It's been 11 years since Refused released The Shape of Punk to Come. Eleven years, and the promise that was wrapped up in that album, the idea that punk was going to move beyond its simplistic roots into a more varied but still aggressive sound, has been pretty well cast aside in a lot of cases. Between Dennis Lyxen himself moving on to the good but pretty standard (International) Noise Conspiracy and the general lack of forward motion in either the hardcore or the punk scene it seemed like the prophecy of that album was ignored across the board. Sure there were plenty of exciting things occurring in post-hardcore and the heavier side of indie rock, but those were borne out of developments in those particular genres, not the sort of radical shift Refused pulled off. I know dwelling on its lack of direct influence is a bit stupid, and that no one least of all the band themselves would have taken the name of the album seriously, but it taking until 2007 for me to find anything that matched it's dual intensity and scope was kind of disheartening.
If there's one reason that Hidden World made this list outside of its outstanding quality it's that it brings back the feeling I got the first time I really listened to The Shape of Punk to Come. It seems a bit odd to make that connection, Fucked Up aren't anywhere near as interested in weird instrumentation and arrangement as Refused were, but the common thread betwee nthem is the sense of epic scope to the sound. Fucked Up are much closer to being a standard hardcore band, but the 14 tracks on Hidden World range form short blasts like "David Comes to Life" to epics like the fantastically groovy, seven-minute "Two Snakes" with the balance tipping firmly towards the latter type of song. Only four tracks don't break the 5 minute mark, and the ones that don't still have the same sense of grandeur about them. Even "David Comes to Life" manages more of an epic feel in the space of two-and-a-half minutes than a lot of hardcore bands could manage in twice that time.
The lengthier numbers are where the real money is though. It's not just that they have the time to develop all manner of ideas to the point where they work best, but it's where they get the most play out of their more progressive tendencies. "Two Snakes" ends on a startlingly pretty violin coda, provided by Final Fantay's Owen Pallet of all people, closer "Vivian Girls" builds an impressively huge wall of guitar over its nine minute run time and "Baiting the Public," well it just spends 6 minutes beating the listener to a pulp with its heaviness and mocking them with its lyrics. If there's any sort of complaint you could have it's that the proceedings are a bit one-note, especially vocalist Pink Eyes' hoarse shout that brings it all to the same sort of feeling, but the relentless drive it has, couples with plenty of interesting guitar work and arrangements makes for the sort of satisfying listen that transcends its slight sameness.
Thankfully, the band's follow-up The Chemistry of Common Life took a few steps to up the diversity. Not only is Pink Eyes joined on vocals by all sorts of guests, from Lullabye Arkestra bassist Katia Taylor to Alexisonfire/City and Colour leader Dallas Green, but his own vocals seem to have developed a bit more range. He still resides firmly in the Rollins-esque shout that defined Hidden World but it seems to have expanded its capabilities. I mean, the shifts aren't terribly obvious, but listen to "Magic Word"'s chorus against its verse and tell me there's not more of change there than at any point on Hidden World. That sort of subtle variance elevates the album above the rest of Fucked Up's work, even if there's no song as epic and pummeling as "Two Snakes" or "Baiting the Public." It also helps that the band's tome together has tightened them up as a unit. The songs on Chemistry are all just bristling with, well, chemistry between the core five members and extending out to the throngs of guests that come around. Probably the best example of that is the six-minute "Crooked Head," which may just settle into a single groove for the bulk of its time, but the way the band member interact within that framework makes the whole song that much better.
Really though, I knew that Chemistry was gonna be a step up the minute "Son the Father" was over. I don't usually spend a whole segment of my album posts on one particular song, but this one deserves it. Everything about it, the deceptively calm opening flute solo, the intensity of the verses, the fucking chorus where Lullaby Arkestra's two members step up to the mic and throw down one of the most energizing choruses any hardcore band has laid claim to...it all converges into what might be the best 6 and a half minutes of music I heard in 2008. A few songs come close but I don't think any of them manage to pull off the blend of aggression, melody and diversity that "Son the Father" does. It's a masterpiece in a genre that rarely hits the 'very very good' marks to my ears, and for that alone I'd have to tip the scales in favor of Chemistry being the better album of the two.
Lastly, a big cheer for the Polaris Prize selection committee for giving the 2009 prize to The Chemistry of Common Life over the plethora of much safer choices on the shortlist. Not only did the prize go to what was probably the best album in the running but it showed that the relative hegemony that was developing in the winner's list - all three previous winners were pretty, indie canon fodder - was just a symptom of the prize's relative newness. The fact that it also led to the band being mentioned by name on the early morning CBC news last week was just kind of icing on the cake.
Coming up tomorrow: Weird stuff from Norway in two flavours.