Those of us who make our livings writing blog posts about music have an easy time forgetting this, but underground music is still very much a real thing, and bands like Tragedy are the reason why. To an extremely small portion of the population, the Portland-via-Memphis crust-punk band is an absolutely legendary institution, and the rest of the world has pretty much no idea that they exist. The new Darker Days Ahead is the band’s first album in six years, and its release should be some kind of event. But they self-release their records, barely tour, don’t employ managers or publicists, and have no website, so you have to check in the right places to figure out that the album exists, or why it matters. Here’s why it matters: Tragedy have become folk heroes by pushing their genre to its expressive extremes, putting every trick they have into the service of gigantic slabs of forbidding, apocalyptic darkness. They use acoustic guitars and ambient radio-chatter and blazing power-metal guitar-leads whenever they want, and they put all these things into the service of roaring deep-concentration anger-bombs that, when you’re listening to them, make the world feel like a different place. Darker Days Ahead is their furthest-out album yet — an absolutely crushing slab that’s closer to metal than to just about all ideas of punk rock. It’s awesome.
I grew up on bands like Tragedy. Some of my favorite high-school memories take place in the VFW and American Legion Halls in the suburbs north of Baltimore. You’d pick up a flyer in the city’s one punk rock record store (Reptilian Records, R.I.P.) and then drive north for an hour, trying to follow the directions as best you could, wondering why the fuck you were seeing nothing but cow-pastures until you came across the church parking lot that had a couple hundred kids with mohawks milling around. Then you’d pay your $5 and see something like seven really fun local bands before the out-of-town headliner — Violent Society, say, or Aus Rotten — came out and annihilated all of them. So I’m immensely gratified that bands like Tragedy are still out there, doing this thing for new generations of high school kids. But that lingering affection isn’t why I like Darker Days Ahead.
Tragedy’s latest, actually, sounds nothing like the punk albums I grew up loving. It actually sounds closer to something like Sepultura’s Chaos A.D., all martial slow-bound builds and demonic roars and world-obliterating production. Those old punk albums sounded like someone hit record on a Walkmen and pointed it in the general direction of the band, which is probably more or less what happened. But from their first album in 2000, Tragedy have sounded huge — not shiny or produced, but utterly unencumbered by tape-hiss or shitty mixing. Every bass-thud gets a chance to ring in your ears. And because the band’s dynamics get so much power from the brief moments where they’ll switch into ominous acoustic stillness, that’s really important. Some of the tracks on Darker Days Ahead come with drone parts — I can never tell if they’re synths or sculpted feedback — that could’ve come from old horror movies. Others have triumphant guitar solos that actually get a chance to soar above the songs rather than getting trapped in the fuzz-pummel, and that also makes a difference. These guys know what they’re doing.
But that widescreen sound wouldn’t matter as much if it weren’t for the songwriting, and Tragedy know what they’re doing there too. Without a lyric sheet, I can’t tell what Todd Burdette is roaring about, though I can imagine it’s the sort of political bleakness that bands like this live to project. But I do know that the songs move with serious confidence, speeding up into double-time or disappearing into silence at the exact right moment every time. When this sound is this well-executed, it makes for an incredibly satisfying listen. Hearing it is like watching the spectacular calamity in a good disaster movie. And on Darker Days Ahead, they keep that consistency up even when they move outside of hurtling D-beat rhythm schemes — as on the itchy doom-metal thud of “Black Against Night” or the verging-on-black-metal evilness of “The Feeding Hour.” They’re the rare punk band whose command of atmosphere is just as strong as their gift for velocity, and their continued existence is a gift to all of us.
Darker Days Ahead is out now on Tragedy Records.
Other albums of note out this week:
• OFF!’s self-titled full-length old-school hardcore debut.
• The Cribs’ ’90s riff-rock Albini-and-Fridmann LP In The Belly Of The Brazen Bull.
• Horseback’s excellent Half Blood, which fuses bombed-out Americana to seething experimental metal.
• Swans’ double live album We Rose From Our Bed With The Sun In Our Head.
• Damon Albarn’s soundtrack to his opera Dr. Dee.
• Silversun Pickups sunny fuzz-rock effort Neck Of The Woods.
• Ween member Aaron Freeman’s Rod McKuen tribute Marvelous Clouds.
• Here We Go Magic’s twitchy Nigel Godrich collaboration A Different Ship.
• Kindness’s glitzy disco debut World, You Need A Change Of Mind.
• Bon Iver collaborator S. Carey’s spacey EP Hoyas.
• PS I Love You’s lovelorn, Pixies-damaged Death Dreams.
• Instrumental J Mascis side project Heavy Blanket’s self-titled debut.