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New Jersey six-piece, The Best Of The Worst, play a cross-over called “ska-core.” What’s ska-core, you ask? Why, it’s hardcore and metalcore fused with ska and punk rock! Think Less Than Jake or early-Millencolin gene-spliced with Strike Anywhere or Ignite, as they’re dipped into a cell culture of old-school Victory Records hardcore/metalcore bands, lead by a trio of vocalists. (Blame Folly for helping to kick-start this sonic merger.) And I know what many are thinking: “Alex, the only way to make ska worse is by adding chugs and breakdowns.” To which I would retort: “Yeah, fair.” You could be forgiven for thinking this band is either brave, crazy, or both. Except The Best Of The Worst – a self-deprecating moniker that provides low-hanging jokes for those who despise this genre-polymerization – are actually pretty sick.
For context, this American band has been around for years (their first EP was back in 2008) and they seemed to have flown under most people’s radars. I don’t blame anyone for preemptively not liking their music without listening, based on that genre tag. Yet once you take the plunge into the one-half ska one-half-metalcore world of their awesome new LP, ‘Better Medicine,’ you’ll discover one of 2021’s most creative and most interesting surprises.
‘Better Medicine‘ isn’t anything new for the group themselves, but it’s the finest, most polished iteration of their work. It’s an odd but surprising and well-done mixture of third-wave ska, melodic punk rock, ’90s and 2000s hardcore and metalcore. Just look at ‘Counterfeit Smiles.’ You’ve got dancing ska, bright upstrokes, brash horns, fast-paced punk sections, stage-shaking dun-dun chugs and crowd-killing breakdowns. It is weird, but so cool! Then there’s the lyricism of feeling jaded, battling apathy, doing away with fake happiness, and taking your life back. This band are so much more than just a gimmick.
‘Better Medicine,’ despite much of the upbeat and melodic songwriting, isn’t a feel-good record. It’s actually quite a cold and dark album when you dive into the words behind its quirky hybridization. Ska, not always, but can often be a goofy genre with the words it presents, but Best Of The Worst never bullshit you here as they tackle mature subjects with these 12 songs. (They also haven’t been shy of punk rock political commentary, as per their United States-critical 2020 single, ‘Illusion Of Choice.’) For this is a rather introspective album. One that hangs heavy with how we spend our time on earth, the band’s own artistic and personal drive, pessimism versus optimism, mental health, and the winds of time sweeping up any and all idealogy and scenes only to start once more.
Their embracing of various styles is a breath of fresh air when stepping back and seeing how rigidly many in these respective genres act. ‘Short Change‘ is a lovely little indie-rock song filled with hope for creating new foundations on all levels, lead by crunchy guitar chords and horns-player/singer Liz Fackelman; her vocals contrast the singing and screaming of her bandmates well enough as her horn parts move around the accompanying saxophones nicely. ‘Sour Spot‘ starts off with a vile death-metal blast beat, an evil intro that’s matched by the sinister horn licks near the end of the song as the band decry: “time will tear it all down.” Trumpets have never sounded quite as ominous in ska as they do here, folks. ‘Catch My Breath‘ maintains this same dark tone with a big bass-leading groove and descending guitars, as horns neatly dot the track, with a skanking shake-up arriving with the fast and melodic ‘Learn To Live Another Day‘ one song later, channelling some hefty Reel Big Fish moods.
The Best Of The Worst love horn solos as much as they love beatdowns, favouring horn riffs as much as sweet six-string riffage. They’re inclined to have a ride-cymbal bell strike ring out seconds before a china-smashing breakdown smashes through, just as they are to use massive gang-vocals like the glory days of easycore. And they’re never afraid to flaunt these ideas! The band’s counterpoints between heavy hardcore attacks and their horn sections make for an incredible call-and-response; Best Of The Worst’s ace-in-the-hole that they utilise on ‘Counterfit Smiles,’ the anti-fake-it-till-you-make-it anthem ‘This Morbid Life,’ and the horn-against-string discordance during ‘Out Of Mind.’
Galloping Flatliners-esque collides with pop-punk ska charm on ‘Wishing Well,’ seeing the band looking to change bad habits. Before you get your bearings, a sub-heavy chugging breakdown comes out of nowhere barely a minute in. In the next verse, there’s a goddamn organ roaring before the band slam down with some wicked hardcore grooves. It’s all a strange yet impressive blend, and on top of being competently written and executed, it is, most importantly, fun! A through-line the LP holds onto until its final breath. The head-banging bounce of ‘Out Of Mind‘ is infectious, and when it eventually shifts into ska territory, it never loses impact. When the band add in bright synth stabs to lift up the final passage, I appreciate their open-mindedness. ‘Rotten Dichomomy‘ is a hardcore sprint to a circle-pitting finish line about the old generation of bigots dying off as younger, more progressive generations rise. (Ska’s cool, racism drools.) By the time that number shows up, Best Of The Worst’s songwriting and structures are clear as day, but it’s so clever and endearing that I can’t help but admire it.
‘Glass Hands‘ is an all-out ska assault on hypocrites choosing to remain inside their “little fishbowl”, asking those individuals to stop creating for the masses, to let someone in, and to stand by their convictions. The slow-tempo, stomping rhythms of ‘Fine Print‘ feel heavier than most metal bands with its instrumental syncopation between guitars, horns and drums. And when the ballroom dance section hits once the tempo goes double-time, Best Of The Worst whip up a storm before knuckling down and chugging hard. On the titular ‘Better Medicine‘, you find a self-commentary about their personal, professional and musical lives intersecting; about the “sanctuary” that playing live offers the six members, how they’re still following their passions. The song might feel somewhat played-out come the record’s final chapter, having heard all of these songwriting “tricks” many times on the preceding 11 songs. However, the meta nature of the lyrics, how its honesty is worn so openly on its sleeve, about the band’s deep connection with this music and how it helps and inspires them, is what really elevates it up to being one of the brightest moments on ‘Better Medicine.’
Ska often gets a pretty bad rep, some of it deserved, some of it not so much. The Best Of The Worst’s latest record is a timely reminder that the genre is far more diverse than many would ever like to admit, let alone actually be aware of. (Everyone from Skatune Network, Jeff Rosenstock’s dabbles with it, Folly, to this band.) Ska-core is real, and The Best Of The Worst is its leaders, looking to save ska and punk, and even hardcore and metalcore with this incredibly fun yet serious LP. ‘Better Medicine’ aims to do one thing, to cross over these varying, potentially at-odds styles as best it can, whilst tackling the pessimistic blues of ageing modern life, not hiding away from its politics. Two goals that it achieves with flying colours. While it does feature just the one crossover dynamic, it’s pulled off in a compelling manner that I can forgive it being a little repetitive and easily expected once you understand what the band’s doing well before Side-A is even over. Yes, it’s weird, but it’s also creative and honest. And a real blast to listen to!
1. Short Change
2. Wishing Well
3. Counterfeit Smiles
4. This Morbid Life
5. Out Of Mind
6. Sour Spot
7. Catch My Breath
8. Learn to Die Another Day
9. Rotten Dichotomy
10. Glass Hands
11. Fine Print
12. Better Medicine
Stream ‘Better Medicine’ below: