When they were starting out, Baltimore’s War On Women defined their sound as “Bikini Kill meets early Metallica.” That seems like an untenable combination — raw and impassioned and untrained feminist fire on one side, virtuosic power-fantasy speed-freakery on the other. It’s like a chef saying that her latest dish is ice cream meets chicken korma. It’s not that those two things are opposed. They’re both great, and it’s very easy to love both of them. It’s just hard to imagine them being great together. But on Capture The Flag, their second album, War On Women pull it off. And they make it sound immediate and instinctive, as if those two strains always made sense together. And even more than that, the combination sounds like something that the current cultural moment needs.
There is no subtlety to what War On Women do. They don’t generally deal in allusion, or metaphor, or riddles. Instead, they bring a raw urgency to the way they sing about societal issues. One of the most fiery moments on Capture The Flag, an album composed entirely of fiery moments, is “Predator In Chief,” and it does not take a lot of mental energy to figure out who it’s about. “Fuck this fucking rapist,” frontwoman Shawna Potter roars. Also: “Wink wink! Nudge nudge! Touch me and I’ll fuck you up!”
Sometimes, slogans make sense. Sometimes, slogans are what you need. Slogans can sometimes be overly simplistic. But they can also bring a force and a clarity. They can ground you. They can keep you from overthinking things. Capture The Flag is an album heavy on slogans — slogans about things that matter extremely fucking much during this new hell-era. On mass shooters, and the culture that enables them: “They don’t care if you live, they don’t care if you die / It’s only ever been about control.” On the traps that society sets for women: “We start out as the hopes of boys and end up as the fears of men / The game is fucking rigged.” On political struggles: “Our existence is our resistance / And your fear of us is our ammunition.” The very name of this band is a slogan. And right now, we’re in a moment when those slogans land like haymakers.
On Capture The Flag, those slogans don’t just land hard because they’re good slogans. They land hard because War On Women make them land hard. Potter’s voice is a righteous and incensed growl. She can sing, and the album has a few moments where she lets that voice float. Most of the time, though, she’s ramming a point home, and she’s doing it in full-on brutish hardcore style. War On Women like using the time-hardened hardcore technique of gang-shout vocals, but they only use women’s vocals. Band inspiration Kathleen Hanna shows up to lend her singular scream to “YDTMHTL,” and a bunch of other women, including porn star/director Joanna Angel, show up on a bunch of other songs. The gang-chant vocal does what it’s always done in hardcore: It gives the feeling of togetherness. It makes you feel like you’re listening to an army, or maybe like you’re part of that army. But there’s a crucial distinction here. I don’t think I’ve ever heard gang-chant vocals rendered in only women’s voices before then. We barely ever hear any women’s voices in gang-chant vocals. And why should that be? I can’t hear Capture The Flag without thinking about this stuff. It’s like War On Women are using one tool of the patriarchy — a patriarchy that certainly exists within the punk-rock underground as much as anywhere else — against itself.
Plenty of the other sounds on Capture The Flag are what you might call traditionally masculine: the battering tempos, the juddering riffs, the flashy melodic death-metal guitar solos. As a purely musical experience, Capture The Flag is one hell of a hardcore album. Producer J. Robbins, formerly of Jawbox and Burning Airlines, previously worked with War On Women on their self-titled 2015 debut. But where that album sounded like very good underground rock, Capture The Flag sounds ready for the Warped Tour stages that War On Women have already played. It’s clean, hard, and precise. This isn’t a hyper-compressed radio-rock record; for one thing, nobody records rhythm sections the way Robbins does. But the band sounds sharpened and weaponized — ready to compete, if nothing else, with those radio-rock bands.
Have you ever seen what happens when you put “Rebel Girl” on at a party full of women who were teenagers when it came out? It’s amazing. Bikini Kill changed a whole lot of people’s lives, and they didn’t do it by being subtle or by chasing anyone’s idea of what’s cool. It’s pretty easy to imagine War On Women being a similar force for anyone who might hear the band at the right time right now. This is immediate music, music that refuses to ever fade into the background. Potter sings about abortion, about rape, about giving her first blowjob. She sings with the conviction that what she’s saying matters — and she should, because it does. Her band plays with the focus and rigor and intensity of any number of old-school ’80s thrashers. They’re a band with a formula, but it’s a formula that you might need in your life. And even if you’re not at a place in your life where you need it, you might still be able to appreciate that it’s pretty fucking badass.
Capture The Flag is out 4/13 on Bridge Nine. Stream it below.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Tinashe’s forever-awaited R&B-pop return Joyride.
• Mouse On Mars’ collab-heavy bloop opus Dimensional People.
• King Tuff’s idiosyncratic psych-pop move The Other.
• Many Rooms’ emotively methodical debut There Is A Presence Here.
• Mr. Fingers’ old-school house odyssey Cerebral Hemispheres.
• A Place To Bury Strangers’ guitar-roaring Pinned.
• Laura Veirs’ inward-adventuring The Lookout.
• Punk pioneers the Damned’s Evil Spirits, their first album in 10 years.
• Coping Skills’ giddily clever Worst New Music.
• RLYR’s heavy post-rocker Actual Existence.
• Night Flowers’ buoyant indie-pop debut Wild Notion.
• John Prine’s thoughtfully twangy The Tree Of Forgiveness.
• Nels Cline 4’s experimental jazz workout Currents, Constellations.
• Malena Zavala’s cosmopolitan dream-pop debut Aliso.
• Animal Flag’s noisy, propulsive rocker Void Ripper.
• Say Sue Me’s twinkly beach-rocker Where We Were Together.
• LANZ’s heady, ambitious Hoferlanz II.
• Fiddlehead’s thoughtful, reflective Springtime And Blind.
• High Sunn’s jangly full-length debut Missed Connections.
• Juliana Hatfield’s unexpected tribute Juliana Hatfield Sings Olivia Newton-John.
• Bush Tetras’ Take The Fall EP.
• Oceanator’s Lows EP.