400 Blows: Angel's Trumpets and Devil's Trombones
Minimal punk rock trio get a surprising amount of mileage using just guitar, drums and a voice.
At a glance, the sophomore album by Los Angeles, California punk band 400 Blows gives off a rather sophisticated air. The group name cribs the title from François Truffaut's masterpiece of French New Wave filmmaking. The album's name is lifted from a scene in Antony Burgess' lyrical twisted glance at the future, A Clockwork Orange, in which Alex, looking to lure two young women home, promises music they've never heard before that will sound both heavenly and hellish. Yet for all the high art references, scripted fonts and pretty line drawings that leap from the virgin white background of the album cover, once you slide the disc into your player you're in for a surprise. The music is an engaging and powerfully street-level style of punk rock, blessed with kind of urgency and potency that out of which legends are made.
Consisting of no more than guitar, drums and a singer, 400 Blows distill punk rock to its most immediate and primal elements. However, within that minimal framework, the band provides a healthy amount of twists, turns and dynamics -- turning what could've been a very repetitive disc into one that brims with excitement and enthusiasm. But all that energy is tempered with a healthy dose of abrasiveness. You won't be singing along to any of these tracks anytime soon, while their raw attack is a heady mix that sounds like Black Flag covered by Rhode Island noise monsters Lightning Bolt.
The disc kicks off with its best track, "The Beauty of Internal Darkness". The song alternates between light and dark by following guitarist Christian Wabschall's sludgy power chords in the chorus and careful riffing during the verses. Wabschall's fretboard inventiveness also gives the album much more flexibility that it probably deserves. Check out his manic, nearly math-rock shredding on "Make a Wish", guitar styling that sits comfortably alongside the swampy stoner chord progressions of the monstrous "The Average Guy". Vocalist Skot Alexander thankfully knows how to temper his voice for maximum impact. Switching between in-the-red screaming and madman like ranting at speaking volume, his ability to ride a song's dynamics makes his nasal, Jello Biafra style much easier to stomach. He fronts the songs with a showman's flair -- his own distinct reading of passion, sarcasm and bitterness is mesmerizing.
But for all the band's musical dexterity, a note of recognition must be given to producer Alex Newport. Finding the right mix for this style of music can be tricky, since the songs succeed or fail based on the interaction between its players. Newport's thick production doesn't push anyone particularly up front, but instead boosts the presence of the little instrumentation that is there. The guitars are covered in filth, but are given enough clarity so they don't become a sloppy mess. Alexander's vocals are kept in the middle, never leading the charge nor getting buried beneath his bandmates' onslaught. Drummer Ferdinand Cudia, the band's secret weapon, keeps his tightly wound drumming right alongside Wabschall's riffing in the mix -- and though his technique is never flashy, it's his ability to keep the trio together that is remarkable. Yet, for all the chops on display the album runs aground in the latter third as the band runs out of creative steam, leading to a few tracks that blend into one another. Angel's Trumpets and Devil's Horns will not be everyone's cup of tea. It won't be the hooks or melodies listeners come here for, but the visceral experience 400 Blows bring to the disc, and that for the most part works exceptionally well. With two albums now of minimal guitar punk under their belts it will be interesting to see how 400 Blows expand their sound in the future. The disc's final track, "Ice Forest", an otherwise forgettable five-minute-long instrumental that relies heavily on tape loops, points to an interesting new direction from a band that seems ready and willing to defy punk rock conventions.