September 20, 2005
Legend has it that over this past CMJ weekend, a bunch of Pitchfork staffers got together and argued over one important question: who’d been to the worst El Guapo show. El Guapo was maybe the worst band in the history of DC post-hardcore (which is saying something), a relentlessly pretentious art-wank machine with the annoying habit of landing on bills with much, much better bands. El Guapo kicked around DC for years and released four albums, two of them on Dischord. Then they added the drummer from Orthrelm, changed their name to Supersystem, left Dischord, signed with Touch & Go, and started making dancepunk. Now all of a sudden they’re amazing, and their “debut” album Always Never Again is maybe the most underrated of the year. I have no idea how shit like this happens; I just report on it.
Always Never Again is a fucking monster, the best dancepunk album this side of the Rapture’s Echoes. It’s got that band’s sense of wire-edge drama, where the beats are like blood pounding in your head when you’re walking through a strange abandoned neighborhood by yourself at four in the morning rather than some bullet-train-to-ecstasy thing. But Supersystem also has a pretty amazing range of weapons in its arsenal: Dick Dale Middle-Eastern surf guitars, diwali handclaps, Detroit techno buzz-clanks, roiling Burundi drums, Iron Maiden fired-up helium wails, dings, whooshes, death-rattles, and probably a ton of stuff I haven’t even picked out yet. They also have the sense of vein-popping rigor and commitment that you hear in bands that grew up on DC punk, the sense that the fate of the world demands on how hard they can sing this next chorus. But for some reason the association that comes up hardest for me is the Prodigy circa “Breathe,” that kicking, screaming heavy creepiness. (Oh, and the album’s last song is one of the best freak-folk jams of the year.)
If they have all the force of the Rapture on record, they don’t have much of it onstage. Opening the final New York show of fellow DC punk travelers Q and Not U at the Knitting Factory last night, they were too tentative, mumbling lyrics rather than howling them, giggling over fuckups like they indie-rock schlubs they really are. Three of the four members were stuck behind shelves of keyboards or drums, and only the hawk-faced bassist (the one who keeps the band in compliance with the unwritten DC punk rule that each band must have at least one prematurely balding member) had any room to kick up some dirt. The vocals were mixed way too low; songs like “Born Into the World” could’ve been world-destroying stompers but came out timid and emaciated. Still, the songs had enough gas in their tanks to blow the headliners off the stage. Q and Not U made a similar disco move in the last year of its existence, but it wore its newfound funk awkwardly, like Billy Corgan when he first shaved his head and started rocking silver spacepants after years of thrift-store shagginess. Next to them, Supersystem looked like the soldiers of the future, like people who were born banging out shattering beats. It was like all El Guapo’s years of intense shittiness had never happened, and I, for one, am willing to pretend that they didn’t.
Riff Raff on Q and Not U coming soon