[4 August 2005]
Looking over my notes on Federation X’s Rally Day, I came across a scrawl seeming to read “good but fucked”. Deciphering this more accurately as “good but flawed”, I quickly decided that my first interpretation was much more accurate. Rally Day is a crazed concoction of syrupy Sabbath grooves and hardcore harmonies equally engaging my metal adolescence and my indie-yuppie adulthood. All at once ferocious, funny, heartfelt, and stone heavy it could and should have transcended enjoyably engaging to entirely engrossing. Impeding this ascent is the band behind the album and their ham-it-up and half-ass-it aesthetic.
Federation X puts their worst face forward on Rally Day. Unforgivably atrocious, the cover art of orange and black pseudo-psychedelic squiggles looks like a Halloween art project hurried out by a crabby eight-year-old in need of a nap. Crack the case and there inside is a mess of more doodles along with illegibly scribbled liner notes, low-resolution image manipulations, and a block of lyric fragments strung together into an incoherent jumblefuck. Such a deplorable lack of art direction almost makes peer-to-peer files the preferred format for the album just to avoid the whole contemptuous wreck.
That may be for the best though as the music amidst all this detritus is really better off apart from the album art that disgraces it. Sounding something like a country-fried Jesus Lizard with a head full of weed, Federation X has always turned out an alluring amalgamation of southern swagger, mosh stomp, and stoned spaciousness. Rally Day rides that groove to a new destination laying down hooks and harmonies just as heavy as the dropped-down, guttural, guitar throttle inducing them. Sacrificing none of their edgy intensity, the band redirects that inertia into throbbing pop.
Avoiding the extended jams of prior efforts, the songs on Rally Day follow a direct trajectory saving up any self-indulgent riff-fetish drudgery for the seven minute album closer. Even this track benefits from band’s newfound affinity and aptitude for melody. The honey-thick guitar hook drips amber like the opening licks of Lynyrd Skynrd’s “Tuesday’s Gone” as the Federation strain their throaty barks into a mid-rangey tenor. Even if not exactly mellifluous, their achingly earnest voices are well-suited to the band’s lyrical shift away from macabre Americana to plaintive emotional appeals. On “Pale Afternoon” they bemoan “If I should choose to put / all that I have into you / I better learn how to lose” while “Hydrogen Nitrogen & Bullshit” makes the ingratiatingly desperate declaration “God damn this whole frigging world and everything in it but you, Carlotta”.
Accentuating all this is an admirable aversion to monotony. Each song establishes its own identity through memorable moments or subtle variations. The chorus for “Nightmare Nation” blows up big while the drums on “Rally Day” drive the song along with relentlessly flawless fills. “Hydrogen Nitrogen & Bullshit” is propelled and punctuated by the gurgling squawk and squeal of a damaged amp while “The Most Unlucky Sound” gets a wash of analog synth shades. Tempos throughout shift enough that some songs rollick and roll, others truck and trudge, but all of them most definitely rock.
This all makes for a record of rather broad appeal. Hipster heshers will lose themselves in the slabs of stoner metal and the intensity of early Clutch. The punks will appreciate the arms-length distance at which the band keeps itself from outright metal. Meanwhile the indie kids can shuffle along to something that sounds like a drunken mash-up of The Kings of Leon to Death From Above 1979. For the critics there’s the thought that this is the sound of Oneida locked away with only their amps and drummer. I’m even tempted to suggest an amphetamine-fueled Black Mountain but the Coldplay connection to that collective implies a level of passivity entirely inapplicable to Federation X.
Of course that comparison would also suggest a level of professionalism which is regrettably irrelevant to Federation X. Beyond the crap packaging there is the other problematic issue of the album’s sub-basement-tape fidelity. As good as the songs may be they are oftentimes obscured by a hissing haze of guitar spit. Much like my scratched out album notes, it often takes some discerning to really appreciate these songs as they really are. Complexities and textures are regrettably buried by a backslide in production values that serves as quite the contrast from the auburn sheen of the Steve Albini produced X Patriot.
This could and should have been a better and bigger record than it is or ever will be. My mind is fraught with fantasies of how unfuckwithably awesome Rally Day would be if it had James Murphy behind the boards and DFA’s design team doing the sleeves; I like to think of it as Murphy’s twin guitar and no bass retort to DFA79, countering all their sexual bravado with the soul burning gusto of Federation X. Then again, Federation X is a band who credits its members with the names Zorbatron, Bambooza, and Dirty Bill. It appears that Rally Day is plenty good enough for them as is and they really couldn’t care what any one else may think of it. As admirable as that approach may be, sufficient just doesn’t quite cut it when superlative was so readily attainable. Good but fucked is fine, but fucked good would have been better.