[2 June 2014]
I don’t know exactly how it happened, but we’re in a time in music where “punk” is a trend piece. We’ve managed to go from zine culture to the New York Times writing about Perfect Pussy and Fucked Up, all the while refusing to print their actual names, all in the name of decency and good taste or… something, I guess. It’s not quite mainstream acceptance, but a certain bare-bones strand of punk has managed to gather enough of a cultural clout to be treated as a press curiosity with less condescension than what would likely have been experienced by bands in the genre’s heyday. It’s in this new, strange environment that Priests come more or less fully-formed with their newest EP, Bodies and Control and Money and Power. In comparison to some of the other releases in this vein, Priests have a clearer, more precise sound and style, but the songs don’t go a long-enough way to justify the excitement behind the band.
From the outset, it’s a relief that Priests have decided to make a sonically palpable record with Bodies and Control. Many of the played-out recorded signifiers of this new generation are thankfully absent here. While a few songs add a touch of reverb, the record is clear and precise for the most part. This is becoming a bit of a hallmark for their new label, Don Giovanni Records: DIY records with good-quality sound. And indeed, Bodies and Control has a sort of retro charm at points. The band gives a spirited performance throughout, and they’re competent enough to pull these songs off. In the particularly strong second half of the EP, the band approach something resembling a balance between their honed spontaneity and proper songcraft.
Still, one can’t help but feel that all of this has been done before. The passion may be real, and the lyrical bile has been updated for a new generation (“Barack Obama killed something in me / And I’m gonna get him for it” from “And Breeding”), but it’s very hard to argue that Priests offer anything that hasn’t been offered before. The immature charm that the band carries going into the EP starts to wear off after a while, at which point the aimless bashing and repetition of a song like “New”—which takes far too long to get one sentence out—becomes more irritating than anything else. The lyrics also drive home a peculiar conundrum with a band like Priests: their wordplay can be subtle, almost poetic at times, but any attempts at subtlety are ruined by the band’s blunt, simple musical attack. Even their D.C. punk ancestors didn’t try this, opting more often for a direct approach to lyric writing. To be fair, Priests try their hand at direct expression, but it ends up being a muddled mess of references to health insurance and Vietnam. In that sense, Priests may have stumbled into innovation, but they just can’t pull it off.
On first hearing about Priests, much of the talk behind the band centered around their live show, and I’m sure that the songs on Bodies and Control and Money and Power would be really powerful in a live setting. I haven’t seen Priests live, but I also haven’t seen Fugazi live. Nor have I seen Bikini Kill, or the Avengers, or Rites of Spring. But their music still resonates, even in the decades since those bands stopped existing. They touched on something unique or revived long-dormant attitudes or ideas, but all Priests really do is rehash lyrical and musical ideas that become less impressive, now that their influences are getting larger audiences of kids who missed out on them the first time around. While Bodies and Control shows how good they are at pulling off old tricks, Priests are going to need something really new if they want a legacy that lasts longer than the last hours of a house show.