The People or the Gun
Moving to a major record label from an independent one can be the biggest move in a band’s career. Unfortunately, for many punk artists of the Warped Tour Generation, the move to a major can be quite the opposite: a catalyst to a complete change in sound and sometimes fan-base.
Sure, there have been a few successes like AFI and Avenged Sevenfold, but the list of failures is both long and full of A-listers such as Rancid, Less Than Jake, Reel Big Fish and Alkaline Trio, with all of the latter bands defecting back to independents and making superior records after fulfilling their major-label contracts.
Now add Anti-Flag back to the giants of the independent scene.
After completing their two-record deal with RCA, Anti-Flag went back to their roots, and their hometown of Pittsburgh, Pa., built a studio and recorded The People or the Gun on their own time. Then, after agreeing to release the album on uber-indie SideOne Dummy, the questions arose: Could the band return to the sound that launched them to worldwide headlining tours in the early 2000s? And could the boys of the Steel City find enough to be angry about now that the Bush administration is out of power?
A simple answer to both is a resounding yes.
The opener, “Sodom, Gomorrah, Washington D.C.,” is a blistering track that sounds like it was left off of the shortlist from 2003’s Terror State. The guitars are fast, Pat Thetic’s drum beat is pulsing and bassist/vocalist Chris #2 is as mad as ever. And while there’s a lot that sounds like a throwback to older records on this track, the band does a good job using the song as a transition into new elements.
With the new administration in place, Anti-Flag seems to have shifted the majority of its complaints from a direct attack of former president Bush to a critique of America’s problems in general; organized religion being the first victim on “Sodom.” A scathing criticism of the religious right, #2 growls during the second verse “Allah, Jesus, Muhammad/ Their words have way more in common/ than the Midwest or the Middle East like to preach.”
And in this way, the record separates itself from old A-F releases. People is a matured Anti-Flag – a product of the band creating music for 16 years. The lyrics are tighter and more focused on single topics, rather than covering a broad spectrum as in the past. It also seems as though the band has refocused their sound. The Bright Lights of America, A-F’s 2008 release and final on RCA, was an experimental record of sorts, complete with string sections, soaring choruses, and songs that clocked in at a little over four-minutes apiece. Juxtaposed with People’s average of three minutes a song, it looks as the band has cut the filler.
But it’s not as though A-F have completely rejected their work from the major label period. Songs like “The Economy Is Suffering, Let it Die,” and “This Is the First Night” sound like improved versions of songs on the past two releases, the latter being especially interesting as it’s a winning combination meshing Justin’s solo work, Light’s “Go West,” and For Blood and Empire’s “1 Trillion Dollar$” into a matured sensibility of melody and penmanship making it one of the best tracks on this album. The track also turns away from politics for a moment, with vocalist/guitarist Justin Sane instead opting for a personal, reflective piece looking back at the group’s life on the road, singing “And from these rooftops, we’ll watch the sun rise/ Ain’t this the life/ Yeah it’s the first night of the rest of our lives.”
“We Are The One” is another great example of reflecting on and mixing prior work to create a new sound for the band. Sing-along “whoa oh’s” are thrown in every 10 seconds or so, and with the intense verses and subsequent catchy chorus, the track sounds a great deal like a fine-tuned “Tearing Down the Borders” from The Terror State. The band’s intensity is there, and Sane is in full-on rock mode, but there’s an improved clarity to the music. Not to the point where it’s over-produced, but more melodic and defined.
That being said, improved melodies don’t control the whole record. “You Are Fired (Take This Job)” is a return to the sound of the band’s roots as a hardcore punk band, and in the course of the 60-second song #2 is able to exclaim “You’re fired/ You’re nothing but a hypocrite/ You’re fired/ Conformist fucking chickenshit.” The track is angry, intense and conjures up thoughts of “Death of A Nation,” and especially “Feminism is for Everybody,” but because the sound is so polished and production is so clear, it works well on this album.
As far as a “single” for the album goes, “When All the Lights Go Out” has the best shot at a mainstream audience. In the past, label-induced singles have stood out too much on the band’s recordings, but this song feels different. As opposed to older tracks, it has a very Rise Aginst-ish quality to it in that it’s fast, but not too fast. It has a message in hand, but like some of Tim McIlrath’s writing, the message is just vague enough to appeal to casual listeners. It’s funny that A-F had to leave a major label before writing one of its most accessible songs.
What’s also interesting on this new album are the niches Sane and #2 seem to be carving out for themselves. In a move perfected by groups like Rancid and the Lawrence Arms, #2 fronts the faster, more overtly aggressive songs a la Lars Frederiksen and Brendan Kelly, while Justin takes control of the less fast songs like Tim Armstrong and Neil Hennessy do for their respective groups. It’s also nice to see Sane and #2 again co-captain the vocals for “Lights Go Out,” as it’s the only song on the album where both have defined parts.
On this, Anti-Flag’s ninth studio album, it’s hard to not make comparisons to their older body of work. And while The People or the Gun, does draw upon old sounds, it’s important to note the progression of the music. The best parts of Anti-Flag’s past six years are combined together here to create a new and exciting piece of music. There are only ten songs, and they cumulatively clock in at 31 minutes, but it’s a great 31 minutes. Just like the fans had hoped, Anti-Flag hasn’t lost their touch or their anger – they just needed a change of scenery.
4 out of 5 stars