In Defiance Of Empty Times
Sometimes what we see as limitations are choices. Richmond, Virginia’s Strike Anywhere has always been a pretty muscular act, particularly live. Dreadlocked frontman Thomas Barnett is a human whirlwind onstage, his impassioned shout serving as a rally call coming over the trenches. Their melodic hardcore’s never sacrificed on either side of the equation. Since their formation 13 years ago they’ve never offered their fist-in-the-air outrage without a thumping tuneful hook. But by the very nature of their choice to bow at the cultish altar of Minor Threat and Negative Approach, they’ll be shortchanged their due.
In Defiance Of Empty Times is the type of album that will at least correct the ledger in the historical record. A live, acoustic greatest hits album, it’s a release that inherently flawed, and yet behaves as a prism that amplifies their gifts and shines a light on them outside the confines of their genre.
First off: It’s not a great recording. You’d think there would have to be a board mix that was better than this, right? But there is something poetic to Barnett’s earnest hope resounding against the low murmur of distant bar conversation, and when the crowd gets into it you can feel the energy rise. There’s also an old-school vibe to the audience mike that meshes with the initial DIY spirit that inspired them.
In Defiance is first and foremost a reminder of what fine songs Barnett is capable of writing. Even here, he doesn’t truly sing so much as shout-sing. But the vocal melodies are stronger than you realized, amplified by the gang backing vocals they use here more frequently than on their studio discs. There’s real intelligence and passion cooked into these anthems, whether imploring, “Don’t misdirect your rage,” on “We Amplify/Blaze,” or wondering, “What does it mean to take their power and push it away? Overcome this culture and the lies they tell you everyday,” on “Timebomb Generation,” whose chorus provides the album’s title.
The first four tracks are among the band’s finest and quickly get the album off to a rousing start. At its core is the one-two punch of the catchy “Infrared” (from 2003’s Exit English) with its disdain for the industries of vanity and self-doubt (see: advertising), and Dead FM’s exultant “Hollywood Cemetery.” A reference to the Richmond tourist attraction that’s the final resting place for many Confederate leaders, Barnett turns it into a paean to “good people compromised by the war we call survival.” It’s followed by the scene-bridging “I’m Your Opposite Number,” which was a highlight on their last disc, 2009’s Iron Front, but sounds even better in this folk-punkish Against Me! format.
It’s actually too good a start. While “Chorus Of One,” “Postcards From Home” and “Timebomb Generation” are fine songs, they aren’t as good as the opening salvo, and by this point the limited dynamic of a strictly acoustic album begins to plateau the album. The 11-track disc ends on a high note, though, with two more terrific tracks. There’s the climactic, almost Springsteenish “Extinguish” as Barnett imagines the dispossess swelling at the empire’s borders in protest, “United by what we love not who we suffer for.” The crowd sings along with it and closer “Sunset On 32nd” with its defiant war cry, “They fake it, we break it, and take back what they steal.”
Barnett’s inflammatory rhetoric’s always been a fine match for his hardcore heroes, but is often marginalized by the genre’s narrow audience. It’s a shame, because as this album amply demonstrates, the Gaslight Anthem don’t have anything on these guys. Were they to shed their outsider sound, the music and words are strong enough to waltz on up the charts. But then that would kind of defeat the point, wouldn’t it?
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