There was no shortage of angry political punk back in 1984, thanks to Black Flag's countless, often premature offspring in the U.S. and bands like the Exploited and Discharge in the U.K. It's no wonder, then, that New Model Army singer Justin Sullivan saw fit to call himself Slade the Leveller, if only to harden up the image of his thoughtful, minimally distorted English trio.
But New Model Army were pioneers, bringing politics and purpose to a U.K. post-punk mainstream that was more about soundscapes than anti-Thatcher substance. Folk-influenced anthems like "Better Than Them" and "51st State" were an antidote stronger than Maalox for the dirgelike grandiosity of concurrent work by U2 and Echo and the Bunnymen. The 18 songs on Great Expectations, a new singles collection from the Army, amount to a dark polemic on the hypocrisy, paranoia and "cold blue eyes" of the '80s, delivered with a Celtic rasp and lacy, bassy precision.
Two decades later, the world has changed. Now, there is a mystifying shortage of anger and politics in music, which leaves a free pile of megaphones from which Pittsburgh's Anti-Flag can choose. Maybe they've unearthed New Model Army's old bullhorn.
While Anti-Flag singer Justin Sane, unlike Slade the Leveller, doesn't need a bad-ass pseudonym for underground cred, the silly pun he's chosen supplies his band's only intentional comic relief. For an example of Anti-Flag unwittingly crossing the line between earnestness and self-satire, check out the bridge to "911 for Peace" from last year's Mobilize: The spectacle of hard-core riffs and soccer chants segueing into MLK's "I Have a Dream" speech makes for perhaps the most well-intended Spinal Tap moment ever.
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On The Terror State, new producer Tom Morello seems to have curbed such bombast, as you have to believe he played the same role in Rage Against the Machine. The tension between Morello and his in-studio pupils leads to intricately layered guitars with itchy reggae refrains and, lyrically, a Clash-like allusiveness that once seemed impossible for a band that sang "Your Daddy Was a Rich Man, Your Daddy's Fucking Dead."