Music Reviews

Popstrangers Antipodes

(Carpark) Buy it from Insound Rating - 8/10

Though I was too young to distinguish the media inflicted rivalry of Britpop and grunge, what fascinated me about both movements was how both could infuse a tuneful pop sensibility with the amplification of an electric guitar. While the withdrawn protagonists of grunge discovered how to shroud melody in scathing dissonance, the ebullient outburst of Britpop featured its hooks front and center, proof of a new generation that had the tenacity to expose their exemplary musical legacy to the world. And yet both dealt with a certain degree of irony, equally reactionary to each other’s stances while defending comparable core values – energy vs. despair, freedom vs. oppression, glistening vs. murky guitar lines, speed vs. coke. And through all of this, the righteous spirit of post-hardcore lay in the underground, its DIY preachers smarter and more cautious, unconcerned about looking artful and comforted in a noisy, cathartic rush.

As the years continue to pass by, so do any preconceived notions about what nineties music meant to those who lived it. Younger bands like Popstrangers, for instance, can take from a myriad of influences and filter out its prejudices. Even the band name, a brilliant one at that, astutely predicates their body of work – a guitar trio that’s unacquainted with pop song forms yet constantly intrudes upon them, embracing off-center melodic hooks that careen wildly over heaps of dissonance. Their debut full-length, Antipodes, can even be interpreted as a dissenting reaction to the expectations of maintaining a structural formalism akin to the sounds of their former label, Flying Nun. They’ve even publicly admitted to not being as well versed about the label’s jangly brethren, even if they understand the privilege of being part of a label that’s almost fraternal in its organization. Popstrangers can’t quite undo the identity stigma that surrounds them, so they might as well carry on with the same abrasive assault found on their debut EP, Happy Accidents.

In theory, Popstrangers run a risk of sounding like an entire block of buzz bin fodder from a 120 Minutes segment rolled into one. Except that they pull from various sources and somehow manage to make them unrecognizable; the mélange of influences so rich and varied – changeable almost by the minute – they constantly keep you guessing. The thick, sinister guitar squall that opens Jane emits a sulfuric scent, reminiscent to one of Martin Carr’s (of Boo Radleys fame) squealing riffs, and charges slowly before it rockets into a pulverizing attack as its varying time signatures intersperse. It then leads into In Some Ways, in which a limber, barely sustained chord leads the way for Joe Flyger’s thinly-pitched snarl to creep into the tight, muscular rhythm section of Adam Page and David Larson. The trio adopts the ominous, textural ambience of pre-Kid A Radiohead except that they constantly bluff with the tempos – whereas Jane & In Some Ways rumble between discord and harmony, Witches Hand does it more overtly by jolting a battering, fifty mile drive before it almost comes into a full stop, its thick bass lines signaling towards a fierce, full-on breakdown that would make Jawbox proud; and then it reveals what really is a false ending before it goes back full circle to the song’s hooky verse. 

Although the onslaught of jagged, sonic textures and odd time signatures prevail throughout the course of Antipodes, it does catch its breath as it enters into the latter half. Following the over-amped, bludgeoning feedback drench of What Else Could They Do comes Cat’s Eyes, which for two minutes maintains a sludgy, mid-tempo path that crosses a curious juxtaposition of metal and prog – without sounding like any of the two – with its prominent chord changes and punk-inflicted nihilism; it’s probably the closest any band has come to mixing Tool and Flipper in the same song. Most of Antipodes emphasizes doom and gloom with a paranoid gaze, constantly verging on the brink of madness with its radiant soft/loud dynamics barely providing a moment of serenity. And in doing so, somehow achieves a balance between catalyzing the calmest of voices with a sort of anthemic antipathy. Popstrangers achieve this dissension beautifully with album highlight Roy Brown, which showcases the dexterous two-man interplay of Flyger’s fuzzy, proggy interludes and Page’s acute bass lines. Only the track Heaven manages to trump the weighty build of Antipodes - a psych-pop track with an alluring, playful chorus worthy of the Happy Mondays - which is great in its own right but breaks the album’s overall cohesiveness; it seems to pinpoint at a possible new direction for the band instead of enforcing the rest of the album, and it shouldn’t come as a surprise that it was one of the last tracks they wrote for the album that made the cut.

Antipodes is that rare record that looks at the demise of grunge/post-hardcore as a popular medium while glorifying its dying days, an unfortunate fate brought upon them before big labels turned their attention towards pop rock earnestness. And yes, it also hones at some light Britpop sensibilities, but Popstrangers make sure to seamlessly embed both, instead of designating them as separate entities, in a way that comes across as natural when it should feel alien to them. That Popstrangers felt inspired to emulate a sound that, at that point, was at the brink of extinction and make it relevant only reinforces its potential appeal for a newer generation. There’s a reason why bands seldom make records like these anymore, whether it’s due to a fear of sounding dated or not being able to apply themselves with as much proficiency. It fiercely captures the ambivalent temperament of a tightly knit band whose semi-abstract lyrical quips and almost-stifling transitions augment a baleful mood as a way to release tension. The grunge youth may have outgrown that phase by becoming complacent, middle-class professionals with nice cars, but since everything is cyclical in life, now is the turn for bands like Popstrangers to remind us that there's still a lot to get angry about.