Monday, May 23, 2016

album review: 'paradise' by white lung

So I don't review a lot of punk.

I mean, I will on occasion - if there's something really jumps out at me with sharp hooks or particularly nuanced lyrics, I'll get all over it - but I think it's fair to say that of the punk scene that's left, there's not a lot that really works for me. And it's not saying I dislike the genre or don't have my own personal favourites from both the 70s and 90s waves - I certainly do. But maybe it's just a factor of overexposure and looking for acts that are saying and doing something a little different - punk by definition went back to the basics, and when you have nearly forty years of the 'basics', you need to do something to stand out.

As such, I've been a little reticent to talk about White Lung, a Canadian punk act from Vancouver known for blisteringly fast hardcore riffing and frontwoman Mish Way's raw, explosively feminist lyrics. Up till now they've released three records that might generously have just over an hour of material, but they've managed to capture a lot of potent content that updates the riot grrl ethos for the modern era. And while I won't always say I loved their albums - I'm not the biggest hardcore fan - I've liked what I've heard in terms of their progression, towards a fuller sound and stronger hooks, and the lyrics have always been well-framed as well as explosively raw in a Perfect Pussy sort of way.

So I was definitely curious to check out their newest album Paradise, which wasn't just their longest album to date - nearly a half hour! - but also featured new production from Lars Stalfors, most well-known for his association with The Mars Volta, the Cold War Kids, and - sigh - Matt And Kim. At the very least this promised to be a prettier affair than previous records, but if that meant a shift towards more defined melodic hooks, that could be a really good thing, at least for me. So I picked up Paradise - what did I find?

This album is designed to piss people off. And no, I'm not just talking about the change in sound, but in content. Where White Lung's previous records had a strong riot grrl feminist undertone, this record takes many of the underlying ideas and pushes them into uncomfortable extremes that seem designed to piss off feminists and everyone else... all against their prettiest production yet. And yet there's a part of me that kind of really likes this album, the sort of naked transgressive art that can actually land impact and is smart enough to ask well-framed but difficult questions. In other words, I'm a little surprised there haven't been more thinkpieces on this record beyond the critical acclaim, because this is a record that deserves a lot of discussion beyond just being one of the band's catchiest and most diverse collections of songs to date.

So let's start off with the element that will piss off punks the most right out of the gate: the evolution in sound. Already there have been fans who have turned on this album saying it's way too 'pop'... and yeah, I can see some of that. The riffing is slower, the guitar leads are brighter courtesy of the thicker effects, frontwoman Mish Way is singing in a husky Courtney Love-esque voice that's multi-tracked more heavily with a stronger emphasis on hooks... but let's get real here, this is still a lot heavier than even the pop punk and emo of the mid-2000s. And for that you need to thank two people, drummer Anne Marie Vassiliou who brings some borderline blast-beat drumming to keep up the momentum, and guitarist Kenneth William, who brings some of the most riotous but tightly written and melodic guitar work White Lung has ever had. The hooks have only gotten better since Deep Fantasy, and the wide array of guitar tones and playing gives this album a lot of colour, including some tremolo that wouldn't be out of place on a more atmospheric black metal record! And this record can maintain that layered atmosphere for some killer tracks, even if i do feel some of the transitions between the chunkier, metalcore-esque riffing and the brighter tones don't always click, with probably the biggest example being the choppy track 'Vegas'. And even there I'm not so much faulting the composition so much as the production, as there are definitely some tones that feel too thin, namely that very shrill wheedling piece on the solo of 'Kiss Me When I Bleed' or 'I  Beg You'. And hell, if you like the nastier, more hardcore side of White Lung, you do get tracks in that vein, like the more jagged riffs of the title track or the more compressed side of 'Demented'. But on the flip side, I actually liked both 'Hungry' and 'Below' - yeah, they definitely wouldn't feel out of place on rock radio in 2006, but the tremolo riffing balances out against the thicker drums and wiry bass is a great fit, and there is bite to these tracks. Hell, go to tracks like 'Narcoleptic' and 'Dead Weight' and 'Sister' - the riffs are there, but there's melody that can complement the frenetic energy and it actually sticks in the brain. 

And a big part of this is Mish Way's vocals, where the multi-tracking has been cranked up significantly so she has a much more prominent presence, even if she's not screaming like she's done in the past. And you know, not coming from a hardcore background, I don't mind her choice to go for a more melodic sound - it's still vicious and raw, just not quite as in your face and, yes, a little prettier. And while everyone and their mother can make the Hole comparison, I'd argue it's a comparison that actually underscores the album's themes. But before we get to that, one thing I want to mention that's relevant here is Mish Way's peculiar admiration for Lana Del Rey. Now you all know my opinion about Lana Del Rey having covered two of her mediocre records with Ultraviolence and Honeymoon, and you think that Mish Way having written the sort of firebrand feminist punk records that she'd take issue with her - and on some level, she does.

But I bring this up because on a thematic level, this record has a surprising amount in common with Lana Del Rey's work, in that it focuses on women and feminists who judge other women, placing their own context on female worth. And I'd say Mish Way goes even further than most of Lana Del Rey's submissive transgression - songs like 'Demented' and 'Sister' places her in the mind of female serial killers like Rosemary West and Karla Homulka, digging into why they helped their husbands rape and murder. And it goes beyond that: all throughout this record there are examples of women turning on women in judgement, like on 'Kiss Me When I Bleed' where Mish Way walks through a riches-to-rags story in vivid detail, or on 'Vegas' where it seems like a party of women turn on one of their beautiful friends to beat and rob her, or on 'Narcoleptic', which could very well be an impressionist mess but still has notes of imbibing toxins and casting aside an elitist community who would thrash her for charting her own path outside of their ideals. And that community could very well be punks judging this record for betraying the 'sound' or feminists who are scandalized by the extreme content, but Mish Way also takes time to highlight other places where the judgement comes: the woman who had a miscarriage on 'Dead Weight' and is scared to have sex and get pregnant again, pissed off with the pity; or on 'Below', highlighting how female beauty does have value, and there's a certain tragedy in its loss; or on 'Hungry', a song delving into the self-consuming nature of the thirst for fame. And throughout every single one of these songs, you get the feeling that Mish Way is turning to the audience with a sneer that says, 'Judge me, I dare you'. 

Now on some level, that's transgressive and punk as hell, and it's also very reminiscent of Courtney Love and Lana Del Rey - but the big difference comes in the framing. What's always pissed me off about Lana Del Rey is that despite the melodrama of her writing, she tries to frame many of these songs as romantic and dramatic, or at least doesn't tilt towards the soap opera bombast that could make the transgressive nature tolerable on a heightened emotional level. But while much of Paradise falls straight into melodrama, even despite the prettier guitar work Mish Way doesn't shy away from framing these songs with ugly, rough-edged tones that show self-awareness - she's not asking for sympathy so much as she's provoking the reaction. And believe me, I've got no problem with her stripping the moralistic, self-flagellating judgement out of modern feminist discourse - hell, often times movements like feminism can feel like their own worst enemies. But where I think this record might stumble a bit is in the end goal. The album ends with the title track and her taking off with her husband to ride into the sunset and have sex, and there is a certain poignancy in that sort of ending... but compared to some of the more graphic scenes on this record, it can feel a little slight. 

But despite that, I really like this record. The hooks are better than ever, the guitarwork is awesome, and I really admire the courage to take an incisive and critical look at modern feminist discourse and push it into some uncomfortable but necessary territory. As I said, this is a record that should inspire some fearsome debate, but at the end of the day the music is strong enough to hold up regardless. For me, a light 8/10 and definitely a recommendation, although I will say if you fall towards the more socially aware side of the internet, this record will get under your skin - and it should. Outside of that, if you've been waiting for White Lung to make a more accessible record outside of their hardcore material, this is definitely what you're looking for, so check it out!

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