Written by: Dave Cantrell
Must say that among the many surprises that have greeted me over the last five plus years I’ve been exploring the exploding resurgence of post-punk/darkwave bands around the globe, few have been as, well, surprising as the prominence of Italy in the latest wave. Though home to not a few electronic-based outfits back in the outbreak years (Kirlian Camera, Prostitutes), guitar-driven sounds deriving their impetus from the holy burst emanating out of Manchester at the the time didn’t seem to take hold. Now, as if wishing to make up for lost time, it would appear nearly every region of Europe’s boot has exactly that type of sharp-shadowed sound echoing among the porticoes. In the case of Japan Suicide (who resemble neither Japan nor Suicide), one supposes it’s less a shock, seeing as they come from the Umbrian city of Terni, an industrial hub about 100 km northeast of Rome that, aside from being known as ‘The Steel City’ has also been dubbbed ‘the Italian Manchester.’
On the wonderfully lugubrious We Die in Such a Place, released back in March of 2015 (to which we again apply our strict better-late-than-never policy), the five-piece exhibit a stylistic fluency darkly eloquent enough to be the default standard-bearer for all things Mancunian (or Londonian, for that matter) in Terni and, frankly, anywhere else in Italy. Whether we’re talking the moody throb and psych-drone guitar of “Shame,” the Sound-ish “Naked Skin,” its synth (Leonardo Mori) tracing the considerable melody in the the night sky while Saverio Paiella’s guitar is carving shards out of the shadows below, “Even Blood”‘s cavernous bass rumble (Matteo Luciani) and deftly trampling drums (Tommaso Sensidani) laying a menacing bed for singer Stefano Bellerba’s desperate, strychnine vocals, or the title track’s unexpectedly light touch in the face of the song’s beautifully dawning dread, Japan Suicide bring an exceedingly adept touch to their craft, so much so that I’d go so far as to say that the form could not be in surer hands.
Drifting north to Stockholm – another unpredicted new-day stronghold – we encounter a bright-sounding but no less powerful quartet called It’s For Us, whose mini-album/EP Something Has to Give simply bristles with propulsive smarts. Cousins, if more sharply buoyant ones, to fellow countrymen Terrible Feelings, the band – Camilla Karlsson vox and bass, Jon Gredmark guitar, Rebekka Johansson keyboards and backing vox, Alex Nilsson drums – burst with such driving persistence on here the record’s title would seem to be literal.
Opener “Neighbours Die,” with its slivers of chrome clean guitar shining over everything and the vocal hook and melody so pure killer immediate, presents itself as the obvious choice for first single until “Not Enough” starts. Blessed with a bassline tight and lively enough to reanimate the dead (think “Jumping Someone Else’s Train” on amphetamines) and still another melody that proves the slightest resistance to its charms utterly futile, it’s truly a revelation of a track. And so it bloody goes throughout.
“Radiant” may be astutely named but I’m not sure the word goes far enough as it doesn’t capture the pleading roar and brilliant dynamics of the thing. “Devotion” gives us a half-chance to catch our breath but its glowering shimmer, crashing momentum and Karlsson’s commanding vocal, from hypnotic yelp to lulling conspiratorial tones, nonetheless arrest. Many albums could claim this as a high point yet here it stands bravely in the shadow of that that’s preceded it. Except to assure that they maintain the pulse, punch, and quality already mentioned, I’ll leave the last two tracks for you to discover on your own.
Recorded and mixed with crystalline clarity by Jon Bordon, Something Has to Give establishes in its mere 20 minutes a force of relentless magnitude. They sound almost impatient to get the glory of their sound out and with results like this who could blame them? It’s hard to recall a band that has appeared on the recent scene with a more impressive debut. They should be legend.
It’s not infrequent, when reviewing records for this column, that the sounds one hears lurking through the headphones fail to betray a band’s specific origins. Most often a young band has absorbed the standard historic palette of stylistic tics – that bass, a certain sting and float of synth, omenic vocals be they male or female – and adapted them to their own unique temperament, ensuring a sound specific to that unit but seldom reflective of their own environment. Not so Swampland.
Based just beyond the edges of LA in the working class enclave of Long Beach, the threesome engage in the tropes that surround them, embracing – and embraced by – the mythos birthed and slowly withering in the vast, salted, and barely-still-wild West. As such this astutely named debut, while cannily earning the stripes that land it on this page, isn’t the least shy about incorporating elements derived from the common heritage its creators live and breathe every day, however subconsciously. Hence the here and there presence of desert-echoed acoustic (not least on the gaspingly fine, drought-kissed title track that opens the record like a sun-bleached calling card blowing in through a torn screen door), eerie and plaintive cries of pedal steel (the delicate thump and frontier glint of “Wounded Knee,” thick with broken boomtown imagery; the yearning interlude “What We Used to Be”), the bootspur tap of a tambourine as on “Turning of the Day,” a languorous dusky track that shares a near-identical birthmark with the Northern Arms, as if, for a moment, wordsmith Davey Ferchow (guitarist Craig Cisneroz provides most of the music) and the Arms’ Keith Peirce were subconscious penpals locked inside the same aesthetic cell thousands of mile apart. Put simply, you can hear the sprawl in this record, the fool’s gold whispers of menace and conniving. You can hear heat and desperation and fucked-up self-made heroes acting as if they’re in movies that somehow end up being sunbaked tragedies. It’s all key to conveying The Stranded West as a whole piece of work, with its own living variance of mood. If nothing else – and there is plenty else – Swampland know that the country, the land, is always alive around us and it verges on the pointless for an artist to ignore that fact.
As you’d expect, Gun Club and a SoCal-raised version of Nick Cave come inexorably to mind but such inference points are never in the least slavishly made. Instead come twinges and sparks, flint strikes of impetus, though, that said, it would be a mistake to expect naught but some sort of Zane Grey-goes-Raymond Chandler compulsion. Much here speaks to broader urban influence, starker and darker, as would be expected from young men living on the fringes of a major world metropolis.
The menacing under-thrum of “Path to Purity”‘s first few measures don’t quite prepare for the howl exploding in its chorus; “I’ll Never Know” wears its Western aura with a sharp, serrated knife’s edge, more Wire than Wire Train; the impatient “Sirens Wail” unleashes with a breathless fury, Cisneroz’s guitar a rushing staccato demon and it’s hard to tell which, singer or guitarist, is trying to keep up with the other, while “Barbarous Beat” charges headlong down that imaginary line drawn between Bush Tetras and Mission of Burma. Later there’s the precise savagery of “Axeman of New Orleans,” balancing its black magic madness of lyric on the back of some dancing puppet-string piano, and the punky punch-up of “Graveyard,” its words borrowed from Portland legends Dead Moon and injected with some spidery guitar work and deathless drumming (Cat Party’s Roger Fowler on the album, since replaced by Matt Bean) until it’s fully resurrected and lurching through the headstones anew.
Primarily, however, as proven on the record’s final two tracks – “The Silver Rope,” all lurk and dream-like stalking, and the fluid, cinematic “An Ode to Texas,” aching with a layer of synth strings and quite possibly the band at their most realized – Swampland’s genius lies in the blend. Anger flirts with loneliness, mystery gets bent into routine, villains are saints are villains and good luck sorting that mess out. Small intriguing details find themselves cast on an epic canvas while everywhere the great sweep of life’s universals – death love loss and survival – are threaded like everyday occurrences back into the quotidian. It would seem on The Stranded West that a secret’s been unlocked, that the band have figured out what many before them have hinted at (and again the Gun Club comes to mind), that that legendary laid-back vibe claimed by their fame-soaked environs has long ago been inverted, turned on its blonde head, that in fact the promised land is a fraught, oddly amped-up place that devours souls just as efficiently as anywhere on earth. But still there’s beauty in it, and redemption too, even if it comes with a cost of compromise, sacrifice, humility and pain, all hard truths that The Stranded West speaks to as eloquently as any record I’ve heard in many years. Welcome to the post-punk, dystopian version of Greetings From L.A.