(G7 Welcoming Committee/Smallman; 2009)
By Christopher Alexander | 27 July 2009
Winnipeg’s Propagandhi spent the nineties as an enjoyable, funnier-than-average anarcho skatebrat punk band. The song titles told the whole story: “Stick the Fucking Flag up Your God Damn Ass, you Skinhead Creep”; “Jesus Saves, Gretsky Scores”; “Nailing Descartes to a Wall.” While the band was more able than most found on Fat Wreck Chords—the California-based label who functioned then (and now) as a sort of charm school for the annual Warped Tour—they still happily sacrificed tunes for polemics and a good yuk. Bassist John K. Samson tried out some of his more introspective material with the band, but, as evidenced on their panting, monochromatic take of “Anchorless,” it was a bad fit. Samson left and founded the Weakerthans, which would make some great folk-influenced melodic rock albums (and, um, Reunion Tour ). Guitarist/singer Chris Hannah responded by recruiting hoarse thrashmeister Todd Kowalski and, to everyone’s surprise, made Today’s Empire, Tomorrow’s Ashes (2001), which flew like a skateboard deck festooned with Iron Maiden and Negative Approach stickers but was also mature, thoughtful, and brutally funny. Rather than abandon ideas that many perceived as childish—metal, hockey jokes, anarchist politics, veganism—Propagandhi grew up by sharpening these ideas, giving them a shape and contour until their sound was indomitable and personable.
But even Today’s Empire had nothing on the quantum leap of 2005 release Potemkin City Limits, an album whose sole flaw was opener “A Speculative Fiction.” The song was so indescribably brilliant that the rest of the record struggled to keep up its momentum, in spite of very credible attempts like “Fedeallah’s Hearse,” and the one-two punch of “Die Jugen Marchiert” and “Rock for Sustainable Capitalism.” Despite a quiet, pensive opening, the arrangement called for non-stop thrash riffing, each segment raising the ante, even over four minutes long. Best of all was Hannah’s singing. His lyrics always more closely resembled essays sung in rhythm, and while “Fiction” was no different, you would never notice it without reading along. What the listener got instead of a quite funny fantasy of a Canadian war with America (“Your stupid fucking lazer-pucks were just the start!”; “The battle of 1812 lives in our hearts!”) was a vocalist singing as if his life depended on it. It deserved its SOCAM prize, and Potemkin deserved its slightly wider audience of metal fans. Even with Kowalski’s thirty second tirade against the evils of the Super Bowl half-time show (“We’re doomed! Fucking doomed!”) the record was a monumental, thrilling fulfillment on all the promise of Today’s Empire, even if it was poorly sequenced.
Supporting Caste solves the prior record’s pacing problem, in a way: its best song waits in the clean-up slot while the title-track flirts with meter changes, “Night Letters” makes out with Slayer, and “Tertium Non Datur” does unprintable things with both. But “Dear Coach’s Corner” is on another level entirely. Despite an opening that flies its thrash flag high—and just because you’ve heard a hundred bands do that chromatic-triplet powerchord riff doesn’t mean it isn’t awesome a hundred times—the song is structurally the album’s simplest, seldom dramatically shifting away from its E-minor chord changes. But Hannah’s lyric, while cloaked in typically blunt prose, is tricky and elusive. It begins as riposte to jingoist hockey icon Don Cherry (who hosts the Coach’s Corner segments of Hockey Night in Canada with Ron MacLean, to whom Hannah addresses his song), with allusions to Triumph of the Will and the shallow patriotic displays that surround “what everybody knows is in the end a kids’ game.” You may agree or disagree with the sentiment (for the record, this writer strongly agrees, and feels Hannah’s pain an American football and baseball fan besides), but it likely isn’t anything you haven’t heard already. Something happens, though, when Hannah introduces his own childhood love of the game. The stanza “Alberta born, prairie raised / ain’t a sheet of ice north of Fargo I ain’t played” is a folk song waiting to be born, and Hannah’s mind rambles, but the places it goes are more interesting for it. He reaffirms his principles while contemplating his young niece beside him, feeling totally helpless: “How can I protect her from this culture of death?” What starts off as an anthem turns into a reflecting body of water, and even with strong language and finger pointing (“It takes a village to raise a child / But a flag to raze the village”) is completely unsure of itself (”I guess it comes down to what kind of world you want”). Rather than a manifesto, “Dear Coach’s Corner” is a Moment, one every conscientious sports fan has had to deal with, and answer with equal amounts of dissatisfaction. That’s special.
Other highlights abound. On final song “Last Will and Testament” the band explores guitar textures more thoroughly than they ever have, and “The Funeral Procession” has perhaps their most satisfying guitar work to date. There is a mild hint of backwards glancing throughout Supporting Caste, a well. The record’s middle section in particular functions as a catch-all for all the ingredients of Propagandhi’s sound: there’s pop punk on “Potemkin City Limits,” hardcore on “This is Your Life,” and the obligatory vegan song “Human(e) Meat (The Flensing of Sandor Katz).” (Although I’ve no idea why the band thinks the obscure Katz is a deserving target while the much more popular Michael Pollan has written similar ideas about the progressiveness of killing your own meat.) There’s also an amusing goofball cover of Black Widow’s “Come to Sabbat,” relegated to a hidden track after the finale of “Last Will and Testament,” which would have ended the album on a high note. Overall, though, the album keeps abreast with the pace set on Potemkin City Limits, continuing its fusion of hardcore’s mania with the epic scope of NWOBM influences.