Right after the last election, people kept saying the same thing: “The punk music is going to be great.” If you subscribe to the theory that great art is born out of trauma, the United States sure has a lot of collective trauma to turn into art. That theory is bullshit, of course — trauma is trauma, not a crucible for some romantic notion of artistic greatness — but that line of thinking is an understandable impulse, a way to convince ourselves that at least we’ll have something to show for our pain. The thing is, punk music didn’t need a renaissance. It never went anywhere. As long as there are things in this world to be pissed off about, there will be pissed-off music trying to do something about it. And like it or not, there will always be things in this world to be pissed off about.
That said, we have had plenty of things to be pissed off about over the course of the last four years, and we have gotten plenty of great, pissed-off music about it. War On Women, the feminist hardcore punk band from Baltimore, released their sophomore album Capture The Flag in 2018, exactly halfway through Trump’s first (and hopefully last) presidential term. It wasn’t about Trump so much as it was about injustice in general, aiming at the knotty intersection of sexism, bureaucracy, and racism and going straight for the jugular. But they still made their position on the commander in chief pretty clear: “Fuck this fucking rapist,” frontwoman Shawna Potter sang on a song called “Predator In Chief.” We named it our Album Of The Week.
War On Women are back this week with their new album Wonderful Hell, and they couldn’t have picked a better time. This summer, after months of being cooped up indoors due to a pandemic woefully mishandled by our leaders, the entire country erupted in mass moral outrage after the killing of yet another innocent black man at the hands of the police, and real change felt more close at hand than ever before. America’s next presidential election is one week from today, mere days after Wonderful Hell comes out, and early voting is already open in most states. As it so happens, the presidential candidates of both major political parties are old white men who have been accused by women of sexual assault. This is not a time for subtlety, which means it’s the perfect time for War On Women.
War On Women don’t pull any punches. They’re not just on the nose; they’re beating the shit out of it. Wonderful Hell opens with “Aqua Tofana,” named for a substance invented by Giulia Tofana, a real-life historical figure in 17th century Italy who ran a successful business selling poison for women to kill their abusive husbands. “My husband prepare for death/ I gave you the time to repent/ But time’s up, yeah you have to go/ Your whole kind had a good run/ We’re left with no other option,” Shawna Potter sings in the song’s opening lines. “’He’s one of the good ones’/ Well good or not you must/ Kill him, kill him, kill him already, kill him,” she insists. “From the bottom up, it spreads/ To presidential candidates/ No exceptions will be allowed.”
These aren’t the kind of songs that need Genius.com annotations. On “Milk And Blood,” Potter rails against the capitalist patriarchy: “This womb just another wound/ These heels and paint, another trap/ Let’s make it difficult to move/ When you’re dead still, you’re beautiful/ Consume and suck and eat and fuck.” On “This Stolen Land,” she rails against our country’s immigration policy and violent origins: “You create the refugee/ Then you hate the refugee/ No one’s illegal on this stolen land/ Check the skin against the paint/ It looks to be too dark a shade/ You can’t lock everyone up to keep us safe.” On “White Lies,” she rails against police violence: “We politely request you get your boots off our necks.” And on “In Your Path,” one of the album’s most incisive moments, she rails against the whole interconnected system and implicates all of us in its failings: “The rapist is you/ It’s the cops and the state/ The rapist is you/ The judges and the president.”
If War On Women have no use for subtlety in their lyrics, then they have just as little regard for it in their music. They play fast and loud and hard, and their riffs hit like sledgehammers. They come from a hardcore background, and you can hear that in their all-out ferocity, but their music isn’t exactly what you think of when you think “hardcore.” There’s some metal in it too, in its mechanistic precision and its monumental heaviness, but it’s not exactly metal either. More than anything, it’s just huge, anthemic rock music, and admirable politics aside, the songs themselves are undeniable. They’re angry, but they’re also exhilarating, and they sound clean, even accessible, without veering into cheesiness. The record was co-produced by the band’s own Brooks Harlan and Jawbox/Burning Airlines’ J. Robbins, the Washington, DC punk scene legend who also worked on their last one, and every guitar strum and drum hit is perfectly calibrated for maximum impact. The revolution is for everyone, and War On Women want to make sure as many people hear it as possible.
Potter can snarl and spit and shout, but she can really sing, too. Some of the album’s finest moments are its nastiest, and some are its poppiest. The title track and lead single, “Wonderful Hell,” tempers its pounding intensity with a catchy melodic chorus backed by a cathartic chant of “Let’s raise some hell.” About a minute into “White Lies,” the music drops down to an insistent thrum as Potter switches from spoken-word hectoring to plaintive song. “And if the bastards grind you down, become a diamond and cut them all,” she cries, the band surging back up explosively behind her. “Demon” — Wonderful Hell‘s closing track, and its longest — is its biggest stylistic departure, marrying a slow-building doom march with gothy atmosphere and straight-up full-throated belting that eventually climaxes in an exorcism of righteous flame: “If I can’t be more than accessory/ Then I will scream until I can’t breathe.”
For all of their rage, War On Women aren’t just bitter killing machines sent to tear down the establishment. “If you want the wound to heal, well first it has to bleed,” Potter says. But they want to build something new, something better, in its place. “So you wanna burn it all to the ground like there’s no coming back from this?/ You fucking quitter,” she hisses on the penultimate track “The Ash Is Not The End,” declaring, “The fire, the embers, the ash are not the end/ If you want it then you’re gonna have to build it yourself.” And the title track isn’t just a call to arms but a cry for positive, constructive action: “There’s got to be a better way/ Than giving up and wallowing/ Let’s raise some wonderful, beautiful hell/ And make this world worth living in.”
War On Women put their money where the giant mouth on their album cover is. There’s an insidious, deep-seated misogyny in some elements of the punk community, and War On Women are actively trying to fix it. When they went on Warped Tour in 2017, they held daily workshops teaching festival attendees about bystander intervention and creating safe spaces. Shawna Potter founded the Baltimore chapter of Hollaback! and runs the Safer Spaces Campaign, training venues and clubs how to build non-threatening environments for marginalized people. Last year, she compiled her experience on the subject into a book, Making Spaces Safer: A Guide To Giving Harassment The Boot Wherever You Work, Play, And Gather, published by AK Press. She talks the talk and walks the walk, and if she and her band’s triumphantly bashed-out bangers can help, that’s a beautiful thing. No matter who wins this election, we’re always going to need more people and more music like that. Fortunately, we have War On Women.
Wonderful Hell is out 10/30 on Bridge Nine Records.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Oneohtrix Point Never’s Magic Oneohtrix Point Never.
• Emma Ruth Rundle & Thou’s May Our Chambers Be Full.
• Ariana Grande’s Positions.
• 2 Chainz’s So Help Me God.
• Elvis Costello’s Hey Clockface.
• Nothing’s The Great Dismal.
• Sinai Vessel’s Ground Aswim.
• Mourn’s Self Worth.
• Tobacco’s Hot Wet & Sassy.
• Mr. Bungle’s The Raging Wrath Of The Easter Bunny Demo.
• Eels’ Earth To Dora.
• Puscifer’s Existential Reckoning.
• Ane Brun’s After The Great Storm.
• Stevie Nicks’ Stevie Nicks 24 Karat Gold The Concert.
• Sam Smith’s Love Goes.
• John Jeffrey’s Passage.
• King Khan’s The Infinite Ones.
• Chucky73’s De Chiquito Siempre Cabezu.
• Meghan Trainor’s A Very Trainor Christmas.
• ARO’s Vacare Adamaré.
• Knox Fortune’s Stock Child Wonder.
• Jim-E Stack’s Ephemera.
• Andrew Bird’s Hark!.
• Davido’s A Better Time.
• Paul Maroon’s Instrumental Music.
• MadeinTYO’s Never Forgotten.
• Salem’s Fires In Heaven.
• Serengeti’s With Greg From Deerhoof.
• Carcass’ Despicable EP.
• Kneeling In Piss’ Music For Peasants EP.
• Wynona’s Recollections EP.
• Bing & Ruth’s Divergence: Species Remixes EP.