The Chemistry of Common Life
Label: Matador Records
I didn’t know much about Fucked Up before hearing their new album, The Chemistry of Common Life, but I had heard them described as “post-hardcore.” I don’t really know what that is, but in the hardcore scene in which I grew up, the bands to be taken seriously had names that fit a very narrow formula: three-word names with the second word usually a preposition (typically “of,” as in Voice of Reason). No definite article at the beginning — as in, just Gorilla Biscuits, not “the” Gorilla Biscuits. Agnostic Front, not “the” Agnostic Front.
The band names generally came off as mission statements, typically self-serious statements of strength and positivity, with a touch of menace. A few more examples — Chain of Strength, Side By Side, Dare to Defy, Flag of Democracy. Sometimes they’d add a fourth word, like Sick of It All. Other times they’d shorten it to two, such as Up Front and Hard Stance (which was, incidentally, Zack de la Rocha’s first band, but more on him later).
So why, you ask, have I spent 172 words harping on this topic? What, as it were, is in a name? In the case of Fucked Up, for me at least, the name is a defiance of expectations, a defiance of formula, and yet, at the same time, on a more subversive level than I’m accustomed to, it’s a statement of purpose as bold and clear as the ones thrown down by those regional hardcore bands of yore.
Normally, bands with names like Fuck Buttons and The Fucking Champs and The Fucking Am come off as seeking attention in the wrong kinds of ways, trying to grab you by the groin with style and flash and not have much substance to back it up. Fucked Up come awash in substance, so much so that it’s taken 20 listens to unravel their musical and lyrical nuances. The Toronto outfit follows in the spiritual-hardcore lineage that started with Bad Brains and the Cro-Mags and continued into the ’90s with Hare Krishna acts such as Shelter, 108 and another de la Rocha band, Inside Out. Lyrically, the band tackles themes of faith and organized religion, with heavy titles like “Days of Last,” “No Epiphany,” “Twice Born” and “Looking for God.” On the opener, “Son the Father,” frontman Pink Eyes roars the chorus “It’s hard enough being born in the first place / Who would ever want to be born again?”
Fucked Up conveys all the intensity, aggression and grinding power of the late ’80s/early ’90s New York hardcore scene, yet somehow the band manages to build on that sound without watering down, transforming what were traditionally yelping nuggets into soaring epics. I can scarcely recall a true, compelling hardcore album with so many songs clocking in at five minutes or more, yet somehow Fucked Up pulls it off. Additional bells and whistles like the opening flute at the beginning of “Son the Father” and the Vivian Girls singing backup on several tracks add a tremendous amount of texture, still without compromising the sound’s ferocity. In fact, those additions build the intensity by making the higher-octane guitar and vocal bursts all the more dramatic.
By far the standout track is “Black Albino Bones,” which comes barreling out of the gate and never lets up, complete with a sing-song chorus that would make it a good fit for a Gorilla Biscuits record if it didn’t sound so goddamn scary. Pure adrenaline rolled up into a three-minutes-and-change explosion in the middle of an already explosive album.
Perhaps the most thrilling thing about The Chemistry of Common Life, whose title track closes the album symmetrically with a gripping guitar hook that mirrors the flute line from the very beginning, is its sheer abundance. Most of its forebears made one or two records, each rarely more than 15 minutes long. Perhaps its closest kin is the aforementioned de la Rocha outfit Inside Out, whose sole EP, No Spiritual Surrender, addressed many of the same growling religious themes; that EP, however, is a mere 15 minutes long, and has left its fans hungering for more for the 18 years since its release. That long-awaited second helping has finally arrived, and clocking in at more than 52 minutes, it seems Fucked Up have figured out how to take a great idea that’s been languishing for a long time, and revitalize it with a vengeance.
by Jake Stuiver