[16 February 2004]
OK, so I’ve got this half-formed essay/rant/diatribe floating around in my head criticizing twentysomethings’ (and thereabouts) tendency to let the music of the early 1990s speak in response to the ills of 2004 America, because then, as now, a Bush is in the White House and there is trouble in Iraq. Again, please note my use of the phrase “half-formed”. But and so, we need musicians to step forward and create new music to combat today’s problems. Sure, there are a handful of artists doing their part—Zack de la Rocha and Jon Langford, to name two that immediately spring to mind. I’m proud to report that Washington D.C.-area hardcore band Challenger is up to the, um, challenge of unveiling society’s ills.
Perhaps it’s not without a little irony that Challenger, on their debut, Give People What They Want in Lethal Doses, invoke not ‘90s artists, but rather two ‘80s indie punk legends—Hüsker Dü and the Minutemen. Challenger’s mathematical equation is roughly early Hüsker Dü sonic assault + D. Boon’s politics, and the band—guitarist/vocalist Dave Laney, guitarist/vocalist/bassist Al Burian and drummer Timothy Remis—does not deviate from that formula for all of Give People…‘s intense 34 minutes.
If you’ve heard one Challenger song, you’ve heard ‘em all. The tunes are all buzzsaw guitars, yelled (but, mercifully, not screamed) vocals from Laney and Burian, and Remis’s insistent drumming. Yes, such a description is a tad reductive, but, (a) it’s not not true; and, (b) the music is merely the pole up which Laney and Burian can run their ideological flags. And hell, they sound like what a hardcore band is supposed to sound like.
The band hits all the usual targets with their songs. “Death Museum” scorns over-commercialization, “Unemployment” is self-explanatory (“It’s not about the money / It’s about getting what you deserve”—amen, brah.), “Sweet Vaccine” criticizes American overdependence on pharmaceutical answers, and their best song is the album-closing anti-Bush screed, “Trojan Horse”, which is even-handed enough to call out Dubya (“Now you’re in charge and it’s your responsibility”) and his detractors (“We should have voted, rioted, shown dissatisfaction somehow”). Assignation of blame is a two-way street. Granted, railing against commercialism and greedy pharmaceutical companies is akin to shooting fish in a barrel—especially for a punk band brimming with righteous anger—but Challenger’s earnestness, passion and lack of pretension, in this writer’s opinion, cancel out that charge.
It’s trite to say—and perhaps wasn’t even the band’s intention—but if Give People What They Want in Lethal Doses spurs one person to activism, then Challenger will have done their job… and helped prove my theory that activism in today’s music scene is possible and necessary.
And lest I forget—bonus points to Laney and Burian for the fantastic album cover artwork and liner notes. Both men are veteran ‘zinesters (Laney’s Media Reader and Burian’s Burn Collector, for the curious) and their work invokes the style of longtime Frank Zappa collaborator Cal Schenkel and anyone who ever used clip art for ironic purposes. That description sells the artwork short; go see it for yourself… that is to say, go buy the album!