Passion is a weapon

June 14, 2011

Alexander Billet reviews a standout album from punks Prayers for Atheists.

PASSION IS a fashion. So read the jacket of Joe Strummer from the Clash, back in punk's early days. It was a declaration that in a sea of apathy, giving a damn was a radical act.

It's an outlook often admired yet seldom duplicated in recent years, when many indie groups try so hard to be above it all. And even with groups like Rise Against and Strike Anywhere having come to relative prominence, punk's mainstream remains dominated by sophomoric poseurism. Few acts aspire to Strummer's mantra, and even fewer manage to pull it off in style.

The sands are shifting, though. Sooner or later in post-neoliberal America, most artists won't have a choice but to take a stand. Propagandhi, Against Me! and others like them have certainly paved the way, but really the future rests with acts like Prayers for Atheists. And that's a good thing.

Prayers for Atheists could quite easily rest on their laurels. Vocalist Jared Paul has been friends with underground hip-hop mainstay Sage Francis since middle school (it's Paul that Francis is speaking to on the phone during the intro of "Makeshift Patriot"). Certainly, PfA might stick out a bit on Francis' primarily hip-hop-oriented Strange Famous Records, but it wouldn't be difficult for them to ride out a decent existence content being in the shadow of their contemporary. Instead, with a solid profile developed with Francis' help, they've struck out on their own for their second album New Hymns for an Old War.

Prayers for Atheists
Prayers for Atheists

All the earmarks of a damn good hardcore punk album are there: the tense drumbeats, the dissonant vibrato guitars, the screaming gang vocals. But with such an epic title, it's easy to ask what this "old war" is (even easier still with the operations in Afghanistan now the longest war in U.S. history). The answer is more thoroughly provided just by looking at the song titles: "Bouncers and Cops," "Keep Left," "U.S. Out of the Amazon."

Guitarist Alan Hague and vocalist Paul are the primary songwriting team for PfA, and both have a long history of radical organizing in their native Providence, R.I., and beyond. Back in 2008, Paul was among the 800 protesters arrested by overzealous cops at the Republican Convention in Minnesota. "Hope City Skyline," off New Hymns, name-drops a litany of social justice groups: "Jobs With Justice, Youth In Action, End the Siege, SDS...ISO, Food Not Bombs, 2:1, Marriage Rights, WIL, IWW, What Cheer? Mobilize..."

TAKEN AS a whole, this is an album of good, solid, politically charged punk rock. What is it, then, that separates this from all the other countless albums fitting that description over the past 30-plus years?

In a word, timing--specifically, the return not only of class to the American landscape, but class war. For the past three decades, the punk scene has put itself in opposition when few others would. Amid historic declines in strikes and union power, fightback was certainly a necessary thing, just not a workers' thing.

Not anymore, and certainly not for Prayers for Atheists. The events of the past year have been enough to turn plenty of cynics into believers. In the public mind, "workers" are no longer just a collection of beer-bellied, white men with NRA cards. They're the kids who rushed the Wisconsin State Capitol, the Jimmy John's delivery bikers trying to unionize, the dockers in the Bay Area who refused to unload Israeli goods.

It's here, at the present intersection between a hidden militant past and potentially radical future, that PfA's passion comes in. Lead single "Guns Up" centers the whole album. Clocking in just under three minutes, veering between fast-paced mania and unrelenting stutter-step, its lyrics pull on imagery of foreclosed farms and homes, while linking it back to a very real history of struggle--in particular, the "Bloody Harlan" miners strikes of the 1970s:

Drivers headed for the docks
Caught between the road and clock
Miners up against the boss
Black lungs pumping in the dark...

Like villagers against the tanks
From Gaza City to West Bank
Can't always bleed, one day we'll win
New hymns for an old war, sing!"

"Have heart, friends," they tell us in the chorus, and there's no doubt that there's a lot of that on New Hymns For an Old War. Listening here, one would think that despair is for poseurs, and that's a rather refreshing concept. Even with defeat so palpable amid so much volatility, it's also hard to not feel a real sense of hope and belief. At its core, even at its most sneering, it's something that punk always seemed to paw at. Over the past 30 years, it's seemed little more than a spark, however.

But the music of New Hymns also seems to know that there are plenty of other times when that's been the case. "May 1st, 1886," one of the final songs off the album, is an homage to the early days of American class struggle wrapped in a kind of rattle-and-rolling testimonial. In fact, so well are the lyrics woven with the song that it was only after several listens that I realized they actually are a testimonial; specifically, that of Haymarket martyr August Spies:

The time will come when our silence
Is stronger than the voices you strangle today
The cause of my alleged crime
It is your history!

Truer words couldn't be spoken by any of today's "criminals." And it's worth remembering how many of these crimes have been leveled against some of the best artistic rebels. Seems that passion is, oftentimes, illegal. If that's true then it can only be seen as a weapon--one that's well-wielded here.

There's something profound about making such a successful hardcore album that consciously reaches back over 125 years. If it all resonates so well--and it obviously does--then it must mean there's something indelible in its content.

Perhaps it shows that punk rock, having been twisted around and declared dead so many times over the decades, may actually have its best years ahead. Or maybe it shows that its very seed--rebellion, distrust of authority and a profound intolerance for hypocrisy--are actually sown much deeper in our cultural soil. History may go in circles, but that doesn't mean it can't also be smashed to smithereens.

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