Ruminations on the power of the riff.
When I was younger, I used to wonder whether I would one day outgrow punk and hardcore. When I was early in my college years, pursuing a journalism degree with delusions of changing the world, I’d often heard the cliché that you get more conservative with age. I didn’t fear the possibility that my politics might moderate with maturity, but I did fear the possibility of becoming complacent and losing sight of the values that I learned from reading Punk Planet and listening to Against Me! CDs.
Flash forward to now, I’m closer to 40 than 30 and it’s safe to say those concerns were misplaced. I’ve been fortunate to have achieved most of the goals I set for myself, I live comfortably with my wife (and soon our first kid) and I’m generally less anxious about my day-to-day circumstances than I was back when. But I can’t say I feel better about the world at large; if anything, I might be less optimistic about the future of the planet and society. I don’t listen to as much aggressive music as I once did, but sometimes, the cathartic wake-up call of a good hardcore record remains unmatched.
Thank God for Paint It Black. At this point in my life, there might not be a single hardcore punk band capable of hitting harder in my head and my heart. They aren’t the first band to fuse social consciousness with buzzsaw riffs and undeniable groove, but they are one of very few who have done so for more than two decades, all while staying relevant to an audience that spans multiple generations. Where most of their current peers have split up and reunited, they have remained a consistent force, lying in wait until the right opportunity to show themselves emerges, but never totally disappearing.
Such a moment arose for the first time in 10 years when they released Famine in November of 2023, their first recorded output since their 2013 EP Invisible, and first full-length record since 2008’s New Lexicon. This is a band that’s content to move at their own pace, but when they do put out new music, it feels like an event.
There’s nothing complex about Paint It Black’s music on the surface. The band is fronted by vocalist Dan Yemin (of Kid Dynamite and Lifetime fame), whose voice is carried more by passion and urgency rather than actual singing ability. They’re also instrumentally sparse at times, sometimes leaning on little more than an ominous bassline and vocal barks (“Exploitation Period”) or relentless speed (“Serf City, USA”) to make their point heard. Never do they overstay their welcome; Famine fits eight songs in under 20 minutes, all killer and no filler, never a note nor beat out of place.
What makes the band’s sound work – as it does for most bands in this genre – is the way they put all the pieces together. Guitar lines that may sound simple are often intentionally sparse to leave room for the rhythm section to breathe, allowing the drums and bass to drive their heaviness, rather than overemphasizing the blunt force of detuned power chords. Famine’s third track “Safe” serves as an excellent case in point of this approach in action, with guitarist Josh Agran weaving jagged lines over bassist Andy Nelson’s rumbling low end until drummer Jared Shavelson picks up the pace a bit past the halfway mark and drives the song home to its anthemic conclusion.
Yemin pens simple lines with the intent of being understood, careful not to bury his message under strained metaphors, while avoiding reductionist sloganeering. There is nothing complex about lines like “not everyone is free / and that doesn’t feel safe to me,” but nor does there need to be; sometimes simple truths delivered with conviction are all that’s necessary. Few vocalists are better than Yemin at making the listener feel what he’s feeling through sheer force of will, and he demonstrates that the value of righteous anger, when directed with purpose, does not need to know an age limit.
Sometimes I think I’ve left hardcore in the past. Then, sometimes, a band like Paint It Black comes along and reminds me that maybe I need this music more now than ever. Famine offers both a pressure valve for existential angst and an exhortation to harness that anxiety toward productive ends. This music is aggressive because its subject matter calls for a response that refused to be controlled, and when I turn on the news, I can hardly think of a more fitting soundtrack for whatever hell 2024 will deliver.
Ben Sailer is a writer based out of Fargo, ND, where he survives the cold with his wife and dog. His writing also regularly appears in New Noise Magazine.