I won’t lie, as I made my way over to Club Soda for this particular round of performances; I made a somewhat mischievous promise to myself that I would hear no Ska music that evening.
A lofty goal, given that the show was headlined by none other than Streetlight Manifesto, one of the most popular bands left in the floundering North American Ska scene. However, my interest in the show had absolutely nothing to do with upward guitar strumming or horn sections and had everything to do with the monstrous Bad Religion meets Dillinger Escape Plan sound of New Bedford, Massachusetts’ A Wilhelm Scream.
I discovered the band almost four years ago with the release of their sophomore record as AWS, Ruiner (though it was their fourth as a band since they released two full lengths under the name Smackin’ Isaiah).
However, after a while they kinda fell under the radar both due to a long string of inactivity before their newest effort, 2007’s Career Suicide and their tendency to not only not headline very often, but end up as the token aggressive band on mainstream Ska tours like this one (the last time they were in Montreal they were opening for Less Than Jake in 2006). However, after their riotous and highly distributed performance at The Fest VII in October, the band re-entered my life with a vengeance and I didn’t want to pass on yet another opportunity to see them, even if it meant having to deal with obnoxious Montreal Ska Kids . . . and oh, there were many of them . . . so many, in fact, that the show sold out in advance. I’ll never understand just how Ska has remained so popular specifically in Montreal when it pretty much lost face everywhere else in . . . well, the world (though I suspect local heroes The Planet Smashers and Montreal-based Stomp Records have something to do with it). Now, while I love Big D and the Kids Table as much as the next guy, they’re pretty much the only Ska bands I can still listen to without wanting to claw my ears off these days (and that probably has more to do with A) The City of Boston and B) Operation Ivy, than anything else).
Upon entering the packed show space I realized, to my chagrin, that the typical formula of “mainstream ska band with punk openers” wasn’t adhered to as much as I suspected with this tour, as openers The Stitch-Up were very much a young, three piece ska band (who, prior to the show, I was confusing with Ontario Emo quintet The Stick-Up who I now realize broke up three years ago). Mercifully, since I showed up late, I was only subjected to about five minutes of upward guitar strumming and ironic ballads about the KKK adopting highways before their set ended . . . and at least there were no horns . . . so it was only a half-fail really.
Next up was Flint, Michigan’s The Swellers, an overly melodic hardcore act I’d been somewhat familiar with but had never actually seen. In short, I hadn’t missed much. While the band was relatively tight in terms of their musicianship, they were boring as all hell. It was almost as if the only records they ever heard with Thrice’s The Artist in the Ambulance and Lifetime’s Jersey’s Best Dancers, except they failed to understand what really made both those records so good and subsequently combined all of the annoying parts of both to form a band entirely dependent on unnecessary blast beats and overly melodic vocals. Not as terrible as I just made it sound, but not compelling in the least either.
Which leads us to A Wilhelm Scream, who after their first song (a riotous rendition of the first single off Career Suicide, “The Horse”) made it clear that they are huge sufferers of “big venue syndrome.” Some bands really do not come across well in venues with a capacity larger than 500 (or in this case 400, really) and AWS are most certainly one of them. The intensity and drive is ultimately diluted by all the empty space, so while the dedicated fans beating the shit out of themselves in front of the stage certainly had a great time, my perch from just in front of the sound booth left much to be desired and I’m sure everyone behind me and on the balcony got even less of why the band was so good (though given the sea of Streetlight Manifesto shirts, I don’t think they cared either.)
Despite the space concerns, the band was still tight as all hell. I don’t think I’ve ever seen two guitarists employ so much finger tapping, to the point that the majority of the guitar parts involved very little actual strumming, though their bassist’s attempt to playfully do the same on his own instrument fell flat for me. While I strongly support bassists stepping out of the shadows and holding their own on stage (mostly since I am also a bassist), you gotta recognize the limitations of your instrument and work with it goddamnit! Stop trying to LOOK cool and BE cool.
Hitting tracks off their last three records (the aforementioned Ruiner and Career Suicide as well as 2004’s Mute Print) like fan favourites (and by fan favourites I mean my favourites) “Killing It,” “Jaws 3 People 0” and “The Rip,” they managed to easily blow away most bands in the admittedly flimsy post-hardcore scene (Paint It Black and Converge notwithstanding.) If anything, they need to embrace that scene a little more instead of constantly opening for ska crowds who view them as a token act at best or just ignore them entirely, though playing The Fest for the first time was a step in the right direction. As much as I hate to admit it, a big part of being a successful musician is placement . . . if you’re playing for the wrong crowd in the wrong place then you just aren’t gonna live up to your full potential, but they’ve done pretty well for themselves up until now and will probably continue to do so, so more power to ’em, I guess.
When their set ended I briefly flirted with the idea of at least sticking around for Streetlight Manifesto’s first song just to see what the fuss was about, but as the crowd around me got drunker and even more obnoxious I realized that they were actually making me hate the band and the genre even more by association . . . and I have just a little too much hate in my life already, ya know?
Josh Mocle retroactively laments buying all those Reel Big Fish records. You can catch him spinning the best in new and newish Folk, Punk and Indie Rock on The Kids Are So-So.