Thank god for political musicians. I’m serious. If it weren’t for musicians who planted their feet firmly, gripped the bullhorn tightly, and spoke (sang) their view points loudly, where would our faith in music be right now? Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Woody Guthrie, Neil Young, John Prine, Ani DiFranco, Bright Eyes, Rage against the Machine, Saul Williams, the Beastie Boys, Radiohead, and even the Dixie Chicks. The list goes on and on. And I’m still hoping Bono’s gonna save the world. Somehow. You’ve got the public’s attention, take advantage of that, dammit!
Most people don’t care about politics. They’ve got their own lives to worry about. Arguably, politics should be a part of everyone’s lives; however, for most, there just isn’t enough time. So, if it weren’t for these few who make a point of shouting their respective ideologies into our stereos and headphones, where would we be? We’d be a lot less irritated, certainly. Ignorance is bliss. But we’d also be a lot less aware of what goes on both nationally and globally. Yes, many of these bands basically preach to the choir—their loyal fan base—however, many are on major labels like Atlantic, Interscope, Sony/Epic, Capitol, and Warner Bros. No doubt, the message is marketed well.
Add to this list Pennywise. Signed to Epitaph—one of the largest, most respected punk labels in the country—in 1991, and making music since ‘88, these California punk-rockers have been a staple of the west coast punk scene since their inception. Formed in response to the grunge movement of the early ‘90s, they’ve been doing their thing now for 15 years. 2003 marks their seventh studio release, From the Ashes—a solid contribution to their catalogue of hard, fast, politically-infused punk rock.
The album opens with “Now I Know”, a sort of call-to-arms for self-discovery. The song is so fast-paced—with rapid-fire drumming and chunky guitar riffs combining to form a frantic rhythm—that it’s nearly impossible to listen sitting down. The pits of this past summer’s Warped Tour could only have been teeming with youngsters itching to take out their aggressions to this song.
The rest of the album pretty much continues this theme of frustration and self-awareness. “God Save the USA” launches into quite the diatribe against the government. Singer, Jim Lindberg, spits the lyrics “Apathy’s the national disease and there is no end in sight / God save the USA / Blame the president and say your prayers tonight”. One of the album’s strongest songs, Lindberg conveys his feelings of helplessness and frustration with barely constrained anger. Violence simmers just below the surface. “Falling Down”, the album’s most melodic track, finds the band exploring their race toward middle age. Drummer, Byron McMackin, and guitarist, Fletcher Dragge, supply a blistering and urgent accompaniment to lines like “No chance for my redemption / Stumbling towards an early grave / Falling everyday”. The acoustic false start to “This Is Only A Test” provides an appropriate beginning to a song that details the tendency of humans to build such walls of “arrogance” around themselves that indifference is all they show to the world.
“Rise Up” provides yet another call for everyone to wake up (in this case rise up), open their eyes and take responsibility for their actions. The album closes with “Judgment Day”, a careening track that seems to pick up speed as it goes, warning us that the world is no longer ours, that we’ve had our fun, and it’s time to realize there are consequences for messing with the planet’s equilibrium.
From the Ashes provides solid, clean fun for all those punk rockers who have come to rely on Pennywise for failsafe albums of loud guitar, double-time drumming, and empowering lyrics. There’s not much variety, not much that breaks out of punk’s stereotypical traits; but nobody asked Pennywise to break out of punk’s stereotypical traits, did they? Regardless of originality, From the Ashes brings solid musicianship and, more importantly, an overtly political message to the masses.