Dead Kennedys-esque takedown of faux punk rebellion, railing against supposed ideologies packaged, sanitised and sold on; “Dance and laugh and play / Ignore the message we convey / It seems we’re only here to entertain / A rebellion cut to fit / Well, I refuse to be a soundtrack to it / We entertain, we’re still knee deep in shit.” It’s sharp, funny, and even a little poignant.

2. And We Thought That Nation States Were A Bad Idea (from Less Talk, More Rock, 1994)

Perhaps the centrepiece of Less Talk, More Rock, this particular tune’s burst of energy on its intro sets the bar very high, and luckily this high standard is absolutely maintained throughout. Although still punk, ‘…Nation States’ edging towards hardcore only serves to suit its ferocious lyrical screed, with Hannah’s snotty delivery backed up by then-bassist John K. Sampson, now of the Weakerthans. The song takes corporate America to task, deriding the profiteering off of public funding; “Publicly subsidised, privately profitable / The anthem of the upper-tier puppeteer untouchable / Focus a moment, nod in approval / Bury our hands in the pockets of these neo-colonials.” Ringing guitars and growling bass carry things along in anthemic fashion, with a call and response lyric in the bridge of “They own us / Produce us / Consume us” bringing the song’s message to bear in uncompromising fashion.

3. Mate Ka Moris Ukun Rasik An (from Today’s Empires, Tomorrow’s Ashes, 2000)

In the interest of full disclosure, this was the song that hooked me personally on Propagandhi. The song’s title, which is an East Timorese phrase meaning ‘Independence or Death’, was inspired by the band’s meeting with Bella Gahlos, a former rebel against and refugee from the brutal regime of Suharto. Her experiences are lyrically juxtaposed by Hannah against his own teenage life, and the contrast is both heartbreaking and staggering, with the Canadian’s stories of “Busting windows and getting busy behind the Sportsplex” laid into sharp relief against Gahlos’ forced “[…] Depo Proveran[1] family planning / Her own Pearl Harbour / And a holocaust spanning 25 years to life / A prison my country under-wrote in Paradise”. The song is a tragic ode to the brutality of a tyrannical regime, and yet as it draws to a close, there is a trace of optimism with the whisper of “The truth will set my people free”, as though the outcome is not foregone.

Musically it is also untouchable, with Hannah’s employing of a capo and employing melodic open chords rather than standard issue powerchords giving the song’s machinegun palm-muted main riff a real punch and sparkle that elevates the song to new heights, with Samolesky’s pin-sharp changes in pattern and tempo neatly counterpointed by at-the-time new bassist Todd Kowalski’s nimble fretwork. A personal favourite.

4. Back To The Motor League (from Today’s Empires, Tomorrow’s Ashes)

Exploding out of the gate with a nose-bursting, intricate riff, as is often the case, this is perhaps the most withering put-down of the punk rock scene I have yet heard, as its message still resonates even today. Essentially an elegantly penned ‘fuck you’ to the commodification and denaturing of punk rock, its pointed use of metaphor and aphorisms only heighten the head-banging riot of the music, as Hannah fuses punk rock’s melodic bounce with metal’s brutal precision, decrying their contemporaries in no uncertain terms; “But what have we here? / 15 years later it still reeks of swill and Chickenshit Conformists / With their fists in the air / Like-father, like-son "rebels" bloated on Korn, Eminems and Bizkits / Lord, hear our prayer / Take back your Amy Grant mosh-crews and fair-weather politics / Blow-dry my hair and stick me on a ten-speed / Back to the Motor League”.

‘Back To The Motor League’ strikes a balance between hilarity and brutality to incredible effect, a trick that is very easy to overdo and slip into comedy rock. Well played, gents.

5. A Speculative Fiction (from Potemkin City Limits, 2005)

Potemkin City Limits was released while the Iraq War was in full swing, and it almost goes without saying that this fuelled the vast majority of the lyrical content contained within the record. Hannah, Samolesky and Kowalski were burning with ire at their close neighbours, taking the US’s foreign policy to task almost every chance they could. However it’s one of the more conceptual songs that opens the album, describing in concise but evocative terms an outbreak of war between Canada and the United States. Hannah brings his typical snark and bite to the subject, citing – of all things – augmented reality tracking in televised hockey as an initial casus belli; “Your stupid fucking laser-pucks were just the start!”

The song is grounded by a thundering Anthrax-meets-Sex Pistols riff, with moments of searing shred to cut through the din, and a bridge section that employs a thrillingly off-kilter rhythm to balance the pugnacious lyrics; “We don’t care if we’re destroyed / We’ll never capitulate / We’ll take the whole fucking world down / Down with us in flames / Just a speculative fiction / No cause for alarm.” One can only wonder how the band feels towards America’s 45th president; either way, this is a fucking epic way to open an album by any measure.

6. Iteration (from Potemkin City Limits)

There is relatively little footage of this particular song being played live, and for the life of me I have never understood why. It’s perhaps the best set of lyrics Chris Hannah has ever put to paper, a biting depiction of an ideal world in which war profiteers and chickenhawks actually pay for their crimes, in this case Donald Rumsfeld and his cronies. To put up only part of the lyrics is to do them a disservice, so I can only urge you to read them in their entirety, but a choice section to my eye comes from the fictional court’s derision of Rumsfeld & co.’s risible attempt at a defence; “He searches for the words / To stop this table in mid-turn, like “We are but old men, / We only did what we were told” / But the laughter from the gallery drowns out these vestiges / Of a profession’s oldest defence / The court will direct / The record to reflect / Compliments from the bench / You sir, are central casting’s crowning achievement.”

Musically the song barrels through its five-minute run time with a pace and breathless fury that makes it seem like three, with Hannah’s crunching metal-punk riffing stacked high over it all. The song twists and turns, changing direction almost in concurrence with the defendant’s squirming under the harsh light of a justified court, before finishing things off with some outstanding guitar fretboard pyrotechnics. On an extremely strong album, this one stands tall.

7. Supporting Caste (from Supporting Caste, 2009)

This record was arguably the point when Propagandhi started to lean more towards progressive thrash metal than punk, a move which to some was divisive while to others was a bold step in a thrilling new direction. Regardless, it’s pretty hard to refute that the title track of the Canuck’s 2009 LP is killer, with ferocious riffing - bolstered by the addition of second guitarist David ‘The Beave’ Guillas - juxtaposed against another taut set of lyrics, this time using the smartly observed metaphor of a disaster film in which we are all the victims to critique the world at large. The galloping guitars and peals of high string riffs give way to a lush, reverbed bridge, whereupon Hannah delivers a fatalistic lyric that is eminently quotable; “And so in these days / In this terminal phase / It’s all left to chance / A piece of advice / If you’re cast on thin ice / You may as well dance.”

8. Without Love (from Supporting Caste)

For all the mordant imagery and grim portents that abound over the length of Supporting Caste, it’s perhaps the song with the most basely human and emotional subject matter that hits the hardest; ‘Without Love’, believe it or not, hinges its heartbreaking confrontation of life’s transience and the passing of our loved ones on the death of Hannah’s cat. This simple emotional core, wrapped in barbed riffing and battering drum fills, lends a profound sadness to the song, and the emotion in Hannah’s voice is palpable as he sings; “Is breathing just the ticking of an unwinding / Clock counting down the time it takes / For you to comprehend the sheer magnitude of / Every single precious breath you’ve ever wasted? / […] As Cronie slipped away, I held her in my arms, reduced / To “Please don’t leave me. / What will I do?”

9. Unscripted Moment (from Failed States, 2012)

Opening with a jagged burst of power chords, ‘Unscripted Moment’ swiftly wrong-foots the listener with knotty, intricate clean guitar figures while the voice of Siegbert Frieberg[2], a holocaust survivor, tells of his missing father. The song strikes hard as it uses Frieberg’s tale to demonstrate the wickedness of humanity and Hannah’s terror of all he loves being stripped away by some such oncoming evil; “All the avarice and greed, and puny human hatreds / That dare to come between two human hearts. / I try not to live in fear, and I'm truly grateful / For every happy moment here / Upstairs I hear her voice, she’s softly singing / To him and I come undone. / Something wicked this way comes.” The band, meanwhile, unleashes one skullcrushing riff after another, only serving to heighten the nervous tension established as the lyrics unwind.

10. Duplicate Keys Icaro (An Interim Report) (from Failed States)

Neatly, this happens to be the ending song of Failed States, and it seems in usual Propagandhi tradition, they saved one of their best for last. Opening with a gorgeous, elegiac figure of chiming guitars and a brooding rhythm section, the song builds before exploding into distortion and fury – but Propagandhi break from the alt-metal dunderhead riffing yet again by instead choosing for the melody to ascend, somehow ending up with an opening chord progression that’s beautifully melodic and gut-punchingly powerful.

Lyrically this is one of the most abstract in the entire Propagandhi catalogue, seeming to be from the perspective of some kind of hallucination, which has the effect of the song being almost transcendental, albeit with moments of stark clarity amid it all; “We’re so frequently seduced / By such novel, exotic views / Our confirmation biases / Leverage everything we perceive.” The song careens from place to place, finishing up with a full on ripping shred solo and a somewhat heartening reminder that “This universe is love”, but delivered like a defiant battle cry before battering the listener with one last sally of palm muted chugs before winding into silence.

If you’ve never listened to Propagandhi, and enjoy punk, political music, or both, then I urge you to do so without delay. Chances are, when Victory Lap drops September 29th, this list will have to be completely rewritten, as we’ve never needed this quartet of questioning, disquieted Canadian agit-punks and their outright life-affirming musical calls to arms more than right now.

Like Propagandhi here: https://www.facebook.com/Propagandhi/

This top ten was compiled by Omar Ramlugon.

[1] A reference to Depo-Provera, a birth control drug that was injected forcibly into the women of East Timor by Suharto’s soldiers who would frequently subject the women to rape and other atrocities.

[2] https://twitter.com/propagandhi/status/492325899778686976

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