To Subjugate or Serve? Propagandhi's 'Supporting Caste'

propagandhi-supporting-caste

I’ve had the pleasure, since mid-February, of listening to the new Propagandhi album, their first in over 3 years (although better than their over five year hiatus between Less Talk, More Rock, Today’s Empires, Tomorrow’s Ashes, and Potemkin City Limits). Propagandhi, a punk rock band from Winnipeg, Canada, have been rocking since 1986 when Jord Samolesky (drums) and Chris Hannah (vocals/guitar) put out a flyer reading “Progressive thrash band looking for bass player.” If progressive is the term one wishes to use, it is apt. Not only is their sound the progression of punk rock/ “thrash,” as the band claims/ hardcore or whatever term one wishes to use but their songwriting and worldview are also progressive and taken beyond the “rigid dichotomies” of the brand of punk rock I grew up listening to and in some ways still idolize. But Propagandhi is a band to grow up with, a band to, if one intends to expand their mind, grow into. They’ve been described as grown-up rebellion music, but that may be derogatory and simplistic. In the end, their a band melding various strands of their collective musical endeavors into one cohesive unit. As a writer/vocalist/bassist/guitarist of a few bands, this is a nearly impossible task and it is a testament to Propagandhi that after nearly two decades, it all still sounds like kids trying to change the world.

Upon one’s first listen, the album is less somber than Potekin City Limits (so one knows, I am a huge fan of the album and see Supporting Caste as its logical follow-up; some have disowned the album and the band since 1996’s Less Talk, More Rock) but the lyrical content cuts just as a deep, and in some ways deeper (“Without Love”). This album starts where “Iteration” left us in 2005, “inevitable waves of change.” This is not to say change in the Barack Obama sense of the word (although Chris Hannah did recently give Obama some compliments, trying not to be too cynical) but change in a post-Bush, post-functional capitalistic world system. Supporting Caste has its flaws, but the good outweigh the bad and, if nothing else, it deserves a listen.

Todd Kowalski, their bassist and second vocalist since Today’s Empires, opens the album with “Night Letters,” possibly (without seeing the linear notes to the album yet) the song he referenced as writing for Potemkin City Limits but did not have time to record. As mentioned earlier, if Hannah singing of people’s redemption in “Iteration,” “Night Letters” leaves open the door for chaos. It follows, as I see it, a “Mate Ka Moris Ukun Rasik An” figure, someone who fled their homeland (East Timor, Rwanda) that was ravaged by war. The woman, whom the narrator (Kowalski) knows, works the night shift “so she won’t be alone” in a city without any comforts. In the songs most frightening and chilling part, Kowalski sings, “I see it burning inside you / like some exploding sun / your mind constantly returns / to a place that’s not so fucking cold.” There is communication between the two in the song, as Kowalski sings over blast beats and a genuine thrash-metal sound, “Tell them it’s three years that they’ll have to wait as their whole world implodes.”

If “Night Letters” is one of the highlights off Supporting Caste, “Potemkin City Limits” is the other. It acts a bridge between Today’s Empires and today, in a way that Potemkin City Limits, the album, did not. “Potemkin City Limits,” like “Night Letters” can exist in any time to any corner of the world, which has always been Propagandhi’s strength. Francis, the protagonist in the song, could be fleeing anybody, anywhere. It is this that makes this song so poignant. The internal rhyme and the the space between chords empower this song and enhance its quality above the others on the record. It is the complexity that originally struck me upon first listen. I thought I would not enjoy it, but turned out to be the most endearing. My hair continues to stand on end every time Chris Hannah sings “to the realm of God.” The song also introduces what “Supporting Caste” tackles earlier in the album, the role of “fairy tales” if you will, and the use of language and image and story to fragment and divide societies into collective beliefs. For this, Francis can be seen as a martyr – his death “marks ‘Potemkin City Limits,’” which is a reference to a created world built to hide an undesirable reality – for beyond his dead body lies the world of truth.

As an aspiring historian, the title track to the album, “Supporting Caste” hit me when I downloaded two tracks from the band a month ago for a donation to charity. Like “A People’s History of the World,” Chris Hannah equates world history and our role, “the two bits” role, as that of “stricken from the narrative wholesale.” I’ve watched classmates of mine write papers eulogizing the same shepherd kings, virgin births and messianic princes mentioned in the opening. This sounded like a cut from Potemkin when I heard it and was drawn in immediately:

Because history exalts only the pornography of force
that of murderers and psychopaths (the rest of us, of course,
stricken from the narrative wholesale:
a back drop to the tale)–
as we, the two-bits, are ushered on and swiftly off this stage with
the jawbones of asses. No stirring curtain call for the masses.
No floral bouquet. No breaking of legs. No recurring role. No artistic control.

He is speaking to our desire to feel one with our surroundings, our fear of not feeling that connection when he speaks softly over an almost absent guitar:

A piece of advice:
if you’re cast on thin ice,
you may as well dance

The guitars surround this acquiescence as Hannah moves in for the kill. It is often, and I speak now as a history major, too easy to accept the narratives drawn in front of us. It’s often easier to dance (we all have) than walk off the ice. Marginalization is hardly fun, but it is important. Hannah draws upon this as he closes:

Do what you feel you must,
but as for me I was not put upon this earth
to subjugate or serve

To spare the act of comparison’s, these will be the one’s listeners will likely read about or draw themselves. “Supporting Caste” is Potemkin‘s “A Speculative Fiction” (which won SOCAN’s first annual ECHO Songwriting Prize); “Potemkin City Limits” is the previous album’s “Iteration” in terms of scope and impact; and the standout track on Potemkin City Limits, “Die Jugend Marschiert” is this record’s “Dear Coaches Corner.” The former explores the connections between the US military and American youth (I propagandhi01can personally attest to this song, many a friend has become a reactionary, bigot from playing games like CounterStrike and, especially, America’s Army), the latter asks Ron McLane, of Hockey Night in the Canada, an explanation for why hockey and the military are again paired together. This is the first of a series of highly personal and moving songs. This one begins with Hannah equating pre-game hockey rituals with Nuremberg – I’ll leave readers to draw their own conclusions – before asking “Coach” to explain to his niece the function the ritual serves as “she’s puzzled by/ this incessant pressure for her to not defy/ collective will/ yellow ribbon lapels.” The build up between these two songs are almost identical – the end is where the ends are tied. “How do I,” Hannah sings, “save her from / this cult of death?” This, along with “Without Love” are two songs I would like to gain more insight on because each carry something beneath their surface appeal.

If I have painted Supporting Caste into another Potemkin, it is here that I clarify their differences. Potemkin is a better record, on the whole (I can only think of “Impending Halfhead” and “Superbowl Patriot XXXVI” as weak tracks). Their new album contains gems (by gems, I mean crystals, diamonds, some of their best work) but also duds that didn’t grab a hold of me like “Dear Coaches Corner” or the undeniable “Tertium Non Datur” did. (This statement also must come with a qualification, the same one I have to make for Bob Dylan when talking about Empire Burlesque or Street Legal: some of the weaker songs are still stronger than what most other bands can produce). “Throwaway” is a strong word, but like “Impending Halfhead,” “Incalculable Effects,” except for the haunting lyrics, is forgettable. “The Funeral Procession” is the same. “Banger’s Embrace,” no throwaway, is great, the melody is ripe, the singing is great, the lyrics remind me of Borges – the way the disciples stay to tend the flame for the kings. But it, and “Human(e) Meat” are second rate – the latter being an update to “Nailing Descartes to the Wall” from Less Talk, More Rock. The ending of Supporting Caste will be the one aspect many will gripe about (I will). For me, it goes back to “Purina Hall of Fame” and “Iteration:” Propagandhi records have always ended strong, with a blistering solo on the albums best song…

“Last Will And Testament” is half a song (and let’s not talk about the hidden track). The song had the trapping for another “Iteration,” (which, if one couldn’t tell, could be my favorite Propagandhi track of all time). I will just reprint the lyrics for time:

Here in the few remaining moments we have left,
just what do you propose we say in our defense?
That much was decided before any one of us were born?
That we were nothing more than objective observers to the madness
and throw up your hands in sadness?
“We’re powerless to change anything anyways.”
So just lay back upon your death bed
and gaze idiotically back up the chain of command
from which we receive our directives.
I guess it’s just common sense to preach
what ought to be but ensure it never is in the present tense.

I turned the volume on high for this, the closer. I listened intently. After four minutes of build-up that was wonderful and showcased how talented the band is, Hannah begins to sing the words above. Like “Supporting Caste” the final lines hit me. “I guess it’s just common sense to preach / what ought to be / but ensure it never is in the present tense.” My body gets numb, I get that tingle Chris Matthew’s felt when Obama speaks. I know what he’s saying, and despite the lack of a solo and the lame bonus track, this is the way Supporting Caste needed to end, softly, without pomp, the way it was heading before I got to the final track. That is not a condemnation on the band by any means, they hold control over what they release. If quiet is how we roll off into the good night, then so be it. I hope I don’t have to wait four years to reemerge.

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~ by Daniel on March 5, 2009.

3 Responses to “To Subjugate or Serve? Propagandhi's 'Supporting Caste'”

  1. Excellent review and analysis. I will link to this on my own review of the album since it’s quite similar to yours–I discuss a few different tracks, but overall a similar take. Let me know what you think!

    http://xugro.wordpress.com/2009/03/27/supporting-caste/

    X.

  2. […] similar review by a historian can be seen here. Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)The Merry Widow ReviewsMore ejournals from […]

  3. I <3 Propagandhi. I haven’t given this album a really careful listen yet, though, so I’ll comment on something else.

    Oddly, the game Counter Strike didn’t remotely dehumanize “terrorists” for me. I’d say the opposite. Why? Because the largely arbitrary nature of which team you end up on reminds me that both sides in a conflict are human, and the satisfaction of planting the bomb and winning the game in a shower of debris makes being a “terrorist” in CS as fun as being a “good guy”.

    America’s Army, on the other hand… yeah that game is pure “Hoo-ah USA!” You can never be the “other” in that game, since each side sees itself as the Americans, and the enemy as the bad guys. A twisted head game for sure.

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