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In 2006, after four years’ worth of seven-inches and EPs, Toronto’s Fucked Up did something few punk bands do: It made its debut full-length a double LP. Judging by sheer running time alone, the 72-minute Hidden World would seem to promise something progressive—a theremin solo here, perhaps, or a complicated rhythm there. And yet, just listening to the music, you won’t really find it. One of Hidden World’s best songs, “Invisible Leader,” is typical in that it could’ve been written 30 years ago, back when the term “punk” wasn’t preceded by a modifier. The guitars, played by 10,000 Marbles and Concentration Camp, evoke the tuneful power chords of the Who and the Clash. And the vocals, sung by Pink Eyes, are reminiscent of Handsome Dick Manitoba, the clownish lead singer from first-generation punks the Dictators.
For proof that Hidden World is as interesting and unusual as its length might suggest, you have to read the lyric sheet. “From the Book of Enoch/To the Bible codes/We spend our final days still looking for that gold,” Pink Eyes sings on “Invisible Leader.” It’s never quite clear what he’s talking about: Real gold? Oil? Salvation? But meaning, in this case, is less important than the tension between the band’s nostalgic sonics and the album’s gnostic theme—which, according to an interview with 10,000 Marbles in Distort, is about “the whole game that goes on just underneath of what is immediately visible, in all sorts of realms.” By not doing the obvious—say, writing lyrics that are as populist as the music or writing music that is as high-reaching as the lyrics—the band produces a frisson that’s rare in either punk or prog.
Hidden World is a tough act to follow, which is perhaps why, on its second full-length, The Chemistry of Common Life, Fucked Up takes a more predictable approach. The sextet no longer sounds like the sort of band that plays basement hardcore shows; it sounds like the sort of band that would follow a long concept album with another long concept album. This spirit of proggy adventurousness began with 2007’s Year of the Pig EP—or, more specifically, the EP’s 18-minute title track. And it’s just as pronounced on the opening strains of Chemistry’s first single, “No Epiphany.” The song, which is slower than the raging material on Hidden World, begins with a swirling synth-like motif and a backup vocal that sounds like a sigh. “Ah-hah,” two women from the Brooklyn avant-garage band Vivian Girls sing in unison. Only Pink Eyes’ gruff-throated yowl contrasts with the mellow space-rock vibe.
It’s certainly not Hidden World II, but there’s enough dissonance between the vocal and the music to sound Fucked Up. Dissimilarity is still what makes the band tick, and that fact is never more apparent than when Pink Eyes turns off his microphone. There’s nothing wrong, per se, with either of the album’s prog-tinged instrumentals, “Golden Seal” and “Looking for God.” But both are indistinguishable from any number of pleasant, anonymous instrumentals recorded by pleasant, anonymous bands. That this type of one-dimensional post-rock is beneath Fucked Up is obvious from Chemistry’s hard-rocking opener, “Son the Father.” With its introductory flute solo, wah-wah guitars, and drone coda, the song is both traditionally progressive (as in, “Man, that Jethro Tull tune is so progressive!”) and an actual improvement on Hidden World’s muscular pop punk. No small part of this achievement is due to guest vocalists Kat Taylor and Justin Small, whose turn on the chorus offers a more enunciated, not to mention more musical, counterpoint to Pink Eyes’ mush-mouthed bark.
This time, you won’t need the liner notes to figure out the lyrics. “It’s hard enough being born in the first place,” the chorus goes. “Who would ever want to be born again?” The question speaks to both Fucked Up’s preoccupation with Christianity (the song references Jerusalem, Cain and Abel, and the Pope), as well as Chemistry’s facts-on-the-ground view of more secular matters—such as, how do we pass time while we’re here? “It’s the little things that get us through life,” Pink Eyes sings on “Black Albino Bones.” That song, like several on the album, farms out the refrain to a more mainstream-sounding vocalist. In this case, Alexisonfire frontman Dallas Green turns in a radio-ready performance, crooning angelically, over and over, “I need a little escape.”
The reason this bruiser of an art-rock number works so well is because it abides both Green’s mellifluous vocals and Pink Eyes’ pornographic howl. And though lyrics such “We both ejaculate/Ride the wave” might seem odd coming from anyone other than R. Kelly, the X-rated content of “Black Albino Bones” fits well with the idea behind this 53-minute album. According to the band’s PR, Chemistry concerns “the mysteries of birth, death, and the origins of life (and re-living).” That’s the kind of ambitious conceit that’s perhaps best applied to an album after the fact. Unfortunately, the band wrote a title track that sounds like it was designed to portray the entirety of our existence here on Earth. “Electric skies and vibrations rise/The breach/The birth/The seed inside/The chemistry of common life,” Pink Eyes sings over the album’s most leaden hard rock.
What’s missing from the song, other than a Godspell gang chorus to match those purple lines, is any sort of levity or contrast—anything that might give you a sense that the band members don’t take themselves as seriously as the rather ponderous music suggests. The band does have a sense of humor: When asked recently why Fucked Up came up with Chemistry’s concept, one unidentified band member said, “life is the best idea anyone ever had.” Now, there’s a statement you won’t see on a leather jacket or on a backpack. It would be nice to hear this sentiment expressed so lightheartedly in the music—say, something in between pop-punk’s horny-teen optimism and Christian rock’s depthless affirmations. But Fucked Up never wrote that song, and none of the lyrics on the new album are as surprising as the band’s reason for composing it.
If life is indeed the best idea anyone ever had—which means that someone, presumably a deity, must’ve had it—what does it say about Chemistry that one of its best songs ends on a note of nihilism, rather than hope? “The God above us/He doesn’t really love us,” Pink Eyes sings on “Days of Last.” The underlying music—a heavenly swell of electric guitar and French horn—implies an intended dissonance between the words and music. The good news is that there are more moments like this, when the music runs up against the content of the lyrics in some provocative way, than there are songs like the title track and the two instrumentals. In that sense, Chemistry is at worst a lateral move—an impressive blast of perpetually hyphenated punk rock that works with or without the lyric sheet.
Fucked Up and Vivian Girls perform Sunday, Oct. 19, at the Rock and Roll Hotel.