The freshest pop music happening in the world is called All Tomorrow’s Parties.
It just went down in Camber Sands, south England. Its special feature is that a selected band or artist is bestowed with the curator responsibility for the comprehensive event. This means that through the entire composition, notwithstanding great diversity, runs a connecting thread; the agenda and taste, or even vision, of the selected artist(s).
This year the curators were the incomparable The Mars Volta, “vanguarders” of pop culture. One of the bands they had chosen (few, if any, would turn an offer down, bear that in mind) was Norwegian punk rockers JR Ewing.
Their latest record hit the streets in Norway May 23rd, and now “Maelstrom” has just been released across Europe.
Maelstrom, just saying it out loud feels like stirring that which is better left alone. As if uttering the word is a breech of some age-old agreement not to invoke this phenomenon, more ominous than any other, the image of a whirling cataract to hell….
When a certain breed of metal bands use words like these no notice need be paid, for it is all they do, incessantly watering out the omniousness they are struggling so hard to signify.
But when a band as far removed from this aesthetic as conceivable, a burning-rubber hardcore punk band that has chosen the glitzy smile of fictitious oil man JR Ewing as emblazonment, -when such a band decides to call their latest album Maelstrom, the effect is different: the gesture towards the ominous does indeed create a shiver of expectation.
This expectation, the curiosity awakened and the desire to be engulfed in the roar, is magnified by learning the story behind the record, that it is in fact the band’s very own maelstrom that has been transformed into music; the accumulated cry of their darkest year:
The hardcore punksters JR Ewing have been around for a while. Reputed as some of the edgier creatures of the underground, their renown and following had been steadily rising for some time when they released “Ride Paranoia” in 2003. This record catapulted them to the apex of the underground, if there is such a thing, almost overnight. Domestic and international reviews unhesitatingly called them the epitome of punk rock, and “Ride” became an example of the complexity and magnitude that hardcore can in fact entail when mastered, and not just screamed.
Evidence of the band’s international stature was the European release of “Ride Paranoia” on “The Mars Volta’s” prestigious Gold Standard Laboratories (GSL) label.
And so, two years ago, the band was in the position to cash in on their efforts and ride the wave they had created. And they did engage in some pretty hefty live activity –proving without failure to be a smash on stage, managing over and over to reach their utmost, and ownmost- but the swift new release that would have cemented their position did not appear.
For rather than reaping the attention “Ride” won them, JR Ewing withdrew, set on taking the time required to not simply reissue themselves as hitherto known, but to push forward and expand the whole musical genre.
Thus the band willingly, at least partly so, descended again to the underground, and to the conditions that define that artistic strata.
Their finances were a dread and the band was without any proper backing of any sort. No strategy was in mind for the new record for there was no money. But they did labour mercilessly with the music, and continued to blast away at audiences. This period was also one of personal and emotional ordeals for the band. The year 2004 held for them a series of setbacks and sorrows in all respects. Added to the self- inflicted meagreness of their situation, the year became a dark turmoil.
So when JR Ewing finally went to the studio to record, what was laid down was the entirety of all these impressions, expressed in music they had laboured hard to develop.
The result was Maelstrom.
And it is all that the name promises: A hugely ambitious album. Not only is it saturated with the gloom and desperate uncertainty the period of its conception was drenched in, but the music the band came up with has all of the properties of the maelstrom: roaring power, complexity, capriciousness and, most of all, engulfing mass.
The songs are momentous and often intricate, with many layers and aspects, some veiled at first. The riffs are unheard, the melody crafted, and often obvious earworms are subdued only to emerge insipidly, and therefore lastingly. Thus it is a complex and challenging album, songs that never make it easy for themselves, which is exactly what the whole record signifies for the band.
“This is the shape of punk to come” exclaimed a foreign critic, and what better way of saying that JR Ewing have achieved what they set out to do, to transcend the underground, and the limits of punk; to break these delimitations but retain the essence of the sub terrain.
The departure from the underground is also true in the sense that Maelstrom was picked up by a major label in the mixing process. And this was perhaps the only way it could have become what it did, for the cliché holds true: there is no way this record could ever come from an initial privileged situation of major-label backing.
It is also true however, that the influx of resources in the final stages lifted the record from the seething and grand, to the gigantic, i.e. to the Maelstrom
Another description of the oeuvre is Kerrang magazine’s, calling it: “ boundary-punishing explosive post hardcore from Oslo”.
The meaning in that word-volley is precisely that JR Ewing have redefined their genre. They have infused it with sophistication, innovation -not least in terms of melody- and magnitude; allowing this hitherto lean expression to become a place for ambition and perhaps even awe. Yet the energy is intact and it just might be that punk’s precious “explosion” actually has been up-scaled with the advent of proper, clear sound, because this is not a vortex of undefined airwaves, it is a maelstrom of churning, gleaming musical fibre.
JR Ewing live is a phenomenon that has surpassed its own standard; even seasoned audiences seem to ignite as for the first time when this juggernaut hits the stage.
It is without a doubt the best exercise many a fan will ever have.
And now the juggernaut hits Europe. How big “boundary-pushing explosive post punk” can ever become remains to be seen, but it is a fair bet that this angry phoenix from Norway will soon give us an indication. sd
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