The conventional wisdom about Fucked Up is that they’re not your daddy’s hardcore band. That assessment seems pretty self-evident. After all, the Toronto band released an 18-minute, organ-and-piano-driven single inspired by the Chinese zodiac (“Year of the Pig”) last year. And they regularly collaborate with decidedly non-punk artists, like one-man orchestra Final Fantasy and blog heroes Vivian Girls. Hell, their new album, “The Chemistry of Common Life,” opens with a flute solo and features a minimalist electronic instrumental interlude. “This you call punk? Oy gevalt!” says my fictitious punk-purist dad.
But the world of hardcore has been home to some of rock’s most adventurous music, despite the crimes of the genre’s bastard children, screamo and nü-metal. After all, the genre was created when Bad Brains, originally a Washington, D.C. jazz-funk combo, used their perfectly honed chops to play rock of unprecedented speed and intensity. West Coast punk pioneers Black Flag eventually became an avant-garde metal band. Hüsker Dü explored the textural possibilities of the genre’s sledgehammer-and-chainsaw guitars, and eventually inspired the creation of shoegaze. The D.C. scene, the cradle of hardcore, eventually gave birth to such envelope-pushers as Fugazi and Nation of Ulysses. More recently, L.A. noise experimentalists like Health and No Age have cited hardcore as a major influence. So Fucked Up doesn’t betray its genre; it honors its ancestors in its ambition.
The six-piece does have its own unique spin, of course. No one else in punk, and few in pop music in general, aim for the kind of Wagnerian grandeur that Fucked Up achieves. The improbable string arrangements that appeared on 2006’s “Hidden World” are gone, but the band isn’t finished with non-traditional instrumentation. Instead, they replaced violins with electronics (like on “Golden Seal,” “Crooked Head,” and “Royal Swan”), South Asian percussion (on “Magic Word”) and flute. Cooing choirs of guest vocalists make the music even more epic.
The way the band uses their guitars might actually be the most surprising part of the music on “The Chemistry of Common Life.” They deftly work soaring melodies into their no-holds-barred rave-ups. Guitarists 10,000 Marbles, Gulag and Young Governor (some have suggested that the band members are using pseudonyms) craft a dense, overtone-rich cloud of sound. There are reportedly more than 70 guitar tracks on the album’s first single, “No Epiphany.” Those guitars chime, squeal and roar all at once like Trail of Dead’s, or maybe latter-day Sonic Youth’s. Certainly, there are traditional punk elements, especially the haymaker drums; but until frontman Pink Eyes starts howling like a Balrog with battery acid in its eyes, you might think you’re listening to a particularly adventurous conventional rock band.
Fucked Up need to sound Big, since Pink Eyes aims his screeds at some Big targets. On their last few releases, the group has transitioned from screaming about anarchism and Situationism to decrying organized religion.
“It’s hard enough being born in the first place,” goes the chorus of “Son the Father,” the album’s first track. “Who would ever wanna be born again?”
But Pink Eyes’ lyrics are far more sophisticated that standard issue anti-conformist polemics. On “Twice Born,” he tries to come to terms with living a life without meaning in an indifferent Universe; on “No Epiphany,” he sings the praises of living in a state of uncertainty; and on “Royal Swan,” he finds serenity in suffering. It’s heavy stuff. Shockingly, these sermons don’t come off as laughably pompous. Maybe it works because Pink Eyes is remarkably articulate, and unlike many modern atheists (I’m looking at you, Dawkins) actually acknowledges the profound appeal of faith and considers the philosophical implications of killing God. Or maybe it just works because the music rocks so hard, or because the band wisely includes good old-fashioned punk shout-a-long choruses like this one:
Call: “Hands up if you think you’re the only one denied.”
Response: “We all have our hands up.”
Sometimes the band allows itself to get mystical. They meditate on cycles of birth and death and eternity. The title track, which ends “The Chemistry of Common Life,” tells the story of life on Earth. Fucked Up celebrate the spontaneous emergence of being out of
nothingness, and then cheer decay, chaos and destruction as the forces that pave the way for rebirth. Appropriately, the album is cyclical: the opening chords are recapitulated in the last song just before the music collapses into white noise, out of which emerges the flute theme which opens the album. The symbolism might be blunt, but when was the last time you heard of a punk band using word painting?
I won’t say that “The Chemistry of Common Life” isn’t a tad pretentious. But Fucked Up is right to err on the side of excess. By ignoring the limits of modesty and good taste, they manage to make some beautiful, pulse-pounding, and, above all, surprising noise.