REVIEW ROUND-UP: Zebrahead, Flatspot Records, Holy Popes

Artwork for Zebrahead’s ‘II’ - the top half of a print of a skeleton looking upwards, with lightning coming from its eye sockets. The skeleton is printed pink



Oh yeah, Zebrahead are still in this ‘new’ phase, aren’t they? You’d be forgiven for not remembering; it’s not like Adrian Estrella has made waves as a new singer, nor have the band themselves done much than play to the faithful since…inception, maybe? It’s their prerogative at the end of the day, and it’s taken them this far, but everything this apparent series of EPs has produced has done nothing to make Zebrahead appear as though they’re advancing that much. Overall, they’re still locked into the same skate-punk / pop-punk / rap-rock lanes as ever, unaffected by changes in personnel and unable to lift out of being just decent, at best.

So here’s II to fit on that exact wavelength, albeit a bit heavier to paper over some of the more corrugated edges in Zebrahead’s sometimes-patchy style. It’s not too bad though, at least as a means of punching up a sound that’s been in the doldrums for a good few albums now, in a similar fashion to their last EP III. That’s still anchored in some rather rote skate-punk, but at least by giving the guitars a far more dominating role, songs like No Tomorrow or Licking On A Knife For Fun can punch rather than just deal a cursory slap. In fact, on Evil Anonymous with its horns playing to the same darker, pounding tones, it’s easily one of the better examples of Zebrahead’s oft-sidelined ska-punk angle.

Of course, this is still Zebrahead we’re talking about, so don’t make the mistake of thinking any of that makes them more substantive. They might give the impression of it—Estrella has a more commanding voice overall, and you can tell that Ali Tabatabaee is trying for some harsher rap spitting—but expecting it might ultimately be asking too much. The fact that Middle Seat Blues jumps on what might be the exact rap flow they’ve used multiple times in the past really sets the tone for where Zebrahead’s creative compass points. But really, it’s hard to be that disappointed. Zebrahead have never been a beacon of innovation, and while they aren’t spinning their wheels to point of outright attrition this time, there’s nothing to feel too strongly about either way, despite how songs like Licking On A Knife For Fun and F.L.F.U can appear to cling onto ‘youthful’ energy to the point of juvenility. Just sayin’, for a band over 25 years deep, we should be past songs about disloyal friends and uncivil breakups now, let alone ones barely extending past the archetypal building blocks of their themes.

But even so, it’s…fine. It’s likely the extent of any overhaul that Zebrahead are going to undergo at this late stage, and even if that’s mostly just aesthetic, it’s something, right? After all, they’re still catchy and know their way around a melody, and at least II is a more digestible offering from them, as a means of cutting out much real filler. It’s basically just what you’d expect, in another serving that’s likely to deliver the existing fans exactly what they want. What more is there to really say? It’s just more Zebrahead. Hold your applause.

For fans of: Sum 41, Millencolin, Goldfinger

‘II’ by Zebrahead is released on 3rd February on MFZB Records.

Artwork for Flatspot Records’ ‘The Extermination Vol. 4’ - numerous skeletons gathered together, with some in cloaks and holding scythes

Flatspot Records

The Extermination Vol. 4

So the current tear that Flatspot Records is undergoing in the hardcore world hasn’t gone unnoticed, but it’s not new. The label itself has actually been around since 2004, while their compilation series The Extermination launched in 2012, assembling some of hardcore’s most exciting up-and-comers for original, exclusive tracks in typically brief, brusque packages. That’s not even getting to the precedent held on previous installments, as early platforms for Turnstile, Power Trip, Terror, Cruel Hand and more to infer some high pedigree among the eyes of its curators.

It’s worth remembering, though, that these are all earlier, scrappier cuts, and perhaps not indicative of the juggernauts these bands would turn into. Highlighting that places a particular onus on this fourth volume, one where the qualities of modern metallic hardcore as a whole are placed on full view, as opposed those of the individual bands featured. It’s all quick and rough around the edges, produced to emphasise the street-level, micro-budget appeal that most of these bands will have. After all, that’s what metallic hardcore is today, and among its representatives on this album, it’s a bit of a mixed bag with regards to who can be reasonably predicted as its flag-bearers. Speed probably get the lion’s share of attention, with their track being the top-billed one and the most fully-developed; there’s also a noticeable uptick felt from Buggin, Section H8 and End It, with a lot more power to them overall.

Elsewhere though, it’s hard to pick out any real highlights, or at the very least, those who make an indelibly strong first impression. Again, it’s the basis of genre specifics taking the wheel overall, and that can really hurt the bands who’d form some more traction on a full project of their own, rather than on a single, cherry-picked track. Spy feel among the hardest hit with their track Mob which literally comes across like an intro, but when there’s a classic punk or metal bent coming from The Chisel and Jivebomb respectively, and it feels cut at the vine before something substantial can be made from it, it strikes as something of a wasted opportunity. Yes, they’re all fast and hard-hitting, features which are clearly marked as a priority above all else. When that’s brought so far forward though, and the compilation breathlessly gallops along past most else that it has to offer, it’s not exactly the most gratifying of listens.

Still, that’s the caveat you have to go along with on hardcore collections like this. Taken as a whole package, Vol. 4 is still fine for what it is—a collection of incendiary ragers with little intent beyond exactly what’s stated there. At the very least, everyone shows off the smallest inkling of quality in the body of work proper, which doesn’t add up to a whole lot here, but doesn’t tank either. It’s worth the time to seek these bands out, and hey, if you’re a hardcore junkie with 20-odd minutes to spare, you could do way worse than this.

For fans of: Speed, End It, Buggin

‘The Extermination Vol. 4’ is released on 27th January on Flatspot Records.

Artwork for Holy Popes’ ‘Holy Popes’ - a black-and-white photo of a heron in water, rotated 90 degrees clockwise

Holy Popes

Holy Popes

“I can’t get myself right out of the hole,” drawls Holy Popes’ frontman Dom Knight on Seance, in what might as well be the mission statement for their self-titled debut. Hell, as the first uttered line on the album, it probably is, as an encapsulation of the ennui and cyclical drudgery fostered by late-stage capitalism, for which the end doesn’t appear to be in sight and the medium of blackened, stock-rigid post-punk is the best medium to plough through it.

Suffice to say, Holy Popes have a pretty firm grip on what they’re doing. There may be a jumpstart from Knight’s previous stint in The Eighties Matchbox B-Line Disaster in terms of dark, kinetic surging, but it’s more biting and ground-level here. Knight screams and howls across tracks like Better 4 U and Jerry with complete intent, and drenched in the sardonicism that makes Pencils or DBT cut so deeply. They actually feel like rallying cries rather than just being labeled as such, the slices to the jugular of harmful, repressive societal norms that are magnified on Jerry, in which well-meaning but impressionable people become corrupted by the hate and bigotry naturally tossed around them as ‘the norm’ or ‘the right way to be’.

Moreover, the expected meaty bass and charcoal-black guitars have been made-over too, owing the most to garage-rock in how loud and nervy they can be. ‘Punk’ is very much the operative word, on the motorik clatter of Medic or the more angular cuts taken out of Skin Of An Ape and Split Lip. There’s almost a noise-rock bent to how Holy Popes can spiral down into real harshness and blasted-out volume, without sacrificing such a tight, comprehensive punch. Other than the prelude and interlude tracks (which are pretty negligible, even then), there’s no wasted energy here; for music that’s ready to incise down to the bone on purely its own terms, Holy Popes bring it in spades.

It adds up to a fine addition to the ever-flourishing post-punk scene, and one that isn’t superglued to the coattails of those who came before either. Bands will tweak and retool to sound fresher, but Holy Popes do indeed feel new and interesting, and carrying a very different personality throughout. Obviously that makes for exciting music, on an album raring to blow past post-punk fatigue at terminal velocity, and leave as deep a crater as it can muster. In other words, it’s some pretty great stuff.

For fans of: Fontaines D.C., ‘68, Viagra Boys

‘Holy Popes’ by Holy Popes is released on 27th January on Man Demolish Records.

Words by Luke Nuttall

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