'Negative Politics' by Army of SkanksReview
I have been very pleased to reflect in my writings & compilations the renewal of the vitality of the local punk scene through newer bands such as Septic and the Tanks, Stegosaurus Sex Party, Concrete Fun House and the interest in the work of Rewards and Revenge from a dozen years ago. However one set of musicians whose roots go directly back to the birth of the local punk scene & who have never wavered in maintaining the ideals of that music are Army of Skanks whose latest album ‘Negative Politics' is due out on 5th November (not a date idly chosen). The album was recorded at Abatis Studios, Kenilworth by Jon Priestley of The Damned and The Godfathers and mastered at Red Shift Mastering by James Livett.
Although their commitment to punk is wholly unbroken through the years, the current three members of the band (Wendy Seenan (on bass guitar & lead vocals), Carol Lane (lead guitar & backing vocals) and Terry "Whippet" Downes on drums and backing vocals) have fascinating personal musical histories having played over the years in a multitude of other bands (many captured in the "Hot Music live Presents" series) in a variety of styles other than punk, but all sharing an uncompromising approach to telling the truth & doing so in an exciting & uplifting manner).
I say "current" members as the band released their first two albums as a five piece (2013's ‘Punk Rock Warriors' and ‘La Petite Mort' in 2016) before slimming down to a trio in 2017 and releasing ‘A Perfect Storm' in 2019 (they actually existed as a high energy & thrilling covers band for some years before writing their own material & I can tell you that they were great then too). Check out "Trouble" from ‘A Perfect Storm' on ‘Hot Music Live Presents Volume Eight'.
The process this time doesn't sound that easy: though mostly conceived during lockdown (which explains the thoughtfulness of the words), members lost loved ones, moved houses and in the case of Carol (aka "Captain Chaos") had to deal with a fractured wrist.
The first flowering of punk was a huge explosion of diversity, opening doors for so many previously excluded or marginalised people: artists of various genders, sexuality, disability, race etc were prominent and the music was astonishingly broad accordingly. That was squashed very quickly and the musical template reduced to narrow confines and a dress code imposed: precisely what had been fought against. Yet those who understood & believed in the original philosophy like Wendy, Carol and Whippet continue to make punk rock records in that vein.
These people are still pissed off with various things and have the experience to articulate this really well.
They have produced a sort of manifesto to go with the album & only repeating it in full can offer the necessary level of respect:
"Faith in politicians has reached an all time low. Greed has become the only god in a shallow/egocentric culture. Just as Martin Luther nailed the truth to the Wittenberg Church gates, some media is exposing the modern day world of the Machiavellian concept of real politics and brinkmanship in action to a level of the Cold War years. Common sense is in short supply. The political system is failing us.
The songwriting reflects what we have seen & experienced over the last few years mostly. A bigger class divide, financial crises with 4.2 million children now living in poverty, the working classes demonized, rights being abolished, wars driven by greed and fear, the list goes on. Musically, we've done exactly as we want. We want to spread the words out there but also people need to dance so there's a good mixture of retro, hardcore, tribal and reggae on the album."
Proceeding from that premise, you get ‘Negative Politics' in all its glory.
In terms of the reduction in the size of the army, losing charismatic and frankly excellent vocalist Jess Timms looked at the time like the key loss: the face & focus of the band live, what would life be like without her? In practice, they weathered that storm perfectly well: Wendy is also a great lead vocalist with plenty of experience in that direction & if live her playing her instrument precludes the drama of Jess' performances, what you are left with feels more democratic: attention is shared among them all and they themselves feel that the trio format has resulted in their best work with communal writing and a tightness of approach from composition through to performance: and given what they all bring to the album individually, combined you get a unity of purpose and vision: one imagines the collaborative approach edits out any possibility of cliché or ideas long worn out.
There is something splendid about listening to this sort of thing: put together people who can play this well, so obviously love doing so and have things they really believe in saying and you have something really rather splendid.
The musical & lyrical energy level is set to high throughout as the trio savage Brexit ("The Brexit Song") sexism/objectification/misogyny ("Can't Beat Nature"), class war & economic oppression ("Deathbox") personal integrity and autonomy ("Exorcism": a song which was in sets when Jess was in the band) personal freedom plus another attack on objectification ("If I Were Delilah") getting ready to fight back ("Lying Dormant") hegemony ("Mind Control") politics, media & propaganda ("Negative Politics") people being pushed beyond their limits ("Number 10") and as for "Zero, One, Two, Honey", that one seems to cover so much ground around personal methods of coping with life and trying to respond to pressures beyond the capability of any single individual to deal with. In fact it was the track which attracted my attention the most on first play with it's enigmatic lyrics, intertwined voices & stirring Spanish guitar: and continued to do so on subsequent occasions.
In reality, the glib reductions I've just given you as preliminary signposts do the songs insufficient justice. The lyrics are well thought out & while steering clear of sloganeering cliches, nevertheless show the band avoiding a big trap which several polemical first wave punk bands fell into: that unless you take a great deal of care to define where you stand on an issue, there will be those who take completely the wrong idea & mistake incoherent anger as a green light for malevolent action: for every overtly right wing band (sadly there were a few), there were others who struggled to disavow "fans" whose views were contrary to their own. Army of Skanks are unlikely to have this problem.
In addition, the very lyrics make it clear that these three cannot abide double-talk, hypocrisy or downright lying and so to maintain the higher moral ground, need to ensure they act in the opposite way.
It's these interwoven virtues of integrity and belief which define the musical settings: you can easily appreciate the honesty & the enjoyment at play by the music before you even latch onto the words. Nevertheless, despite the punk label & the high-octane performances, Army of Skanks are not the sort of one dimensional band which so quickly took over the scene. Like the first wave, they draw from many personal interests & styles and they understand that to maintain your listening interest over a whole album, diversity helps: hence the promise of "retro, hardcore, tribal and reggae". And do they deliver on that? Of course.
The better punk bands (The Slits, The Clash, The Ruts, The Members etc) were all reggae fans & incorporated it into their brand of music: the Army of Skanks fit into that honourable tradition and so we get tracks like the wonderful "If I Was Delilah" which is best described as ska played incredibly fast (possibly some sort of world record attempt?).
We also get gothic riffing, the sort of songs where punk touches base with metal. We get prominent loping basslines, insistent bass riffs, sheets of howling lead guitar, Whippet apparently playing bongos and various interplays between the three voices to excellent effect: most of them turn into conversations on the topics in the songs which to be honest is a really novel way to tell the tales & I can't think of this sort of approach being used quite like this: it really works.
Whatever the many merits of the five piece Army, I can't help thinking that this sort of vocal arrangement would have happened with a bespoke lead singer however good she was: and if you feel that Army of Skanks have made a virtue out of a necessity in this respect: I agree. Equally, losing the second guitar has brought benefits too in my opinion: it frees sonic space which each member has managed to use to great effect.
I think that the band are going from strength to strength & that ‘Negative Politics' builds brilliantly on its predecessor but also seizes the issues of the day by the throat. I hope you get to see them live (possibly playing with one of the newer bands inspired by this sort of music & group) as they really are one of the best live bands around.
But above all, please play heed to these songs: they've clearly worked hard on them and I think I'd like to leave the final exhortation to them:
"New album, new emotions rising to the surface. Songs that needed to be written. Freedom of expression. Call it what you will but listen to it: really listen to it."