It’s a question that remains at the very heart of punk ever since its inception. For every single offshoot of punk over the years, the looming spectre of uncertain longevity has all but killed off the promise of evolution. The germinal of every punk movement is primitive, reactionary, but also hamstrung from the start by a set of intractable, draconian rules. When the first clutch of artists inevitably grow tired of one dimensional three chord bangers they are left with a choice, innovate or die. But punk, more even than metal, is bound by a code that defines what ‘true’ and ‘not true’ punk means. So those that innovate too much are cast out as traitors to the cause. Those that stay faithful to the sound grow stale. For this reason, punk movements are inevitably short lived. With the original artists either breaking up, or moving into a style denounced purists.
Is this inevitable? Is punk history – with all its diverse variants throughout history and around the world – condemned to be a series of explosions that quickly fizzle out and die after a couple of years? Is the only lasting impact of punk movements confined to how they influenced other subcultures that borrow from it? Can punk innovate internally? To answer this question let’s look at two releases from artists at different stages of evolution. One – Fearless Iranians From Hell – took a satirical approach to lyrics and concept, but beneath this was a musical evolution with roots in hardcore that gradually evolved into surprisingly technical crossover. The other, Die Kreuzen, started out as hardcore punk, but were so weird from the get go that the desire to prefix this tag with any qualifier to hand (technical, post, experimental) was overwhelming.
Fearless Iranians From Hell could have been a tiresome novelty act. But they delivered such a perfect cocktail of tight, restless crossover, both creative, energetic, technically competent and genuinely thought provoking in places, that their music becomes an example of what punk can become when treated as an art-form. Their second LP ‘Holy War’ (1988) sees them extend both their musicianship and concept into more epic terrains. This is still down and dirty hardcore punk, but the production is clean enough for us to hear the constant twists and turns of the rhythm section, the percussive punch of the power-chord driven riffs, chopped up and pieced together into short but dense tracks of remarkable sophistication.
This is not a one-dimensional ear-pummelling. There is genuine craft behind these riffs, the way the drums interact with their collisions is unconventional for rock at large, let alone punk. There are hints of jazz drumming beneath the veneer, but they are hidden away beneath fundamentally aggressive music. The guitars as well, despite frequently chopping up the progression of the music with more basic hardcore riffs, will often develop sophisticated narratives that hint at influences well outside punk and metal. In places they sound almost catchy, which only adds to the juxtaposition when set against not just the riffs they sandwich, but the weighty subject matter of the lyrics.
The result is complex and intricate thrash that manages to thoroughly entertain at the same time. Built from the drums up is an album that shakes up the hardcore punk format without straying too far into experimental territory that would alienate punk’s lawmakers. But no discussion of any Fearless Iranians From Hell album would be complete without mentioning the lyrics. For the most part they satirise American foreign policy and Islamic extremism from the point of view of Iranian terrorists. Which, considering everything that has come to pass since 1988, feels all the more pertinent. At times the vitriol becomes a full-on tirade against the American way of life (see the epic ‘Forced Down Your Throat’). When set against this playful and punchy thrash it makes for an enduring and sophisticated piece of satirical art, as well as a great crossover thrash album.
Rewind a few years to 1984 and we find Die Kreuzen doing for hardcore punk what Voivod would later do for thrash metal. By rendering a more complex, intricate version of the same, with off-kilter rhythms, restless tempos, near constant dissonance, and a thin, grating guitar tone, the result is hardcore punk born of unholy abrasion as opposed to pure aggression. I think it would be unfair to call this the ‘thinking person’s hardcore’, simply because more basic variations from the likes of Discharge and D.R.I. were still deeply thoughtful. But there is no doubt that Die Kreuzen is coming at this music from a more experimental and challenging angle.
Songs are built around tight, intricate yet repetitive basslines, which compensate for the lack of driving drums that defines so much punk. Instead we have a drummer that doesn’t shy away from a more conventional ear bashing, but more often than not draws from jazz and prog rock such as King Crimson to hammer home a complex and ever shifting foundation to this music. Guitars engage in a similar trade-off between straightforward three chord punk riffs that are then driven through a blender of dissonance, playfully toying with conventional notions of rhythm and chord progressions. When combined with the shaky foundation of the drums it makes a for a disorientating and – I say again – fucking abrasive listen. Vocals soar above the sonic jigsaw with a consistently high-pitched screech, that at once sounds animalistic yet controlled. Again, as with the other elements that make up this release, it does not strike one as aggressive. Despairing maybe, comical, almost absurd, but the only thing one could say with certainty is that it sounds truly otherworldly.
This tension between the familiar and the alien at the heart of ‘Die Kruezen’ is what makes this such a unique album. By combining common place elements of hardcore punk – albeit a thin, tinny version of the same – with these experimental elements that throw proceedings off course, it makes for a more unsettling listen than if Die Kruezen had gone all out avant-garde. And this is one key ingredient to that elusive quality that makes some experimental music work. This is not chaos, nor is it self-indulgent. It is simply the familiar reflected back at us, morphed, mutated, distorted, it is something we recognise but with certain features changed and disfigured into something not quite alien. This means that the structure and thematic elements on this album are not only unified and grounded, but also twisted and toyed with until we have something fundamentally new on our hands.
Considering that both of these albums were honest and successful attempts to transcend a genre that has seen its fair share of narrow mindedness, pitting them against each other seems a little out of order. But life can be very cruel. Don’t write Fearless Iranians From Hell off as a one trick satirical band. For all the one-dimensional novelty and comedy acts we’ve seen in punk and metal since the 1980s, ‘Holy War’ (and all three of their LPs for that matter) is multifaceted, intricate crossover thrash with few equals. And the satire and impact of the lyrics is far more powerful and increasingly relevant when compared to a lot of modern attempts at something similar. But their history, as with so many great punk outfits, was short-lived. Die Kruezen’s career, although hardly much longer, inevitably strayed into the forbidden territories of pop via the gateway drug of post-punk on follow-up releases. Whatever value there was in the direction they took is academic now. On the debut we have fast, abrasive, discordant punk that manages to be both extreme and experimental, with hidden nuances round every corner. A reminder that progression for progression’s sake is not something to be lauded. But adding a degree of well-placed restraint can elevate well established mores nonetheless. So for that reason it is my pick of the week. But you should go and listen to Fearless Iranians From Hell’s entire discography nevertheless.