Resistance is beat-down.
After a certain tangerine-tinted demagogue whose name rhymes with ‘big steaming dump’ clinched the U.S. presidential election, one of the most-often touted forms of apathetic resignation floating around the internet was something along the lines of, ‘Well, at least we’ll get four good years of punk music’ or ‘Yeah, maybe we’ll get some protest music again.’ And while these sentiments seem somewhat misguided and intentionally narrow-minded on the surface (Really? Where exactly did ‘punk’ and ‘protest music’ go then? And when did they leave?), political instability does provide a fertile ground for vitriolic, pissed-off, ‘music with a message’ bands to flourish.
Case in point: San Francisco mosh purveyors First Blood’s return to the stage, and the release of their third full-length album, ‘Rules’.
After a seven-year absence from the studio, First Blood has returned to deliver a vicious and scathing indictment of today’s current political and social climate. But if preachy metalcore with measured doses of doom & gloom isn’t really your thing, then don’t give up just yet, because vocalist and lyricist Carl Schwartz (ex-Terror, ex-Sworn Vengeance) is determined to shine some light from those deep, dark shadows. The idea behind ‘Rules’ is simple enough: it’s an album about (you guessed it) rules. Each track zeroes in on a particular aspect of a rational, cooperative society, say ‘Life,’ ‘Freedom,’ ‘Sacrifice’ or ‘Justice’ etc.; then Schwartz dives into what’s wrong with the picture, and how we should fix it for both ourselves and the world at large. How this is executed is also fairly predictable, especially for anyone who’s familiar with First Blood’s previous efforts like 2010’s ‘Silence Is Betrayal’ or 2006’s mayhem-inducing ‘Killafornia’: thick, chugging guitars, compressed drums, gargantuan gang vocals and floor-levelling breakdowns are the tools of the trade, and each helps to build a solid foundation for Schwartz’s empowering lyricism.
Now admittedly, opening with a children’s chant of “First Blood RULES!!!” on ‘Fuck The Rules’ isn’t exactly the strongest start, but a quick glance at the lyrics provides a clear assessment of Schwartz & co’s mission statement: “Rules that you love are the/Rules we hate/Rules for the ignorant/Rules for the weak/Your rules mean nothing so.../Fuck the rules.” But by the time ‘These Are The Rules’ kicks in with a charging lead riff and hi-hat call, things get fast and heavy, before Schwartz screams “Be strong and look out for each other/Instead of fucking running for cover!” and shit gets suitably real.
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The production from engineer Will Putney is world class, crafting a dense and crisp metalcore sound that fits well within the mosh dynamic of contemporaries like Hatebreed and The Ghost Inside. The rolling beat-downs that punctuate hard-hitting tracks like ‘Rules Are Meant To Be Broken’ and ‘Rules of Life’ are gigantic, and easily some the group’s best, rivalling fan favourite moments from classics like ‘Conspiracy’ and ‘Victim’ (sadly, with an absence of those excellent John Rambo samples).
If there’s a negative with ‘Rules,’ it’s that the constant reminder of ‘the rules’ and how they ‘must be broken’ can get awfully tiring. However, if singular tracks are taken purely on their own merits, rather than just as pieces of an overall whole, then individual moments often stand out. The inclusion of guest vocalists like Hiroyuki ‘Koba’ Kobayashi from Tokyo hardcore champions Loyal To The Grave and Jesse Barnett from Stick To Your Guns on ‘Rules of Conviction’ is a strong highlight, with Barnett’s mid-range yell cutting through the mix, as the instrumental builds to a haunting crescendo that’s crested by an incendiary breakdown towards the track’s climax.
Faster numbers like ‘Rules of Engagement’ and ‘Rules of Survival’ help to keep the pacing of the album in check, even if they come off as little more than reasons for extra beat-downs, dissonant chords and gang vocals. As the record reaches its close, ‘Rules of Government’ slows things down with a sludgy, mid-tempo section, before crawling to a fade-out juxtaposed with ominous sample clips. Closer ‘Rules of Crisis’ features a soaring, melodic refrain of “Take me home,” before dropping into three minutes of hyper-aggressive, stomping sermon, before culminating with Schwartz waxing philosophical: “I'll just give in because now it's clear to me/That in this world, only death treats us equally.”
In discussing the release of ‘Rules,’ Schwartz had this to say: “Many have become victims of the rules they live by, either by conquest or consent. I hope that, after listening to this album and reading the lyrics, we can revisit and remind ourselves of the very essence of the underground music scene: Living our own lives by our own rules.” It’s a powerful, resonant statement, and one that’s fortunately backed up by an equally powerful and resonant album. ‘Rules’ is effective because of its humble simplicity; it’s not trying to be some transcendent art project or musical game-changer. Schwartz and his band mates come from a place and time where underground music — particularly hardcore and punk — wasn’t just about inclusion, but education. Open hearts, yes, but also open minds. Showing people that sometimes the right way isn’t necessarily the easy way, and that through companionship and solidarity, human beings can overcome a huge amount of hostility, selfishness and struggle. As a testament to striving confidently forward, ‘Rules’ succeeds in almost every facet.
First Blood have already found their voice, and all they ask it that you listen to it.
‘Rules’ is available from February 10th through Pure Noise Records, and if you want to make a real difference and a positive change in the world, you could start here.