For music fans, change can be difficult. Just because you loved a particular band, doesn’t mean that you’re going to be ready or willing to make the transition to listening to projects its members undertake when that band is over. In fact, any continuity from one act to the next may just serve to remind you that the band you loved isn’t actually around anymore.
Picture spinning a Sugar album and going, “What is this, this isn’t Hüsker Dü, I want Hüsker Dü!” It can take awhile to get over your past attachments and turn your attentions to something new.
So: true confessions: much as I loved the Rebel Spell, until recently, I hadn’t really spent a lot of time on either band that emerged from their ashes, Freak Dream (featuring Rebel Spell bassist Elliot Langford) or Alien Boys (featuring the Rebel Spell’s Erin--aka Wretchederin).
Freak Dream makes it, in one way, a bit easier, because their music has nothing to do with the Rebel Spell’s. In fact, Freak Dream’s music is at times terrifyingly different from your “normal” punk rock of any stripe, especially if you approach them via rock video. Check out “Bash Hop”.
The band seems hellbent on fucking you up in that particular clip, with high-costume, gender bending, horror movie surrealism and a jagged industrial harshness to its sound, all of which kind of forces you to take Freak Dream on its own terms. Their sound might owe a bit more to the SSRI’s--one of Freak Dream leader Elliot Langford’s past bands —than the Rebel Spell’s, but only if you imagine the SSRI’s coming down from three days on nasty stimulants, unable to sleep without unbidden nightmare imagery flooding in, clawing at their sweat-soaked bedsheets, and occasionally screaming in the night.
No, the trouble is not that I hear Freak Dream in terms of Langford’s previous projects; it’s that their music scares the shit out of me. It’s a nightmare vision of punk rock, and I’d probably have to learn something new about music to do it justice as a writer.
Alien Boys are another story.
Like the Rebel Spell, they prefer a no-last name anonymity. Self-Critical Theory, the Alien Boys initial demo tape—distro’d on cassette, and of course, online—has the same sort of gang-vocal background whoas that you get on the Rebel Spell's It’s a Beautiful Future. And occasionally, as with the intro to that EP’s “Gentrification”, Erin’s driving riffage sounds much the same.
Similar, too, is that their song lyrics are political rants born of lived experience of vocalist/lyricist Sarah, who uses the gender-neutral pronoun "they:. Sarah occasionally seeming so intent on delivering the band’s message that they occasionally just stops singing and speaks their truth, passionately and purposefully, while the music slashes away. Sarah's intensity is similar to that of the Rebel Spell’s departed lead vocalist, Todd Serious, even if the subject matter is decidedly different.
So there are distinct, recognizable similarities —enough to generate the auditory equivalent of salivation: but especially on that first EP (and in early live shows I caught) the song structures are nothing like the Rebel Spell’s. My first attempt to listen to it—sorry, Alien Boys!—left me thinking, ““What is this, this isn’t the Rebel Spell, I want the Rebel Spell!”
Night Danger, Alien Boys debut full-length, blasts that pouty stupidity right out of my head. The similarities with the Rebel Spell, in terms of song structures, may have even increased a little, but with faster, tighter, more self-confident songwriting, better production, and a savage intensity of delivery, the album works magnificently, making comparisons with other bands seem pretty much irrelevant. Alien Boys suddenly sounds like the best fucking punk band in Vancouver—tight, fast, smart, and merciless—and Night Danger is a must-have punk album, whose official record release can’t come soon enough.
Sarah, reached by email, acknowledges that “Erin's contributions to the songwriting certainly influence the direction we've gone in”, but adds that a key difference between Night Danger and their previous release is the way the band approached the songwriting.
"Our demo really showed how we were all individually experimenting with what we were bringing to the table," Sarah said. "We were getting comfortable with one another, trying to figure out what felt best for us as individuals. Night Danger really directed us, it pushed us through to unification--a total mind meld of style and sound. We wanted this album to be punchy and contagious. We wanted lots of gang vocal opportunities for people to sing along with. I think we succeeded. Night Danger is a real banger, and we can't wait to have it out.”
And there are other influences, of course, besides Erin’s former band. The name comes, for example, from a tune by somewhat-still-neglected West Coast band the Wipers.
But that’s as far as the influence goes, Sarah explains. Lindsay, the band’s drummer, formerly of the Living Deadbeats, thought it was a good song and a good name.
"It's as simple as that! We enjoy the other things that come with the name—the way people say things like ‘Oh, wow, you guys aren't BOYS at ALL!’—and by enjoy, I mean it always comes up. It's an opportunity to talk about gender politics.”
Though mostly,” Sarah notes, “We just want to talk about our music.”
Musically, Alien Boys, also featuring co-guitarist Alex and bassist Megan, also have an acknowledged influence from Discharge, at least in terms of drawing on d-beat. That's a style of drumming, one reads online, that “hits accents before the 1 count, giving it a rushed feel when played correctly, a polyrhythmic underbelly.”
Though again, Sarah adds, “That's about where the influence stops.”
Then there’s the Gits, particularly present in the title track, “Night Danger,” which, Sarah explains, “Starts with some of her lyrics from the Gits’ ‘Second Skin’ and follows a similar vocal melody. People have described us as ‘Gits-y,’ and I can’t think of a higher compliment. Mia Zapata’s vocals, her style, her lyrical content, all of it had a massive impression on me.”
“Night Danger” has lyrics inspired by what happened to Zapata, who, Sarah reminds Straight readers, “was horrifically assaulted and murdered in Seattle in the 90s.” The reference in the song to how it “took eleven years… for justice to be served" nods at the long-fruitless investigation, which involved an episode of the TV series Forensic Files and monies raised by bands like Nirvana, Soundgarden, and Pearl Jam to fund a private investigation. It wasn’t until new DNA evidence emerged in 2003 that an arrest was finally made; Zapata’s rapist and killer is now in prison.
There are other songs on Night Danger that take in sexual predation, like “Whose Bodies”, which references the investigation into alleged Toronto serial killer Bruce McArthur. Sarah’s lyrics take solidarity with the victims, of course:
“Countless taken from us and more murdered every day,” they sing.
Sarah feels powerfully about speaking out when it comes to victimization, and is a supporter of the #MeToo movement, describing as a necessary process.
"It is a sort of anti-sexist, anti-violence growing pain of an all-connected world," Sarah says. "Talking about experiences has been one of the only ways folks who are marginalized have survived. It makes sense that, when given the platform, people will talk and be emboldened by their shared experiences. It allows people to speak together, to have the strength to face an oppressor, a common enemy, and call it for what it really is.”
Sarah also feels strongly about showing respect for people who, like Zapata, have inspired her by speaking out, taking a stance against social injustice. The singer's list of musical heroes is by no means all female—they nod at Jello Biafra, Nick Cave, and Rob Wright as stylistic inspirations—but Alien Boys also owe a debt to Girlschool, L7, Joan Jett, and the recently-reunited Bikini Kill.
There’s a strong feminist streak throughout Night Danger, which, Sarah says, “should uphold and honour the women who have inspired me, who have touched parts of my life through their stories and their music, women who are powerhouses that helped me feel a little less disconnected.”
And not all of the inspirations are punks, either, as with “Lady Day vs. the State,” which tells the story of Billie Holiday, talking about both her drug use and the attempts of the US government to silence her, using the stigma around drugs as a weapon.
“It was one of my favourite songs to write,” Sarah explains. “We were close to crunch time for recording, and I didn’t have lyrics for this track yet. It was such a droning, despondent kind of song. I went to one of my favourite haunts and was just staring at this blank paper. The sirens were echoing outside, the opening riff was echoing in my head, and the two just came together in one big wail. That’s why the backup vocals are so soft on this one–they’re imitating those sirens. With the fentanyl crisis raging on around us and killing, on average 125 people a month in B.C. alone there are all these de-stigmatizing campaigns around trying to 'humanize' addiction."
They continue with, "I thought Billie Holiday was such a tragic culmination of the kinds of oppression that keep drug users hidden and dying in silence. She was harassed and tormented by this ‘anti-drug’ team they mobilized in the States. She suffered because those men that came after her were upholding a system that was inherently racist, sexist, and classist. To this day, many aspects of the legal system, healthcare, social services, they all come together in a great, oppressive nightmare that works to keep people who are ‘othered’ down, locked in, immobilized.”
Drugs and the stigma around their use are, in fact, an important theme on Night Danger, as is obvious in their video for “Bender”.
Directed by Alex, the other guitarist in the band, Sarahs reveals that the video was shot in the bathroom of a well-loved DIY venue that the band would rather not name on the web. The sticker-and-graffiti adorned can is mostly used as a place to use, drink, make out, or puke, as when a punk in a leather jacket with “Dishrags” written on the back shoves someone reading a paper in a stall aside to help a friend barf.
“It would be cool to note," Sarah says, "if you are going to bring it up, how the pool noodle/cable protector in the middle of the ceiling says ‘Have fun! Carry Narcan!’--the brand name of Naloxone."
“Bender” is one of several songs on the album—see also “Dogs”—that is run-through with references to dope and its consumption. “Dogs” talks quite frankly about how addiction made the singer "feel like a dog with a bone–anyone who got close to it and tried to take it away from me, I snapped at. I had to bury it myself.”
The song also takes on “the people you were friends with you (inevitably) turn their backs on you when you ask for help. That happens a lot. Stigma means you are a social outcast, a lesser than if you identify yourself. The great irony is that the friends you have who are not your using buddies are the ones most likely to tell you to scram when you need them most.”
So addiction is something Sarah has direct experience of?
“Yeah, the lens through which I see the world is absolutely tinted by addiction,” Sarah acknowledges. “It takes up a lot of space in my life and in my head. It’s something that I used to be nervous to talk about, but you go through a lot of shedding and re-growth when you deal with addiction, and I’m no longer afraid of losing anything besides more friends, family, or colleagues to their own addictions. I spent a lot of time trying to hide it, or hide from it, but the only thing that got me was social isolation and self-loathing. For me, talking about it helps. Being part of the community maintains my [now healthier] relationship to drugs and drug use. Having access to a bunch of likeminded, compassionate, nonjudgmental people will do wonders that way.”
De-stigmatizing drug use is only a small piece of the answer, however. It connects with a broader political view, both in the band’s lyrics and in Sarah’s value system:
“I see a lot of things through an anti-capitalistic framework,” the singer explains. “The alienation that people routinely experience from being forced to live in a system that doesn’t represent or care about them, to work a job they aren’t fulfilled by, to live in substandard housing conditions, to barely make enough to obtain the basic means of subsistence—what good does that do anyone? How is that not a great existential joke?”
The line that ends “Lady Day Vs. the State” – that “the harder the enforcement, the harder come the drugs,” is part of that.
“The system works to uphold this ‘war on drugs’ that seeks to punish drug users for being marginalized. The harder the government crackdown on the drug trade, the more we see a rise in surrogates like fentanyl, carafentanil, and other weird synthetic drugs that are cooked up somewhere and shipped off in the mail—things that kill people in droves. It's cheaper to smuggle in higher concentrated powders than bring in the real deal anyway. I’m talking specifically about heroin here. People are going to use drugs and find ways to cope with the massive amounts of trauma and pain they carry around with them. What would it look like if we stopped fighting drugs and started caring for people? If we stopped victim-blaming, and started supporting?”
Sarah acknowledges that Vancouver has done some incredible work when it comes to harm reduction, but adds that it needs to do more.
"We need access to a legal, safe supply of drugs for users. There are some very innovative programs that are engaging with this around the city. But that’s just an immediate aid. Long term, we need to approach how we view treatment differently. Abstinence doesn’t work for everyone, and that’s okay. I would like to see more therapeutic communities popping up across Canada—ones that have programs that engage people for longer periods of time than 30/60/90 days. Rewiring your brain takes a very long time and a lot of support. Absolutely no one can do it alone surrounded by shame. That’s a death sentence.”
Another song on the album, “Free Birds,” touches on another feature of life in Vancouver that is seldom drawn so glaringly into the light: the isolation people feel in the city. “When I decided to move to the city,” they sing, “it was for the feeling of conscious community, but now all I feel is that I’ve never been more isolated.”
Pretty much everyone you meet who comes to the city from other parts of the world, even other parts of BC, eventually remarks on that isolation, and it’s always interesting to hear people’s theories as to why Vancouverites in general tend to be so lonely and alienated.
“Personally, I think it’s because a lot of people come to Vancouver to escape one thing and become another," Sarah says. "We spend so much time trying to be someone or something else, in life in general, but especially here. Everything is rush, rush, busy, busy, look at me, I can talk the loudest, look the coolest, be the edgiest . It’s hard to take a breath and find some calm around here. It’s just a lot of noise and overstimulation. Constant sound. Constant motion. Constant choice. The less time you have to sit with yourself, the less you know who you are and what your motivations are. I think it kind of stunts your growth. A lot of people I know have come here, grown in the ways they needed to, and taken off. Not everyone can stomach it. Vancouver really represents all of the things we are supposed to want in life but few of us achieve. If you’re a quiet weirdo like a lot of us are, good luck.”
Night Danger’s cover features two dogs snapping at each other—an image taken by George Derrick, whose Instagram account Sarah follows. “He has all these rescue dogs that he takes the most incredible photos of. Given the image on our band shirt (a dog on a chain Megan, our bass player, drew) and the track ‘Dogs,’ it seemed like a natural fit, and I was thrilled when he gave us permission to use the photo.”
The image is powerful enough that vinyl fans will be delighted to hear that the album is indeed being released on that format. “We had help from Desolate Records which made that dream a reality. You can order the album through their website, or find locations across Canada where it will be distro’d by checking the band’s Facebook page. There will also be copies of the album available at the record release February 9 at the WISE Hall, tho’ CD and cassette releases may still be pending-and available for download on the group’s Bandcamp page.
Rescue dogs, however, have me thinking about Todd Serious again, who was also into rescuing abused dogs, and even had the Rebel Spell do benefit shows for A Better Life dog rescue, who eventually became the subject of police investigations for controversially proactive tactics.
While Night Danger is the sound of Alien Boys rendering irrelevant any past connection to that band, Sarah shares a respect for the Rebel Spell and what they represented.
“Most (all) of us appreciated the Rebel Spell. For me, the political punks are the tops. I like music that simultaneously educates and entertains. It's a hard thing to do, and it's a harder thing to do well. The Rebel Spell were exemplary in that respect, and I appreciate every day that I had exposure to a band that promoted critical thinking. I grew up in the Interior, and the Rebel Spell were one of the only bands that actually toured through the small town I lived in. That in itself is the heart of the matter--they tried to reach everybody, especially the places that rarely saw bands coming through. Touring through places where there are a bunch of kids with little connection, little to do as outlets, little to do but get into trouble, that's one of the things I think we have a responsibility to as Canadian musicians: engage that rural narrative and tour the hell out of your own wild backyard when you can.”
Asked about whether anyone get in their face about their politics at a show, or witnessed other trouble in the pit, Sarah responds that they get in people’s faces, at shows, rather than the other way around.
“I prefer to be on the floor rather than the stage. I find that helps keep the flying elbows and big, body slamming humans to a minimum. And I hope my politics piss someone off somewhere. Otherwise I’m not doing my job.”
When Alien Boys plays their Night Danger record release show at the WISE Hall this Saturday (February 9), opening acts include Fashionism, Dead Cells, and Starvation.
“Mostly all friends of ours that we have played with before,” Sarah says. “It’s going to be very deadly!”
More information about the Night Danger record release, go here.