opinion by SAMUEL TOLZMANN < @scatlint >
When Vancouver’s White Lung made a big splash with 2010 debut It’s The Evil, they’d already been working hard for four years–current guitarist Kenneth William joining founding members Mish Way (vocals) and Anne-Marie Vassiliou (drums) in 2008–this explains how it came to be that on their debut album, White Lung sounded so evolved. They were already making music that, though easily chalked up as post-hardcore punk, was remarkably, gratifyingly challenging and imaginative. Their songs, which only pass the two-minute mark when they’re careening so wildly the band can’t quite grind to a proper halt in time, can come off as dense and monolithic, but listen closer: White Lung aren’t just jackhammering chords into your skull. There’s a lot more going on – it’s just that these songs are so loud and fast that their mind-boggling complexities are compressed into a blur as they rush by. This gives White Lung a jittery, panicked edge that is unique: it sounds like the fire of long-suppressed energy and emotion bursting forth, but still bears the scars from the traumatic time before the music started up, when it was still contained under unbearable pressure. This band has always sounded wonderfully immediate, but they’ve never sounded temporary. There has always been a sense of history (personal or societal) woven into the sonic texture of their work, and that history has always been weighted, fraught, ugly.
Third LP Deep Fantasy finds Way, William, Vassiliou, and new bassist Hether Fortune (of Wax Idols) homing in on those qualities that make their work so fresh and special. “Punk” is the word for the subculture the band came up in, but as stylistic descriptions, it and “hardcore” and “post-hardcore” and “post-riotgrrrl” fall far short. This record’s deepest sonic debts lie elsewhere. Certainly they lie with metal – the blasted, frenetic world of black metal to some degree, but mostly ostentatious offshoots like power-metal, early metalcore, the classic ‘80s heavy stuff (Way’s recent references to Girlschool in an interview with Pitchfork fit just right). These associations are mostly William’s doing – more on that in a minute – but even more striking are the freshly unearthed links to early-aughts pop-punk and a noble lineage of female-fronted grunge acts (Hole, Babes In Toyland, L7), links that highlight White Lung’s many simultaneous commitments: to an uncompromising palette of sounds, to a pop sensibility, to keeping their influences alive by combining them in new ways, and to using the relatively accessible platform they’ve built for themselves to circulate important information. I’m not saying that White Lung are likely to be massively successful; their blinding ferocity probably precludes that possibility before you even get down to their unapologetic politics. It’s just that they clearly recognize the benefits of certain conventions like a catchy melody, a memorable guitar lick, a discernable structure, or a resonant lyric. They want their music to do more than just hit you hard in the face like a sack of concrete blocks, though of course they manage that with aplomb.
To those ends, then, Deep Fantasy is an exceptionally produced collection – really, it’s probably the finest recording job you’ll hear on a rock album this year. The worst thing I could say about It’s The Evil and Sorry is that White Lung’s predilection for compression sometimes skewed those records flat and blunt. Deep Fantasy is incisive and immersive. It has real depth and space, even color: it’s filled with exquisite little turns, playful flashes of sound-for-sound’s-sake brilliance. To take but one example, there’s highlight “Snake Jaw.” I wrote about this song earlier this year, but I’d like to highlight once again the sparkling guitar that opens it, how that tone resurfaces at 1:56 in a spine-tingling rush of reverb that could rightfully be called “gorgeous.” White Lung never let such moments linger, always allowing them to be sucked back into the torrid mix. They force you to appreciate the fleeting things. With every pass, you’ll hear some new detail you wish you could stay and marvel over, but alas, the tide of the music will already have whisked you away before you even realize you had liked what you had just been hearing.
What a pleasure to hear a band who divvy up responsibility so equally, whose members all pull their weight all of the time! Mish Way gets the brunt of the attention, which makes some sense. After all, she’s amazingly charismatic, she’s insightful (her CV includes several clever, thoughtful, sexually frank pieces of nonfiction published around the internet that you should read after this). And she’s extremely loud – her notion of singing is about 90% rotten attitude and 10% pitch, and involves mostly other vocal functions like screaming, barking, roaring, growling, bellowing, moaning, shrieking, squealing, snarling, yelling, hollering, and hissing. However, though Way is the ostensible frontwoman for the band, the one who handles the press and sits in the center for the photo shoots, on the record White Lung sound like a democracy. Or perhaps anarchy.
Let’s talk about the formidable Kenneth William, who’s one of the best things to happen to six strings since Marnie Stern. He’s playing what amounts to sped-up shred metal here, employing incredible agility in order to cram as many individual riffs into a 90-second track as possible. Slowed down, his contributions to Deep Fantasy could probably provide a lesser band with several albums’ worth of guitar lines. His melodies come very fast and very furious, zig-zagging maniacally, getting tangled up in knots, and finally detaching from the songs and shooting off into the negative space, the sound of burned energy rendered in soundwaves. The way he can downshift from metallic squiggles to a crunchy grunge growl and back again, flitting between several active textures multiple times per minute and maybe tossing in a mini-solo for kicks…it’s breathtaking, superficially hysterical but in fact tightly controlled. Then there’s Vassiliou, whose role is a lot less glamorous but who sounds equally like someone you wouldn’t want to cross. Holding down the rhythm section with White Lung rookie Fortune, her taut but not brittle playing may constitute the anchor of the band, but it doesn’t sound any tamer than what William and Way are doing. When the guitars and drums both cut loose, the effect is bulldozing.
It’s all for naught without Way, and in particular her lyrics, which are the real heart and soul of White Lung’s music. Her words are the catalyst, the focus, the means by which all this sonic frenzy acquires thematic momentum, purpose and direction. Whether she’s tackling depression (“Drown With The Monster”), negative body image (“Snake Jaw”), hypocrisy (“Face Down”), the basic unfairness of power distribution (“Lucky One”), or sexual assault (“I Believe You”), Way’s words and the conviction with which she spits them bring an intense emotional and political charge to the music that make it difficult to bear and even harder to turn away from. It’s immensely satisfying, though, to see them hit their targets every time.
In heavy music, whether we’re talking one of the dozens of subcategories of punk rock or one of the dozens of subcategories of metal, music-making often serves a solipsistic, aestheticist purpose. This music tends toward despair, so it is, very often, nihilist anguish made external for no other reason than the modicum of moral value attached to expression. I don’t necessarily mean that derisively, but the most exciting thing about White Lung is that they’re so palpably livid, yet that anger doesn’t feel like it’s just being released malevolently into the general cultural air for the sake of itself. Punk is a genre of rock with its own shitty (and, yes, often misogynistic) purist police, unfortunately, but it’s irrelevant whether White Lung pass the Punk Litmus Test. Just take one listen to “I Believe You.” It’s about rape, and there is no disguising that. It roils with fury for the action and a culture that enables and permits it. The title, though, is “I Believe You.” The closing mantra is “You don’t take me, you don’t make me.” Way and her bandmates comfort the song’s addressee, they validate her experience. They express solidarity, they empathize, and they empower.
What they don’t do is whine, dismiss, shake their fists, make the song about themselves, change the subject, or pull punches. They come off as deeply bitter and wounded but genuinely optimistic. They sound like they believe that if they make enough noise, if they articulate the sheer force of their malcontent accurately and acutely enough, they might provoke a positive reaction. White Lung are not interested in making your life any more pleasant, comfortable, or fun, but they really seem to care about the notion that Deep Fantasy might make your life better. How punk is that? A-
tags / Featured, Samuel Tolzmann, White Lung, White Lung Deep Fantasy
author / Pretty Much Amazing