As the patchwork denim “punx” grumble home and their “anarcho/anti-” gestures fade, the need grows for a bolder, more considered call to arms. Though sabotage and rage are real manifestations of revolt, more valuable still is the call to rise day after day, to keep up a struggle without end. With Failed States Propagandhi continue restlessly beyond their early template, reaching a musical goal they’ve been headed for since the ’80s but only now have the chops to realize: blistering progressive thrash metal.
The sustaining lull that opens the album establishes a moodiness that grounds subsequent tracks. In tonal nuance there is ballast. The “fuck religion” skate-sticker anthems of the past have given way to wiser sentiments crafted to encapsulate not just disillusionment but the strength and will to make the world a better place. That may sound campy and simplistic, but these Winnipeg punks have always been more heart than bile, as evinced in their political activism beyond the band (and their McKenzie brothers good humour).
As the opener “Note to Self” swells and erupts into a clenched-fist classic, dynamic textures emerge in changes and arrangements – this is musical ambition fully realized. Despite their breakneck tempos, the songs on the album expand and contract, breathing more than before. “Note to Self” pauses for founding member Chris Hannah to remark, “How does it make you feel to know you just stood by and watched it? Dazed. Numb. Powerless. Stunned. As we frantically click our heels, already home. The bands. The sports. The booze. It’s all that’s left of you.” Not the most poetic lyric on the page, but delivered in a self-implicating shout before a desperate whisper, it’s a window into the vexed nature of fighting for radical change amid ceaseless spectacle.
The title track is a two-minute blast of aggression that plays on the analogy of people and personal attitudes as failed states, while the autobiographical “Devil’s Creek” explores Hannah’s childhood estrangement, an extended meditation about “adaptive preferences,” “learning to want what you have,” and the solace of nature.
But the most impressive work on the album comes from bassist Todd Kowalski, whose aggressive songs have come into their own instead of being sandwiched between Hannah’s more melodic, considered approach. Kowalski is all heart and “Rattan Cane” is a behemoth of detuned guitar heroics and explosive drumming. Kowalski sounds possessed as the song reaches its zenith, his visceral roar fading into the background during the punishing finale.
“Status Update” is a one-minute banger that accomplishes more with its criminally fast fretwork and humour-inflected anger than most punk bands can in the length of an album. Then, Kowalski’s “Cognitive Suicide” proves he too can write a catchy, melodic chorus, though it gets wickedly derailed by a brazen thrash bridge, complete with tasteful, yes tasteful, whammy guitar solo.
For all of its musical acrobatics and sophisticated arrangements, Failed States never feels forced or contrived. Lyrically, there are no ham-fisted slogans or low-brow appeals to those fans still hungry for an “Anti-Manifesto”-style romp down Nostalgia Way. In fact, the band interrupts the most pop-punk song on the album to have Winnipeg friend and Indigenous activist Wab Kinew give a spoken-word address in Anishinaabemowin.
It’s little wonder the album finds the band in new stages of life – most pronouncedly with Hannah becoming a father. In “Unscripted Moment,” he reflects on the emotional torsion of bringing a child into such a dark world. As a simple guitar line doubles the vocal melody, he lets parataxis do the work, pairing the line “Upstairs I hear her voice softly singing to him and I come undone” with “Something wicked this way comes.” There’s a jarring contiguity between the tender father listening to his partner sing to his infant and an ever-present doom beyond the homeplace.
“Duplicate Keys Icaro (An Interim Report)” closes the album with Hannah motoring through lyrics about primordial floods and “a cosmic lattice of calligraphies with geometries unthinkable.” (Someone has to like Rush so I don’t have to do it.) In the final line before the tune grinds into silence, Hannah sings, “A profound acceptance of an enormous pageantry. A haunting certainty that the unifying principle of this universe is love.” You do your best. You do what you can. And, in that spirit, we can create from the old a better new.