Alex Johnson’s path from drug addict and alcoholic to punk rock everyman is a heartwarming tale, and it’s something that follows the Wonk Unit frontman wherever he goes. Over six albums, the band has served as Johnson’s outlet for catharsis and reflection, something relayed by a sizable worldwide fanbase, and by operating entirely though DIY channels, there’s a greater freedom for how these emotions can be presented.
Just take new album Terror, one that rarely leans towards a default punk template, but in a presentation that can be softer and more contemplative, and gives a greater air of nuance than the expected angle of blistering Cockney punk. With Johnson, that’s definitely an option as seen on more conventional punk tracks like Day Job Wanker and Judas Betrayers, but there’s a greater possibility for connection when a gentler approach is taken. There’s positivity that comes in the sunnier disposition of Thank You and My New Safe Place that reflect feelings of positivity and love, breaking down the steely exterior typically associated with punk in this vein to reveal its warm human heart underneath. Even the reminiscence of hard times that comes with Christmas In A Crack House is played with almost comedic effect thanks to the bouncing, twinkling pianos that drive it.
And if there’s anywhere where Wonk Unit differentiate themselves from the crowd on this album, it’s the instrumentation, leaning towards a mix of ska, classic pop and jaunty ‘80s sitcom themes to fully test the limits of London punk’s soundclash approach. And honestly, it can be a bit of tough method to master, mostly because Wonk Unit tend to pivot towards lightweight pithiness in the pianos that can verge dangerously close to throwaway. The worst offender is Christmas In A Crack House which, with a very deliberate pace to each piano hit, can’t shake away the feeling of a novelty song, and that’s not helped when it’s re-arranged as a punk track on Me And Curtis. Even on tracks where these elements are used more sparingly like Flummoxed More Than Jealous, or the short reggae piece Thank You, there’s not a whole lot of weight beyond a sense of healing and gratitude that’s nice, but doesn’t offer much more beyond that. Hope is a lot better in this regard, arguably hitting the balance between deeper, punkier crunch, a theatrical elegance and content with a bit more resilience better than anything else here.
But really, to criticise too harshly would be taking away from the fact that Wonk Unit’s brand of punk has a lot more pliability and intuition than what the genre typically offers, and Terror combines that with an aura of positivity to great effect. It’s a bit more divisive as far as punk albums go, but that also comes with a lot of heart and a knack for a couple of absolutely unshakable melodies. There’s a core here that’s extremely workable, and Wonk Unit might just be on the very cusp of tapping into its most fertile area.
For fans of: The Jam, The Clash, The Skints
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘Terror’ by Wonk Unit is released on 20th April on Plasterer Records.