It makes a lot of sense that Anti-Flag are starting 2020 on this exact footing. They’re a band who’ve been extremely and unceasingly critical of the US government and their political practices, especially in recent years, releasing an album on an election year adorned with a blurred, crossed-out image of Donald Trump’s face is a rather stark decree of where their intentions lie. It’s not as if that’s ever been up for debate, mind, but of punk’s older guard who’ve continued to stick to their political guns right into the modern day, Anti-Flag’s approach has definitely been one of the best. They’re not looking to push sonic boundaries, but in boosting the populism of their sound without toning down the fire within by too much, they’ve long since felt like a band who’ve managed to balance being a big modern punk band with real statements of intent excellently.
What’s more, their work doesn’t feel nearly as perfunctory as many’s, which is ultimately the kicker with 20/20 Vision. It’d be easy to make just another album of unspecific political fire-storming, and while there’s always going to be a streak of that in everything Anti-Flag do, 20/20 Vision feels different in how explicit its currents of hope are. The size and scope the band shoot for matches the sentiment almost perfectly, and while it’s bundled in an album that’s not breaking the mould by any degree, for a tight, sharp listen that’s nearly always hitting the mark it needs to, this is as undeniably strong as Anti-Flag’s work has always been founded on.
The thing that gives them the greatest edge is the clear fervour with which they still believe in what they’re saying; there’s nothing performative about this writing when such a clear intensity comes through within the first few seconds of operner Hate Conquers All. And while that protest music edge is still there on the aforementioned track’s cries for mobilisation as the only effective way to stand against hatred, or the screed against those who use a veil of religion to justify their bigotry on Christian Nationalist, 20/20 Vision’s primary objective feels like one of spreading hope at a time when potential change is right around the corner. Sure, that can be filtered down to a fairly standard empowerment narrative on Don’t Let The Bastards Get You Down, but the image of change on the horizon and the reality of how it can be achieved feels palpable on the title track and The Disease. It’s where specificity does help in the writing, and while it’s not always as in-depth as it could be, the clarity to the imagery presented on It Went Off Like A Bomb and Resistance Frequencies sharpens their edges just that bit more crucially.
For a band that’s ended up shuffling into modern punk’s mainstream, it’s a lot more than what would typically be expected, but Anti-Flag’s usual standard of quality makes that feel rather natural here. It can be argued that it makes up for an instrumental base that’s barely moved since the last time, but when it’s so resoundingly solid, it doesn’t really need to. It might still be a bit too cleanly produced in places and the incredibly last-minute deviations into cowpunk and ska-punk with Un-American and Resistance Frequencies comes rather uncomfortably out of nowhere, but generally, 20/20 Vision is an Anti-Flag album on the same track of both execution and quality as most of what’s come before. There’s still a nice focus on chunky guitar work that’s still especially rousing when broken down into a mid-paced stomp on The Disease, but the abundance of titanic melodies and overall clean-but-not-sanguine presentation are as stirring as always. By now, Anti-Flag have settled into a formula with their best work, and it’s easy to tell how effective that can be when this is such a tight and focused listen. And yet, to call it pop-punk would undermine just how much the teeth within are bared, even if just below the surface, and when they properly come out on the frantic flurries of A Nation Sleeps, Anti-Flag’s classic punk spirit is arguably at its most defined.
But for anyone who’s even remotely familiar with this band’s work, none of that really needs to be said. Anti-Flag have been on this same path for years now, and if 20/20 Vision is anything to go by, fatigue is yet to set in and they’re still continuing to reap its rewards. The balance between accessibility and ferocity has been honed to a fine point, and there’s enough in the way of killer hooks and melodies to keep it rattling along at a fantastic clip, even if its not rising to the top of the pile in a discography that’s pretty crowded nowadays. Still, an album as good as this from a band like Anti-Flag is always good to have, and the fact that this is pretty much their set-in-stone standard now is more of a blessing than a crutch. There’s a righteousness and riotousness that continues to pay off, and 20/20 Vision shows just how easily they can keep doing it.
For fans of: Rise Against, Sum 41, Millencolin
Words by Luke Nuttall
’20/20 Vision’ by Anti-Flag is released on 17th January on Spinefarm Records.