Album Of The Week

Album Of The Week: Militarie Gun Life Under The Gun

Loma Vista
Loma Vista

Three years ago, Militarie Gun wasn’t a band. It was an idea. Within hardcore circles, Ian Shelton was known as the singer, drummer, and sole constant member of Regional Justice Center, another band that started out as an idea. Shelton’s brother, charged with assault, had been sent to prison at 18, and Shelton named RJC after the facility where his brother was incarcerated. Shelton wrote fast, jarring, pummeling songs, and his brother sometimes chipped in with lyrics from behind bars. The band served as an outlet for both of them. Eventually, Shelton moved from Seattle to Los Angeles, directing music videos and hoping to become a full-time filmmaker in between Regional Justice Center tours. But then the pandemic hit. Shelton couldn’t tour, and nobody was hiring him to make videos. He needed a different type of outlet, and Militarie Gun became that.

It didn’t take Ian Shelton long to figure out how to channel his feelings and his ideas. Militarie Gun’s two-song demo came out in April 2020, a month into the pandemic. Shelton played every instrument himself, and he came up with a sound that was rooted in hardcore but that drew from other sources — flinty and angular ’90s noise-rock and post-hardcore, hooky and pummeling ’90s alt-rock and post-punk, the Beatles. (Shelton had always claimed that the Beatles were an influence on Regional Justice Center, but I could never hear it. In Militarie Gun, there’s at least some audible residue.)

Shelton never wrote his lyrics. Instead, he improvised them in the vocal booth. Even as his music became sunnier and more welcoming, he still sang in a raw, freaked-out bellow. You couldn’t always tell whether his lyrics were haranguing some unnamed peers or whether he was directing them at himself: “Not everyone’s problems are yours! In the end, you live with it!” This was personal, intimate expression, but it connected. The two-song demo begat a four-song debut EP. Shelton turned Militarie Gun into a full band, recruiting musicians from some other prominent groups — guitarist Nick Cogan from Drug Church, drummer Vince Nguyen from Modern Color. Militarie Gun went from an idea to something else.

In the past three years, Militarie Gun have cranked out a lot of records. They released three great EPs, as well as an LP-length collection of EP tracks and bonuses. They covered John Lennon. They teamed up with the one-man Virginia fuzz-pop project Dazy to release “Pressure Cooker,” which was my favorite rock song of last year and which proved catchy enough to soundtrack a dang Taco Bell commercial. Militarie Gun signed with Loma Vista and with Jay-Z’s Roc Nation Management. (I DM’ed Shelton to ask if he’s met Jay-Z. His response: “I have stood next to him, have not met.”) With all these moves and all this music, it seems a little strange that Militarie Gun’s new record is being sold as their debut full-length — almost a Young Thug/Chance The Rapper situation where we’re supposed to believe that all those past mixtapes weren’t intended to be taken as real albums. But Life Under The Gun is a real album, and it’s a great one.

The difference is that Militarie Gun approached Life Under The Gun as a studio LP — a chance to stretch out and see what they could do at LP length. All choices were deliberate. Shelton co-produced the record with Taylor Young, the go-to guy in hardcore right now, and they spent their own money, pre-signing, to record it at the Foo Fighters’ Studio 606. One older song, the self-lacerating “Big Disappointment,” made the cut. Other than that, though, Life Under The Gun doesn’t draw on Militarie Gun’s considerable catalogue. Not even “Pressure Cooker” appears on the album, though Dazy’s James Goodson sings backup on a bunch of songs. The record is relatively brief — 12 songs in less than half an hour — but the band pushes itself, doing new things with melody and tempo and dynamics.

If you’ve been paying attention to Militarie Gun for a while, then the band that you hear on Life Under The Gun won’t sound alien. Ian Shelton still sings in a guttural roar, and he still delivers his trademark double-tap grunt ad-lib — “Oof! Oof!” — whenever the song demands it. He still sings about anger and desperation and his own fears about being a fuck-up, and he still sets those anxieties to relentlessly catchy music. But he and his bandmates have found new ways to achieve that relentless catchiness.

There are moments on Life Under The Gun where Militarie Gun’s sound turns into sha-la-la power pop, shaggy inspirational Britpop, or shimmery college rock. There are moments where I hear echoes of Sugar, the Lemonheads, Oasis. The band’s sound is thicker and fuller. If you listen on decent-enough headphones, you can hear hooks within the hooks — backup-vocal harmonies or hip-shaking acoustic guitars buried in the mix with all the distorted riffage. This almost qualifies as a spoiler, but penultimate track “See You Around” is a startlingly pretty ballad, with Ian Shelton both singing and shouting over tender mellotrons and organs, doing his version of a Magnetic Fields song.

This is a more musically ambitious version of Militarie Gun, but they’re still as direct and impactful as ever, and Ian Shelton is still singing about the sorts of workaday frustrations that will probably hit home for too many of us. “Seizure Of Assets,” for instance, is all about the “biting bastard leeches” who repossessed Ian Shelton’s car: “It’s endless expenses/ For what? I do not get.” The single “Will Logic,” meanwhile, is about friends who stabbed you in the back, the subject of approximately one million hardcore songs. “Will Logic” might have the sparkly, seasick guitar-churn of late-’80s indie rock, but that hardcore-schooled viewpoint is still a big part of the musical and lyrical vocabulary.

More often, though, Shelton is worried about stabbing himself in his own back. On “Think Less,” Shelton ruminates on the grudges that he’ll never let go: “Don’t see a world where you make it right/ So I live, live in spite.” Before the song is over, though, Shelton considers the idea that he’s on plenty of other people’s shitlists, too: “List of people I fucked over/ Do they think the same of me?/ List of people I’ve fucked over/ Think less of me, and I agree.” On “My Friends Are Having A Hard Time,” Shelton sings about the helplessness of watching other people go through shit, knowing that you can’t really do anything to make things better. “Very High” is about feeling pretty down and getting very high.

Militarie Gun aren’t exactly a hardcore band at this point in their history, but they aren’t not a hardcore band, either. Life Under The Gun deals with heavy frustrations and anxieties, but the music is some of the catchiest, most energetic guitar-based rock ‘n’ roll out there. Even as they cranked out great song after great song, Militarie Gun have always been defined by their potential. I’m confident that the band will continue to get bigger and better, but if they never make another record, then Life Under The Gun will stand as the realization of that potential. Not that long ago, Militarie Gun were just an idea. Now, they’ve made good on that idea.

Life Under The Gun is out 6/23 on Loma Vista.

Other albums of note out this week:
• Wye Oak’s Every Day Like The Last
• Kelly Clarkson’s chemistry
• Amanda Shires & Bobbie Nelson’s Loving You
• Albert Hammond Jr.’s Melodies On Hiatus
• Lunice’s Open
• Coi Leray’s COI
• Kim Petras’ Feed The Beast
• Destiny Bond’s Be My Vengeance
• M. Ward’s supernatural thing
• The Men’s Fuzz Sessions
• Johanna Samuels’ Bystander
• Kirin J Callinan’s If I Could Sing
• Cory Hanson’s Western Cum
• Jenn Grant’s Champagne Problems
• Big Freedia’s Central City
• Cable Ties’ All Her Plans
• Black Duck’s self-titled LP
• Git Some’s New Blood
• Public Image Ltd.’s End Of World
• Swans’ The Beggar
• Martin Frawley’s The Wannabe
• High Priest’s Invocation
• Elijah Wolf’s Forgiving Season
• Pardoner’s Peace Loving People
• Sid Simons’ Beneath The Brightest Smiles
• Grady Strange’s See You Later, Separator
• Mammatus’ Expanding Majesty
• Austere’s Ativin
• Lloyd Cole’s On Pain
• Portugal. The Man’s Chris Black Changed My Life
• Andy Grammer’s Behind My Smile
• Arthur Russell’s Picture Of Bunny Rabbit
• Stewart Copeland’s Police Deranged For Orchestra
• Confusion’s Storm The Walls (1990​-​1994)
• Ani DiFranco’s Little Plastic Castle (25th Anniversary Edition)
• The Dream Syndicate – History Kinda Pales When It And You Are Aligned: The Days Of Wine And Roses box set
• Eric Clapton’s The Definitive 24 Nights box set
• Caitlin Rose’s CAZIMI (Deluxe Edition)
• The Jackpot Plays PINBALL, Vol. 1 & 2 compilation
• The Soft Moon’s Exister Remixed EP
• mui zyu’s Rotten Bun For An Eggless Century (Expansion Pack) EP
• Viral Sun’s Viral Sun EP
• Sleepy Gonzales’ Mercy Kill EP
• Kedr Livanskiy’s K-Notes EP

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