I was watching We Jam Econo recently, a documentary chronicling the Minutemen, and I wondered for a minute what it would be like if they had been an instrumental band. What if they didn’t have D. Boon’s bark on top of their tight, funky, and harsh compositions? Would they have seemed so political? Would they have seemed so innovative? Probably. Maybe even more so. With no vocals or less than subtle lyrics, to obscure the hollow treble of Boon’s guitar with Mike Watt’s deep-in-a-trench bass over George Hurley’s uncanny drumming, the band would have sounded just as political, just as jarring and fantastic.
What does this have to do with Asheville, North Carolina’s Ahleuchatistas? Well, they call to mind the Minutemen in a lot of ways. In fact, they may be what the Minutemen would be like if they’d been an instrumental band. It isn’t necessarily that Ahleuchatistas sound like the Minutemen, because they don’t, really. But, like the Minutemen, they don’t sound like anyone else. And while Ahleuchatistas could be grouped in with punk or with metal or with some sort of avant-jazz, they aren’t exactly any of those things. They are simply a tight three-piece making their own noise and cranking out great albums nearly every year.
The most refreshing thing about this band is that they sound political. Their name — derived from a particularly aggressive Charlie Parker number — is as difficult to get a handle on as their music is. But, unlike so many artists labeled “difficult”, the band isn’t excluding us. They want us in the fray with them, to figure out the chaos of sound surrounding us, and to get lost in it. “…Of All This” starts with some off-kilter guitar that moves back and forth between bent off-tune notes and a quick surf-rock riff before the drums and bass kick in and the band hits breakneck speed. The bass rises and falls and the drums drive the bus along. It builds to a crescendo of guitar chords and cymbals, and the band sounds larger than it has on any of its previous records. And then the bottom drops out of the song. Just like that. Drums crash and the guitar slaps out haphazard notes. And then the whole cycle starts over again, with the chugging drums, the quick-strike guitar.
Their formula seems to be that they don’t have one, and that is what keeps this all so surprising. They maintain an energy throughout …Even in the Midst that is truly astounding, and their ability to turn on a dime, switching time-signature and pace two and three times in a song without blinking, makes even the longest entries on this record seem fresh from moment to moment. Perhaps the most deceptive thing the band does is appear disheveled. The way their songs crumble into awkward drum fills and buzzing bass notes might sound, to the casual listener, like a deconstructionist mess. But, if you listen close, you can hear one of the instruments — and not always the same one — keeping the thread going.
And while their song titles, particularly “Take Me to Your Leader Never Sounded So Alien”, are not terribly subtle, the way they approach politics is. Taking a cue from their hero Charlie Parker, they make music that represents a frustration both germane to our times and tragically timeless. Much of the album sounds like the soundtrack to a tense chase scene. The trouble is that we’re the ones being chased, and we can’t see exactly what is creeping up behind us. Ahleuchatistas do not make the mistake, like so many artists do, of claiming to have the answers. Instead, they illuminate institutional problems by transmogrifying the frustration and confusion and anger and exhaustion that the individual can feel in a world divided into music as jarring and brash as it is controlled and unified, as minimalist as it is intricate.
The band closes the record with “Where We Left Off”, and the distant bass and fading drums make the band sound worn out. As guitar notes run backwards and the song starts to peter out, however, a looping feedback rises up, and while the song never comes to a full peak, it gives off a feeling that shakes off defeatism in favor of something more urgent. The band sounds, as the record ends, like they’re ready to start right back up again. There’s tension all throughout …Even in the Midst, as the band takes on something bigger and stronger than itself. But, rather than letting themselves get beaten down by the uphill battle, they are charging back up to start the protest all over again, urging us to join in with them.
And, somewhere, the Minutemen are smiling and raising a can of beer in approval.