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October 6, 2008
The summer after I began hating high school, my friend's cousin came to visit from Puerto Rico. She didn't speak English and I didn't speak Spanish, although we were able to communicate through music. We could tell each other what bands we liked and what records we listened to, but much of our interaction was spent making and trading tapes. Before she left, she gave me a tape that for a long time was mysterious and unlabeled. I listened to it as if it were my unconscious - every song beautiful, perfect and unknowable. It was a while before I finally learned that the tape was a copy of a rare punk compilation entitled Year of the Rat. Initially, discovering the music's source was exciting, but as the songs became real for me, labeling themselves with names and being attached to bands, the tape lost a little of its aura.

Listening to Toronto's Fucked Up, I'm reminded of that unidentified cassette. Their sound is rooted in the type of punk compilations I found so mystifying. Compilations like the Bloodstains series, Murder Punk Volumes 1 and 2, and the Killed By Death comps are all among the Year of The Rat variety; they're cheaply made, highly collectable, and curiously unforgettable. Featuring songs by bands that had just formed, just made a record, or just broken up, the compilations are the ultimate collector nerd research project. The Bloodstains series, for instance, spans 25 volumes, each representing specific geographic locations. The first three in the series are Bloodstains Across Texas, Bloodstains Across the Midwest, and Bloodstains Across California. For a band deemed worth hearing, inclusion on these comps meant they would be not forgotten. But many of them perhaps should have been. Typically, early punk songs relied a lot on novelty, attempting to offend or entertain the listener, often at the same time. These songs continue to be played on college radio stations, traded on mixtapes, and name-checked on message boards and in hipster magazine interviews. To those familiar with the atmosphere of such compilations, Fucked Up records can be both penetrating and pleasurable, as one can pick out and piece together lost sounds and sounds lost.



The Chemistry of Common Life, Fucked Up's second full-length album and their first for Matador, is full of tokens and mementos taken from old punk compilations. If one listens closely, hardcore punk no-hit wonders like Eddie & The Subtitles, Zero Boys, and Satan's Rats begin to emerge. Hurried intros, buried melodies, and political urgency that borders on comic bluntness all become signals of a punk scene long gone. Fucked up utilizes punk's early novelty on "Magic Word," the most straightforward hardcore song on the album. It takes a cue from The Dicks and The Big Boys, bands bleeding with Texas punk bravado. Sequenced on the album right after "Magic Word," "Golden Seal" is a wandering instrumental of synths and piano chords that would sound at home on a 1970s prog rock record. The track is a stark contrast to Fucked Up's cranked-up-really-high moments, but like the album's other instrumental, "Looking For God," it represents punk rock all bottled and corked instead of busted and gushed. The solo flute that begins "Son the Father" sounds like a strange way to start a hardcore punk song, but begins to make sense with the appearance of distorted guitars and punk rock growls reciting the furious chorus of "It's hard enough being born in the first place/ who would ever want to be born again?" Fucked Up makes excellent use of dynamics by positioning strings and woodwinds against blaring guitars and blazing vocals, giving the music an internal conflict to compound its rebellion. Punk rock always had something to fight against; Fucked Up takes that idea and incorporates it into the structure of their music. On the album's first single, "No Epiphany," space rock guitars and a female vocal choir surround gruff, old-school punk vocals, but somehow nothing sounds out of place. As the song pushes against itself, desperately trying to break apart, it never reaches resolution, because that was never its intent.

The Chemistry of Common Life becomes much more than the sound of a band's influences put forward. Often taking early punk structures and opening them up reveals (like the title of their first album for Jade Tree implies) a hidden world; Fucked Up's songs explode with depth and energy. As a genre, punk rock relies on form. In true punk fashion, Fucked Up undermines genre by taking songs places one wouldn't expect them to go. But punk rock promises are old news.

In 1998, Sweden's The Refused released a record entitled The Shape of Punk to Come. Following the record, the band broke up. Ten years later, the Year of the Rat according to the Chinese zodiac, Fucked Up make good on the promise of that album's title. The Torontians manage to epitomize punk rock in both theory and practice, in sound and vision, in truth and soul. The Chemistry of Common Life is one hell of a record; it takes the listener on a journey through punk's past, present, and future tenses.

Looking ahead to Fucked Up's future tenses of punk, the writing of Stewart Home comes to mind. Home discusses punk rock in strict terms of genre, criticizing theorists and critics for suggesting that it has roots in situationist movements or other political endeavors. Going further, Home says that punk is no kind of rupture in youth culture and popular music; instead, it knots the political inclinations of the 1960s to rock music. If this is indeed the case, perhaps punk's true rupture is from genre. Citing the more situationist aspects of Fucked Up's existence - from their riot-inducing gigs at MTV Canada and SXSW, and the purposeful circulation of misinformation, to such anti-consumer strategies as stretching one song to both sides of a record, or writing illegible liner notes - can lead one to believe that the time has come when punk finally describes not what a band sounds like, but what a band is.

[Photos by David Waldman]

SEE ALSO: lookingforgold.blogspot.com
SEE ALSO: www.matadorrecords.com
SEE ALSO: www.jadetree.com
SEE ALSO: www.stewarthomesociety.org

--
Joseph Coombe
A contributing writer who lives and works in Los Angeles, Joseph Coombe is searching for Jon Landauís future of rock and roll by rereading Lester Bangs and unreading Greil Marcus.

See other articles by Joseph Coombe.

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