Perfectly encapsulates the band’s entire discography, blending seamlessly its punk and ska vigor with psychedelic and mathematical musicianship.
The title of RX Bandits’ third album—Progress—essentially defines the band’s trajectory. Once a punk ska band riding the third wave of the ska revival in the late ‘90s alongside bands like Reel Big Fish, the band progressed with each subsequent record toward becoming a psychedelic prog-rock band, with any bit of ska upstrokes and horn accents almost completely absent on their final two records (Mandala (2009) and Gemini, Her Majesty (2014)). Their fifth full-length, …And the Battle Begun, sits near the tail-end of this progression, but is the last album in which the Californian group still retains ska and reggae values underneath their increasingly complicated musicality. Upping the ante lyrically as well, singer Matt Embree matches the band’s growing musical energies on the album by castigating dominant ideological regimes. A tour de force melding the band’s former ska and punk urgency with a Mars Volta-like psychedelic dexterity, …And the Battle Begun delights in anarchic potential, waging a war on capitalist ideology in order to find something real in the world.
Although the band’s fourth album, The Resignation, with songs like “Dinna-Dawg” and “Decrescendo,” prepared for the prog-rock breakthroughs of their later work, most devotees of the RX Bandits were surprised by how quickly the group made the full jump into psychedelic prog on …And the Battle Begun. Its odd time signatures, sharp dynamics and rhythmic innovations cultivated a new sonic space for the dancey horns and groovy guitar chords to explore.
The most important element driving this quick transformation was drummer Chris Tsagakis’ bombastic power and creativity. Although he had always been a stellar drummer, the band finally loosened his leash on this album. For example, his snare and hi-hat heavy introduction to “In Her Drawer” plies so many stuttering ghost notes into the beat that it sounds like two drummers at once—one heavily enmeshed in the world of jazz and funk, and the other unrelentingly bearing the energy of punk. His odd-time syncopation on “Tainted Wheat” reveals his hardcore chops, and his around-the-kit transitions in “To Our Unborn Daughters” are head-scratchingly imaginative.
Reacting as if they had been issued a challenge, the rest of the band matches Tsagakis’ rhythmic prowess. Steve Choi and Matt Embree volley spiraling guitar-lines against each other at the beginning of “1980,” before stopping on a dime to change gears into bouncy ska rhythms. Their guitars on “One Million Miles an Hour, Fast Asleep” jag aggressively, sounding almost like a hardcore version of the Mars Volta, before falling into a psychedelic ska saunter by the song’s end. Playing off each other, Chris Sheets and Steven Borth II careen their horns throughout the album, providing brassy textures to the band’s more technical aspects, such as transforming the bridge section of “Epoxi-Lips” into a kind of trippy acid jazz.
Mathematical yet groovy, all of this prog experimentation works to highlight the unique texture of Matt Embree’s powerful vocals and to push the songs’ ska and reggae foundations into different territories. Although Embree sings with the energy of punk singer, he sounds as though he developed his voice cutting his teeth on classic soul records by Sam Cooke and Marvin Gaye. His range and flair for soul is most affecting on the hauntingly seductive reggae tune, “Apparition,” but is perhaps most impressive when juxtaposed with the more aggressive moments on the record, such as when he jumps between a crooning falsetto and a guttural howl on the dense but funky prog jam, “A Mouth Full of Hollow Threats.”
Lyrically, Embree searches for human connection and meaning in a world conditioned by capitalist ideology. He deplores the interpellative power of capitalism on “Tainted Wheat,” outlining the steps and consequences of becoming indoctrinated by ideology, while he questions what is “real” beyond such indoctrination on “One Million Miles an Hour, Fast Asleep.” The album is populated with people who place a blind faith in technology and who are addicted prescription pills, thinking that those are avenues toward feeling something, anything, in the face of capitalist alienation. Embree pulls the curtain to reveal such facades.
Even more, anarchic images of political overthrow crystallize into moments of poignant intimacy, such as when Embree re-envisions destruction as something beautiful on the eponymous track: “So if love is true, let’s burn the factory/ Take off your shoes babe, it’s time for dancing.”
Although some of the lyrics veer into overwritten and heavily romanticized notions of anarchic freedom, Embree remains an astute observer of the world, his lyrics accruing even further meaning at our current political juncture. For example, it’s hard not to hear the resonance between the opening lines of “A Mouth Full of Hollow Threats” and Donald Trump: “Hey you with all your secrets, the story has just begun/ We see right through your scare tactics/ And your feeble attempts at diversion.” The album as a whole, with its efforts of finding meaning through resistance, certainly retains its critical purchase today.
After …And the Battle Begun, the band released two more albums before calling it quits—Mandala, a heavy prog-rock record, and Gemini, Her Majesty, an album that simplified its approach to be more hook-oriented. Both records, however, were without their horn section, and as a result, lost much of the band’s earlier ska flavor. Embree, Tsagakis, and former member Rich Balling also worked on the third album of their avant-garde side project, The Sound of Animals Fighting, a band that also includes Anthony Green of Circa Survive and Saosin.
Even though the band progressed into more technical music before breaking up, …And the Battle Begun represents a critical nexus point for the band: it was the last record that still held their former ska and reggae foundations. Altogether, the album is a triumph that perfectly encapsulates the band’s entire discography, blending seamlessly its punk and ska vigor with psychedelic and mathematical musicianship.