Punk rock approaches middle age, looks back in nostalgia. Who knew?
How much do you miss the Ramones? Take this handy quiz to find out: a.) I'm glad they’re gone. b.) I don't really think about them. c.) Wish you were here, Joey. d.) I dream about their new releases regularly.
If you answered c.) or d.), then High Tension Wires might be your new favorite band. This is not to say that High Tension Wires sound exactly like the Ramones, but they use many of the same techniques to achieve more or less the same effect: repetitive, wickedly fast power chord strumming, pop-song structures cloaked in layers of distortion, an absence of guitar solos (or any other kind), and barely decipherable lyrics that border on the inane. Oh and they have two tempos: fast and slow, and the songs tend to clock in at about two and a half minutes, if not less. The entire 12-track album is barely 25 minutes long.
The third song on Welcome New Machine, the band's third release since their 2005 debut Send a Message, brings these similarities home. "Backbone" features quirky lyrics built around an endlessly repeating chorus of "You're gonna need a backbone for that one", along with verses like "She's a queen and you're just a drone / Working on a honeycomb". Follow-up tune "Subprime Love" is another high-octane scorcher with plenty of power chordage and verse-chorus-verse packed into its 85 seconds. Any indication that the musicians have further tricks up their sleeve, however, remains elusive.
Is it a legitimate criticism of a band to complain that they bring nothing new to the table? Maybe not -- plenty of bands have made a mark for themselves not by inventing, but by cleverly reinterpreting elements from a diverse but not infinite menu of rock 'n' roll, R&B, blues, gospel, and soul elements. The Hives and the Brian Jonestown Massacre come to mind, along with countless others. So High Tension Wires' more or less wholesale swiping of the late '70s punk template shouldn't necessarily be considered damning. The larger question is whether that template is worth swiping in the first place. As someone who lived through that era (and who loved, loved, loved the Ramones), I’m here to tell you: that template was already feeling mighty limited as early as, say, 1980.
High Tension Wires tries to overcome this a bit in the second half of the album. "Lose Your Grip" offers a nod to guitar noodling in the last 30 seconds or so, while "Lose Face" does the same even between verses (!). But there's only so much that can be done in a 96-second song like "The Universal People’s Church". More promising is "Handicapped Hearts", which slows the breakneck pace while working the guitars in a slightly more finessedd manner than the ham-fisted guitar-throttling that has been the norm thus far. Closing tune "The Secret of the Hydrogen Bomb" introduces farfisa into the mix, with predictably positive results. Who doesn't love a little farfisa?
Despite these nods toward variation, Welcome New Machine is, ultimately, a dull and limited album, a record defined far more by what it doesn't do than by what it does. High Tension Wires brings nothing to the rock 'n' roll buffet that isn't already piled high on the table. There is plenty of energy, yes, a bit of attitude, and some just about competent musicianship. Nothing, in other words, that isn’t present in abundance already, and with more memorable tunes to boot.