It’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to…
Ok, before we begin, I feel I have to issue a health warning. This review contains considerable traces of rap-rock. In fact, a hell of a lot of the stuff. You know, that craze that seemed a jolly spiffing idea when music was undergoing the 80’s heyday of thrash and hardcore and the genesis of modern hip-hop, but morphed into some kind of Golgothan shit-demon that glooped its way through the ensuing decades into the flush-fodder of Limp Bizkit et al. Nearly always misconceived, surely there’s no place for guitars and lyrical flow to co-exist in the modern age?
Brooklyn-via-Baltimore-via-Australia nutcases The Death Set certainly don’t seem to think so. Before you start to nervously shuffle and wonder whether to keep reading, however, consider one thing. The Death Set have carved their niche by not taking themselves too seriously .Their take on the rap-rock hybrid is to attempt to return it to its spiritual home, The Party.
Well, by party I should probably explain that it’s more of a circle-pit filled, upper-fuelled frat-house rave, populated equally by hipsters and emo-teens all bouncing off one another, with a bunch of wide-eyed geeks spinning in the middle. The Death Set’s trump card is their reliance on pure, hi-energy buzz to fuel the majority of their songs. It’s no accident that they dubbed themselves ‘Spazzcore’. Think Beasties if they’d stayed hardcore, or a less inventive Bad Brains, and you might get a very vague idea. By drafting in Spank Rock producer XXXchange, they affirm their dedication to making music to get out of your skull to.
This wild, in-the-moment mentality, however, is somewhat tempered on ‘Michel Poiccard’, their second album, by a sense of something deeper and more personal. During the initial writing of the album, co-founder Beau Velasco died of an accidental drug overdose. ‘Michel Poiccard’ is, in part, a tribute to him by the remaining original member Johnny Siera. One can only hope it is the album Velasco would have wanted his bandmate to make.
Just for a bit of background, Michel Poiccard is the lead character in Jean-Luc-Godard’s 1960 film ‘A Bout de Souffle’, a young ne’er-do-well who recklessly embraces the rush of life in the here-and-now, scraping through life by dint of self-belief, romantic egotism and simply not giving a damn, before making a mistake that ultimately catches up with and kills him. Any parallels with the album, however, I will leave you to draw yourself.
Anyway, on with the business of reviewing. The album kicks off with someone intoning ‘I want to take this tape and blow up your motherfucking stereo’. As a statement of intent, this takes no prisoners, and is appropriately followed by the metallic neon seizure of ‘Slap Slap Slap Pound Up Down Snap’, apparently an ode to a localised Baltimore handshake but sounding more like an aural approximation of the thrills of slam-dancing.
From the start, it is Siera’s vocal delivery that takes the lead. A helium shriek that sounds like a 10 year old throwing a tantrum after downing a Red Bull, it often makes his quickfire lyrical delivery virtually incomprehensible. It does suit the pacier tracks, by contributing to the atmosphere of a gaggle of teenagers bombed on sugary treats ripping apart a day-glo decorated Converse shoe store, but similarly leaves you thinking ‘what the fuck just happened?’.
Musically, this probably isn’t the ideal album for fans of complexity or originality. The basic components comprise the majority of the whole, and consist of a pop-punk band loosely bolted to a trailer full of electronics. Less Atari Teenage Riot, more broken Atari console in a lonely teen’s fishy-smelling basement, it certainly isn’t the cutting edge of hipster production. That said, this approach serves them well on shorter tracks, and indeed brevity would appear to be their forte. The strongest songs on ‘Michel Poiccard’ are those that blast past breathlessly in little more than two-and-a-half minutes.
Songs like ‘Chew It like A Gun Gum’ with its tinny, whooping synths and evocation of gurning your face off on top-notch pharmaceuticals, the oddly awesome toyshop keyboard riff of ‘Yo David Chase! Your P.O.V Shot Me In The Head’, the 45 second dirtbox-plundering hardcore of ‘I Like The Wrong Way’, and the mission statement ‘Too Much Fun For Regrets’ could easily whip up a frenzy in an empty room.
Their lack of self-regard can hinder them as much as it helps. They can often descend so far into smug scenester frat-boy humour- all bratty attitude and the kind of in-jokes that leave you irritated that you’re never supposed to get the punchline. The bizarre Velasco spoken-word interlude ‘Is That A French Dog?’ is obviously included in tribute, but probably isn’t the best example of his talents. Still, at least if the album carried on as the aural equivalent of a couple of speed freaks shouting ‘Dude!’ at each other repeatedly before headbutting each other and laughing hysterically, it would at least keep things consistent.
Unfortunately, any attempts at sincerity fall rather flat in the context, like Jehova’s Witnesses canvassing at Glastonbury. Naturally, this is in no way meant to disparage or detract from Siera’s obvious feelings toward his old friend, but the fact remains that the more emotional tracks are inevitably the weakest. ‘I Miss You Beau Velasco’ wears its heart on its sleeve, but keeps flapping it at you tiresomely over four-and-a-half minutes of what sounds like a Blink-182 b-side. That Siera’s singing voice bears a spine-tingling similarity to that band’s Tom DeLonge is a major minus point. Closer ‘Is It The End Again?’, whilst carrying a potent sentiment, again jars with the band’s good-time ethos.
Their attempts to create shout-along anthems can also tend to fall wide of the mark. While ‘We Are Going Anywhere Man’ fairly capably epitomises the general message of positivity & perseverance, celebrating band life, great gigs, and pure reckless abandon, it sounds less meaningful when backed by the by-numbers pop of ‘Can You Seen Straight?’ or ‘It’s Another Day’. ‘I Been Searching For This Song Called Fashion’ isn’t as clever as it wants to be, and ‘7pm Woke Up An Hour Ago’ throws an echo pedal into the mix to try adding an epic sheen but perversely makes it even duller. The Death Set, unfortunately, don’t quite possess the musical know-how to branch out from their obvious punk-rock roots.
Overall, you can tell that The Death Set’s gigs are probably an absolute riot, and many of the songs on this album would, in a live setting, have no trouble persuading everyone within earshot to forget their cares and pogo. On record, however, the lack of dynamics, and the inability to invest any greater depth into their output, really does the band no favours. The presence of XXXchange does help to amp up the party atmosphere, and ‘Michel Poiccard’ could have risked verging on the execrable without packing that extra punch, but at the end of the day even the production can’t save the more lacklustre songs. All power to the band for their perseverance and effort, but, lest we forget, there’s a good reason the Beastie Boys threw down their guitars before picking up their mics, and, on this evidence, The Death Set might do well to follow their lead.
(Released 28th February 2011 on Counter Records)
Picture 1: The Death Set by Nate "Igor" Smith
Picture 2: The Death Set by Rebecca Smeyne