Chris Rowley was once part of the formative Huggy Bear, who carried the riot grrrl torch in the UK from out of Brighton. He and co-vocalist Niki Elliott were an efficient and restless machine of anarchic disruption, doling out sneering come-ons and polemical tirades that have made the band beloved within the punk scene, if perhaps a little under-appreciated due to their music’s scarcity in the digital realm.
It’s been over 25 years since Huggy Bear broke up — their three-year existence was a forced expiration date the band set on themselves before they even started — and Rowley has remained removed from the music world since then. But that changed last year when his friend John Arthur Webb, of the fired-up trio Male Bonding, asked him if he finally wanted to be in a band again. Rowley agreed, and so Adulkt Life was formed, with Webb’s fellow Male Bonding member Kevin Hendrick and drummer Sonny Barrett rounding out the lineup.
With their debut album, Book Of Curses, Rowley is once again at the center of a well-oiled apparatus, delivering impassioned screeds and urgent warning calls. Rowley has said that this new project “felt like it could carry the weight of all the things I would want to culturally load into a band without having to compromise any of it,” which means that there’s a whole lot of passion and pent-up aggression behind Book Of Curses, two-plus decades worth of seeing a society that has only become more fit for rebelling against.
It’s not as immediately brash and militant as Huggy Bear at their best. There was a flippancy to that band’s most powerful songs — see Rowley’s cocky energy on “Pansy Twist” — but Adulkt Life sounds more resigned to an inevitable end. Maybe that’s because it’s more difficult to get excited about the possibility of radical change nowadays. Adulkt Life is a grim name for a band, a kind of endpoint that no one wants to reach, but the misplaced “k” is there with a slapdash smile, a reminder that not everything is perfect when you’re an adult. In fact, most things aren’t.
Book Of Curses is frustrated in different ways than Huggy Bear was: more confused about the state of society, less lashing out against boundaries and norms and more wondering with clenched teeth at how we managed to get into this mess. “I don’t know what I feel when I hear sirens outside anymore,” Rowley laments on the album’s clanging closer “New Curfew.” “I just don’t know what to feel.”
It can be easy to become numb when everything is so bad all of the time, and Adulkt Life channel that feeling of being overwhelmed into songs that are simmering and intense and filled with righteous fury. The album was mastered by Total Control‘s Mikey Young — a musician who knows a thing or two about righteous fury — and it sounds crackling and alive. Rowley and the rest of the band work themselves into a froth on every song, and all of that anger is focused in around Rowley, who delivers his lyrics with a spittle-filled rage.
He sings in short abstract phrases, evocative punk poetry that feels rousing and conflicted at the same time. Some of his finest work comes on the bratty “Taking Hits”: “I’m KO’d and arisen/ Too bruised for the good kissing/ Bent back with retaliation/ Oozing with that cold precision.” Rowley is indeed cold and precise, like when he’s interrogating the legacy of hate on “JNR Showtime” (“Son to a father/ You’re a father to a son/ Why would you let/ This shit carry on”) and “New County” (“Evil is bleeding through/ Stupidity is easy too/ Evil is bleeding through/ So stupid”). He occasionally recalls his innuendo-filled run in Huggy Bear, like on “Clean (But Itchy),” a stomping bash that feels like a bomb going off: “In your hands, a cheating cock/ Goes tick, tick.”
Rowley’s economy of phrase is invigorating and he manages to conjure up clear images of the apocalypse and with just a few words. “Look see/ On fire/ Round barrels/ Those guys/ Freeze dry/ One time/ Like when/ We lied,” he spits out on “Whistle/Country,” a lurching and spiky punt about how bad the good old days were. It’s clear that nearly three decades removed from his height, Rowley still has a lot to say, and it’s heartening to hear him finally find a new outlet in which to say it.
Adulkt Life might be a new project, but it’s part of an old lineage. Rowley is clearly more comfortable in an era before there was too much information about everyone everywhere all the time. Its two pairs of singles both came with their own zines, filled with cut-and-pasted phrases and photos and an invitation to email the band if you wanted to chat. In a message explaining the existence of the zines, Adulkt Life harken back to a simpler time: “We wanted to try and recapture the feelings not just in rediscovering music but all the other crucial elements that go alongside it, the passion to share and scrutinize and play poetically with brut force and argue and find associations and mistakes in the culture.”
While Adulkt Life has no forced expiration date like Huggy Bear did, it’s easy to imagine an album like Book Of Curses being forgotten and rediscovered 10, 20 years down the line, an artifact of a time that might have been the beginning of the end of it all. Book Of Curses feels like a throwback to an era when a band could make some songs and make some connections and then disappear off the face of the earth. Maybe it was better that way.
Book Of Curses is out 11/6 via What’s Your Rupture? Pre-order it here.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Record Setter’s I Owe You Nothing.
• Kylie Minogue’s DISCO.
• Nav’s Emergency Tsunami mixtape.
• Hey Colossus’ Dances/Curses.
• Little Mix’s Confetti.
• Ólafur Arnalds’ some kind of peace.
• Dave Brubeck’s Lullabies.
• Insides’ Soft Bonds.
• Wren Dove Lark’s ODDBIRD.
• A Rilo Kiley covers comp No Bad Words For The Coast Today.
• The posthumous Ennio Morricone collection Morricone Segreto.
• Pylon’s Pylon Box box set.
• Neil Young & Crazy Horse’s Return To Greendale live album.
• Neil Young’s Neil Young Archives Volume 2.
• Wilco’s deluxe Summerteeth reissue.
• The Happiest Season soundtrack featuring Tegan & Sara, Sia, and more.
• Soul Glo’s Songs To Yeet At The Sun EP.
• Thunder Dreamer’s Summer Sleeping EP.