I remember where I was when I heard the news, that April afternoon in 1994. My friends Katie, Sarah, Steve and I were driving across town, jiving to the radio on a gray spring break afternoon. When the DJ announced that Kurt Cobain’s dead body had been found, Katie, who was driving, nearly swerved off the road. For maybe a minute, nobody breathed. The next thing I remember, I was sitting in my bedroom with the door closed and “Rape Me” turned up, blotting my tears on the sleeve of my flannel, its shabby plaid both a comfort and an eerie reminder of how deeply grunge had permeated my life.
But in a sick twist of fate, the music Nirvana delivered to the masses has yet to expire. Mainstream guitar-based rock has been dismally stuck in a post-grunge, power-chord laden abyss for just over a decade—and you know it’s gotten bad when acts like Linkin Park garner followings for being a bit off kilter. That’s at least part of the explanation of why garage punk—the cumulative effect of and hybrid between neo-garage and postpunk which reared its head in popular consciousness about three years ago—was such a godsend. Sure, it aped off bands for which rock aficionados have an overzealous nostalgia for, even if said enthusiasts weren’t alive to witness those bands in real time. But neo-post-garage-punk was also a jolt out of a very tired musical moment. It wasn’t so much teen pop that died as that it seemed like Kurt might finally be allowed to rest in peace.
Well, two things happened. One, grunge still hasn’t f’in kicked it—a topic which I could rail against for significant time, if only were it not for the second, and more urgent claim. So, number two: this new rock thing has become flippin’ tired. Why is it taking so long for people to figure this out? True, some great music has come of this wave, but three years of skinny-tied machine rock and sloppy seconds riff-o-matics (as well as their pomo meldings-new romantics smoothed out on the southern tip, MC5 wannabes playing Joy Division covers) has produced far more filler than it has bands to write home about. Yet acts continue to get hyped for simply being the new band to do the same old thing. And for every band that generates a modicum of genuine excitement, there are dozens of others, with less talent or poorer luck, waiting for their skinny-assed, fresh-faced, moppy-haired moment in the spotlight.
Ladies and gentleman, I present to you the Hiss.
I will momentarily shield this Atlanta-based foursome from my general flogging by saying this: it’s possible that the Hiss simply got in the game too late. Indeed, Panic Movement has many the prerequisites that could have sent the Hiss flying off into the ether, and still might: soulful guitar assaults frying in badboy oil; fiery vocals erupting from raw, brazen pipes; rhythm and blues in the way the Stones intended it; rock like the ‘60s are nowhere near ending or, if they are, they’re simply passing the mic to Iggy and kin. And yet, two assessments of this must be shared. One: is this really all there is to do with rock? And two: does this make something good?
I’ll address the second question first—and the answer is a resounding no. Despite the component parts, the sum of Panic Movement is neither panic, nor movement—instead, a sedated still, the kind of bored-out-of-your-gourd sensation that makes you wanna poke yourself with safety pins. The songs are pat formulas: riffs that slosh about and, every so often, climax into frenzy; unadorned vocals which, despite their vim, are rather unremarkable. And the album blows its entire wad on the first track, “Clever Kicks”. This track is pretty good—it’s catchy and fun, kicking the album into high gear with buzzes and blazes, lead singer Adrian Barrera’s vocals sonically mimicking his insistent singing of “I put my back into it/ Everything I have into it.” But, sadly, this winner is their best foot forward, and betrays their entire catalogue of tricks. “Clever Kicks” is a weeklong obsession, not the beginning of a long-term relationship.
Beyond this, there are literally no surprises and few snags that grab and hold on, save for the occasionally awful lyric. My favorite, from “Not For Hire”: “This guitar is not for hire/ This guitar is not for sale/ I’ve spent half my life in prison/ And the other half in jail.” Well, that just about sums it up. The guitar has been held hostage by the incurable ail of ‘60s and protopunk nostalgia, and this band’s collective imagination trapped in the mire of today’s creative wheel-spinning.
This is just the kind of music that works infinitely better live, because in physical presence, the youthful exuberance and pumped up spectators momentarily distract you from how utterly boring this entire experience is. The Hiss are not bad per se, but they add yet another corpse to a coffin that should have been nailed shut months ago. Please—figuratively speaking—would it be possible for one of these bands die for all our sins? Rock has got to give birth again.