A group of teenagers releasing an album on tape is the bread and butter of punk and hardcore. But few such bands have released one with as much anticipation as The Black Sparks have received for their release.
In roughly a decade of playing shows and recording music—beginning when some of its members were younger than 10—the Bethesda-based band has evolved from grade-schoolers jamming in their parents’ basements to high-schoolers and graduates who have played Fort Reno and opened for nationally renowned punk acts. On its self-titled debut album, recorded in 2014 at Arlington’s storied Inner Ear Studios, the young band packs years of its members’ deep engagement with the D.C.-area DIY music scene into a post-hardcore album deeply engaging in its own right.
While any band with young members steeped in the tradition of D.C. hardcore invites an inevitable Minor Threat comparison, it undersells The Black Sparks’ ambition and execution. Make no mistake, listeners expecting high-tempo blasts of bile and pit-worthy breakdowns will get them on The Black Sparks’ “Plastic Cards” and “Anticlap,” but they’ll also hear the experimentation expected from a punk band that has played together for years.
Frenetic hardcore is never out of vogue, but most of The Black Sparks’ songs embrace the evolution and genre-blurring curiosity of D.C. hardcore greats as much as the genre’s classic origins. “ST Rawberries” offers dub-inspired post-punk passages, while “Run Through the Streets” embraces the tempo changes and dynamics of dramatic post-hardcore. It fades seamlessly into the anthemic “Not For Me,” a song with gang vocals and hooks that ends with a trippy, jazzy horn-accompanied instrumental outro.
On the album, it’s clear the band’s time at Inner Ear accomplished two things: The studio captured the energy of The Black Sparks’ ferocious, reputation-building live shows; and the band got the chance to expand on concepts in its songs without worrying about the limitations that a borrowed sound system in a sweat-soaked community space can sometimes impose. The album was produced by Kevin Erickson and engineered by Hugh McElroy—who played in the seminal early-aughts D.C. experimental post-hardcore band Black Eyes—giving the album the same studio pedigree as Priests’ 2014 classic Bodies and Control and Money and Power. While its self-titled album may have been years in the making, the creativity and talent on display serves as fair warning that, whether as part of The Black Sparks or other projects, these musicians are just getting started.
Unlike The Black Sparks, SOMNIA’s How the Moon Shines on the Shit has a shorter origin story, albeit a more geographically expansive one, spanning from the DIY communities of the city of Washington to the state of Washington. David Combs and Erica Freas, respectively members of acclaimed pop-punk outfits The Max Levine Ensemble and RVIVR, have produced a rousing album rooted in the concepts of lucid dreaming and liminal consciousness. The two musicians are joined by a backing band that features RVIVR members Mattie Jo Canino on bass, Joey Seward on keys, and drummer Josef Belluci.
While playing shows and touring together provided the practical foundation for Combs and Freas’ collaboration, the album’s concept was originally loftier than the already imaginative result. Hoping to wring subconscious songs into waking form, the two strove to employ lucid dreaming techniques to synchronize their dreams and collaborate not just across the continent but on another plane of consciousness.
Unsurprisingly, SOMNIA’s songs ultimately had to emerge from electromagnetic rather than esoteric communication, but the resulting album does not suffer from the conscious applications of its creators’ talents.
While “dream pop” is a well-established subgenre and “dreamy” music is often synonymous with hazy, soft sounds and languid tempos, SOMNIA’s nocturnal preoccupations manifest themselves in driving, urgent songs. This is, after all, a pop-punk album, and one concerned with using dreams to interrogate reality. The album’s opener, “The Double Life of Ernest C. Croswell,” starts with stark drum hits, and its vocals are unobscured as Freas and Combs recount the telltale signs of dream reality (like “faceless neighbors” and wordless newspapers) as they search for “another language to explore.”
Beyond the vocal and guitar work fans of Combs and Freas have come to expect, SOMNIA’s sonic palette includes some elements that seem particularly well-suited to its conceptual subject matter. There are audio snippets from discussions of nightmare creatures and lucid dreaming techniques on “Psychic Vampires” and interlude “Dream a Little Dream.” Seward’s keys provide an ethereal touch to enhance the funereal quality of “Death Blows” and the consciousness-liberating aspirations of “Another Night.”
In closing track “(The Double Life Of) Ed Clairborne,” SOMNIA reflects on the frustrations and rewards of its attempts to extract melodies and meanings from dreams. “I’m hoping that I might find the messages that filter through my mind/ The good, the hard, the words that I can’t find/ I never learned that song though I did try.” Although SOMNIA may feel the need to disclose the shortcomings of its subconscious adventures, it can rest confident that it’s still managed to produce an album that will captivate conscious listeners.