Adulkt Life are a new punk band helmed by music veterans. Vocalist Chris Rowley fulfilled that same role in the early 1990s riot grrl act Huggy Bear. This is his first serious musical venture since that band broke up in 1994. Guitarist John Arthur Webb was part of Male Bonding, a trio that released albums in 2010 and 2011 and hasn’t been heard since. According to the press materials for Adulkt Life, Webb met Rowley while digging through crates at a record store in London, struck up a friendship, and eventually convinced him to try playing music together. The duo recruited drummer Sonny Barrett, a teenage employee at the store, to join them. Webb pulled in his best friend Kevin Hendrick to round out the band, and Adulkt Life got to work.
The band’s debut album, Book of Curses, runs through ten songs in just 26 minutes. It’s succinct, noisy, and abrasive. Rowley is a strong punk vocalist but don’t call him a singer. He speaks and shouts his way through these songs, and the music matches his intensity. There isn’t much in the way of catchiness on Book of Curses, but there are energy and passion.
A song like “Room Context” demonstrates a lot of Adulkt Life’s style. The bass doubles a simple syncopated guitar riff while Barrett steadily pounds away on the drums. Rowley repeats variations of, “You’ve got a green rash / Under your white mask” in a quiet speaking voice and louder shouts. The music doesn’t change either rhythmically or melodically, but its volume does swell and shrink with Rowley’s tone of voice. After about 90 seconds, the song goes into a bridge that alters the feel just enough to keep it interesting before switching back to the main riff for the final 30 seconds. And despite its simplicity and lack of big melodies, the song is compelling. The band keeps the song just under the three-minute mark, and the dynamic shifts keep it lively without getting tiresome.
Occasionally the band changes it up a bit. “Whistle Country” has a more melodic guitar riff driving the song, but its herky-jerky rhythm suits Rowley’s staccato vocal delivery. “Clean (But Itchy)” turns up the distortion in both the guitar and bass, giving a vast, noisy bed for Rowley to shout about arterial spray, puppy dog eyes, and ticking clocks. “Flipper”, the album’s centerpiece as well as its epic at a whopping four minutes, 12 seconds long, finds the band playing quietly and calmly. There’s still tension in the song, especially as Barrett throws in extra drum hits and fills to complement the simple bass and guitar lines. Rowley stays in a conversational tone throughout the song, even as the instruments spend the final minute getting more chaotic and freeform.
“Stevie K” is Book of Curses’ best song. It’s a straight-up hardcore track that finds the band playing hard and fast for two-and-a-half minutes. The buzzing riff is doubled in guitar and bass while Barrett echoes and enhances it with his pounding drums. Crowley shouts but is still understandable. The song takes two breaks from the main riff. The first finds Crowley musing about “Your easy action” while the bass plays simple long notes, and the guitar sits out. The second is effectively a bridge, but it’s 15 seconds of guitar and bass feedback. “Stevie K” is all the more effective because it is the only time on the album when the band goes full hardcore.
The balance of the album is more noise-punk. The record opens with “County Pride”, and about ten seconds of saxophone noise (not notes, just noise) before the song gets going. That sax shows back up in the song’s conclusion for more sound effects. The second track, “JNR Showtime”, opens with seven seconds of a static synth chord before the chugging guitar comes in. Swirling noise makes it one of the record’s most chaotic songs, but that synth chord resurfaces every time the band quiets down. Closer “New Curfew” replaces the noise with a dark, unsettling guitar riff that resembles something from Nick Cave. Lyrically the song presciently echoes the events of 2020. The first refrain goes, “I don’t know / Just what to feel / When I hear sirens outside anymore.” And then Crowley’s closing mantra: “Masks wouldn’t make you any less frightening.”
Adulkt Life may have limited market appeal, but they are quite good at what they do. As a man in his 50s, Crowley has a more reflective sensibility than the young punks of the 1970s, 1980s, and even the 1990s scene he was a part of. It’s not just raging vitriol, even if the music would seem to suggest that. With his experience in a more melodic band, Webb drives this group to interesting dynamic and rhythmic changes even as Adulkt Life eschew catchy hooks.
Book of Curses‘ brevity also works in its favor, at least for me. A 15-track, 40-minute album of music like this would’ve been a bit much, but at 26 minutes, the band’s abrasive punk is quite listenable.