When writing my undergraduate thesis on the role of the music critic, a main topic of my research was to determine to what degree analysis of the wider context of music was intrinsic to writing about music. Obviously understanding the messages and ideals being communicated in a piece of music through it’s lyrics and it’s sound is essential to understanding the artistic purpose and merit of the music as a whole, but when it comes to visual materials (album art, music videos etc) and the personal lives of the musicians performing the aforementioned music, things become a bit more tricky.
A good example of these interests butting heads comes with AFI side project XTRMST. Named with the supercool method of thinking of an edgy word and then removing the vowels, XTRMST is Industrial-influenced Hardcore project from Davey Havok and Jade Puget, the lead vocalist and guitarist of AFI respectively (who also struck out on their own with electronic project Blaqk Audio). While AFI started life as a hardcore-influenced punk outfit, over their 23 year career they have experienced many genre shifts from pop-punk to emo to alternative, even embracing elements of electronic dance music and synthpop.
The members of this two piece are both strong advocates of the ‘Straight Edge’ lifestyle (no drink or drugs, but you already knew that) but unlike AFI or Blaqk Audio the lyrical content of XTRMST’s music seems to be exclusively about the straight edge lifestyle, with more than a few songs sounding like pointed attacks at those who would choose to use such substances recreationally.
As someone who does not align myself with the straight edge movement but still lives a drug-free lifestyle I feel I sit somewhere on the outside on this one. Take this ‘subtle’ jab from Conformist:
Yeah, you’re so wild. But you’re counter culture falls straight in line. Yeah you’re so wild, you and everyone else.
Before tearing into the call and response of:
Inhale. Hold it in. Let the deterioration begin.
You’re being awfully on the nose about this, Davey. The whole thing just seems a little impotent, furiously striking out at an invisible enemy that doesn’t really affect anyone who doesn’t choose to associate themselves with that type of lifestyle. It sounds like as a whole I’m pretty negative on this whole project, right? That’s the thing; the music is really, darn, good.
The key word here is furious. Everything about XTRMST is furious, savage, aggressive. They’re the musical equivalent of an MMA fighter delivering a precise flurry of lethal blows to an opponent’s face. The guitars are tight, blending heavy grinding riffs and confident grooves with occasional bursts of technical fretwork. The rhythm section is equally on-point. The basslines are downright filthy, showing a lot of influence from Industrial metal bands like Ministry, with the fairly standard hardcore drumming being the only element that leaves room for improvement. It’s slightly baffling that after all of AFI’s radio friendly pop-punk hits, Davey Havok can still deliver such a chillingly ferocious vocal performance but his high pitched screams more than match the ferocity of the instrumentation at every turn.
The only spots where Havok falls flat are the spoken word interludes peppered throughout the five tracks available on the band’s Soundcloud page. It is in these moments where the slightly juvenile nature of the lyrical content are laid bare and while Havok’s rallying cries to his straight edge bretherin are certainly catchy, more often than not they also come across as more than a little silly.
With that being said, the majority of the material released thus far is top quality hardcore; fast, tightly played and focused. The weakest track so far released is the latest single Words For The Unwanted, which opts for a slower moody tempo. Dirty Nails is by far the band’s stand out track, boasting a fist-pumping chorus and some very memorable riffs. The band’s self titled album will be available on 18th November.
So can a band’s social and cultural context be separated from the music they produce? I guess that’s a matter of personal opinion, but I could sure as hell chug a beer and bang my head to XTRMST. You can read Davey Havok’s personal statement on the aims of the project here.