That "thinly mixed and sloppy" equals the "raw" feel the band is going for is questionable, but Everything Is a Mess isn't quite the mess it appears to be at first.
Fist City didn’t click for me right away. And even once they did, I’m still not convinced they’re a great band, but I’m willing to concede that they are at least a good one, although this isn’t quite a good record. Everything Is a Mess is a punk album, recorded in 2014 and released in 2015, that sounds like it was recorded and released in about 1985. At first blush, Fist City sounds like, well, a mess. They’re a sloppy punk band with dodgy vocals that are buried in the mix underneath squalling and distorted guitar chords and cymbal-heavy drums. And the album itself is thin and trebly like a lot of early ‘80s punk records and not particularly pleasant to listen to.
So that was what I heard at first, and there are some snatches of melody and songwriting here and there that stand out as not so bad amongst all the noise. But then, as I listened more, Fist City’s resemblance to legendary punk band Hüsker Dü’s middle, transitional period snapped into place. Their bio mentions Sonic Youth, The Wipers, and Flying Nun Records as influences, but the shadow of Hüsker Dü, in between noise-punk and power-pop, looms large over Everything Is a Mess. Once that connection was made, Fist City made a lot more sense.
Since lead vocalist/guitarist Kier Griffiths can barely carry a tune on his best day, most of the album’s best moments of melody are carried by the guitars. “Hey Little Sister” finds Griffith warbling lyrics that are difficult at best to comprehend beyond the song’s title. But the guitars are catchy enough to make up for the dodgy vocals, with a pair of simple but melodic riffs driving the verses and a very strong solo mid-song. “End of the Good Times” manages to find a vocal melody in the chorus where Griffiths can mostly sound okay. The band pairs that chorus with a catchy post-chorus guitar riff, as well as an interesting breakdown mid-song that sidelines Griffiths’ voice for the rest of the track as the guitars intertwine.
The idea that Fist City is better off when the guitars handle any melody is reinforced by the album’s instrumental centerpiece, “Surf’s Up”, a two-minute surf-rock punk hybrid that both rocks hard and features a strong central guitar riff essential to the genre. On the other hand, the album’s six other instrumental tracks, “Intro” and “Interlude” I-V, are essentially 30 seconds apiece of extremely similar, throbbing atonal soundscapes that add nothing to the record and serve very little purpose. They split up an album that’s already sonically unified and doesn’t really need breaks between particular songs, and the interludes themselves don’t do anything to transition from one song to another either. They just come off as sonic nonsense awkwardly interrupting the actual album.
Griffiths works better as a vocalist when the band just allows him to shout his way through the tracks without worrying about trying to sing. Since his vocals are already low in the mix it’s probably better to not have him doing something melodic. De facto opener “Fuck Cops” uses his shouting well, as he yells about the police while repeating “I’ll call you a racist pig". “Losers Never Die” piles on the guitars during Griffiths verses to the point where he’s just a part of the firmament. “Rat’s” takes a different tack by leaving half the song instrumental before Griffiths finally comes back in. Finally, Everything Is a Mess’s epic closer, the six-minute plus “The Mess” hits a relatively slow, menacing groove while Griffiths repeats “Don’t look at anyone in the eye” for the song’s first two minutes. The band then gradually shifts the groove over the next few minutes, speeding up and slowing down very effectively.
Everything Is a Mess isn’t quite the musical mess it first appears, and the band definitely knows their way around their instruments. I’m not convinced that “thinly mixed and sloppy” equals the “raw” feel the band and producer Ben Greenberg seem to be going for. Kier Griffiths definitely doesn’t need to be high in the mix as a vocalist until he’s a better vocalist, so it’s not a bad decision overall. But the occasional strong melody and a handful of effective angry songs aren’t enough to make Everything Is a Mess work as a full album.