Band: Modern Life Is War.
Album: Witness 10 year anniversary re-prees
Label: Deathwish Records / Lifeline Records
I’m not sure if this counts as a ‘review’, after all the album in question is 10 years old, so anything I have to say about its musicianship is surely redundant?! However, due to its anniversary, I am going to try and pitifully express why I think you should care about this album, even if it’s only a fraction of the amount that I care for it.
First of all, I will say this - if you have any interest in hardcore music, you should ‘own’ this album, be it on vinyl, real CD, copied CD, tape, or mp3. I believe it is that important. The fact that it has been re-pressed and re-released on its 10th anniversary should back that up. So, let’s all of us pretend we are uninitiated - what can we expect from this record? Why is it so good? Well, MLIW don’t play with breakneck, unrelenting speed. There are no beatdowns, or obvious opportunities to do a spin kick. And with the exception of album mid-point Dead Ramones, there are arguably no real anthemic, singalong choruses. So what gives?! It doesn’t even sound like a hardcore record so far…
Well think about it for a second. To the casual listener or outsider, hardcore gets dismissed as a genre where everyone sounds the same. And there is that element to it, and for some people that element is enough. But for those of us that really explore the genre, we find nuance and variation that keep us eternally interested, the same as any genre that is never fully capitalised upon for mass consumption. This is why I love hardcore. Minor Threat. Bane. Code Orange. H2O. Converge. Terror. They are all hardcore, yet they are not alike. For every band that plays fast paced singalong anthems or sets the pit off with beatdown after beatdown, there is another band that do something different. Something that may sound familiar, yet somehow makes that particular band stand apart from the crowd. I believe MLIW are one of these bands. For me, hardcore is not necessarily about the exact technique or delivery. It is not a specific set of sounds. But angst, desperation, urgency, catharsis, passion, rhythm, melody? These are the qualities that define hardcore music in my mind. And in that respect, Witness is a near perfect example of modern hardcore music, because it has all of these in spades.
“So what the fuck are you going to do kid?!”
As a whole scene, hardcore has always been the home for kids that didn’t ‘fit’ in one way or another. We have cultivated sounds, ideas, and even fashion that has set us apart. To echo this sentiment, Witness is also for the outsiders. However, I think it achieves this at a deeper level than by mere sounds or aesthetics. Thematically, atmospherically and lyrically, this is for people who feel lost. Who feel trapped in wherever they call home, be it the size of London or Oswaldtwistle. For anyone who has ever felt desperate, and felt that life is a struggle - however that ‘struggle’ manifests. Broken homes, addiction, depression, heartbreak. This album gives somewhere to be for those that feel isolated. For those that are down but not yet out. For those that need something to change. It is perfectly fitting that track one is called The Outsiders, and that its first line is that driving question. What are you going to do? It is an introduction in the truest sense, it has a slow, rising, teasing rhythm and is utterly essential in setting the atmosphere for the rest of the record. Those first jangly chords, and those scorched throat vocals, they still make the hairs on my neck stand up today.
Martin Atchet and John & Jimmy both have this unrelenting driving rhythm, a feeling of urgency like they are constantly building towards something, while Marshalltown slows down the pace, creating a haunting feeling to proceedings. I feel the first four tracks build up and set the stage for Dead Ramones, which picks up the pace, a marching rhythm and an ode to life on the road. It simultaneously acts as celebration/justification for what they do, a thank-you to their fans, and a daring call to arms for anyone else with dreams of making art as a ‘living’. It always reminds me of that Minor Threat line “We’re not the first, and I hope we’re not the last…” An acknowledgement that they may not be doing anything ’new’ in the strictest of terms, but that what they are doing still has validity, and as long as there are people that feel this way, our ‘movement’ should continue. It is almost out of place on the record: fast paced and anthemic, but is rightfully positioned as the centre piece of the album, as it creates a great juxtaposition for the introspective songs that sit either side of it when the album is played via CD. When played on the vinyl repress, it acts as a crescendo to act one, finishing off side A on a high note before the descent into side B where there is more introspection, more desperation, yet more flickers of hope.
I don’t want to do a track-by-track breakdown of the album, as I’ve mentioned it is redundant by now. Besides, I would continue to gush like a teenage girl on her first crush. However, my years of making mixtapes prove that each these songs work on their own, in their own right. But this is definitely best experienced as a full album. The tracklist is carefully considered and everything is in its rightful place. The albums musicianship has a simplicity to it, there is no pretension or flamboyance. Again perhaps a defining element of ‘true’ hardcore. But everything is purposeful and powerful, masterfully and confidently performed, and the remastered version does this a new justice, particularly beefing up the lower end of the record to create an even fuller sound than what has previously existed.
This record has also aged well. Mid 00’s was a good time for hardcore. I may have rose tinted glasses, but it was perhaps the last ‘golden era’ we had. When released in 2005, Witness managed to stand apart and gain recognition from fans and peers alike, despite fantastic albums being released by Comeback Kid, Go It Alone, Killing The Dream, Panic, & Miles Away the same year, and following in the wake of albums by Champion, Verse, Sick Of It All, Another Breath, Outbreak, Terror & The Suicide File the previous year. This album resonated with a particular faction of hardcore fans, and it has influenced many contemporary hardcore bands, in particular bands like Defeater, Capsize & Landscapes.
The catharsis, introspection, and desperation conveyed in this record, which are also counterpointed with hope, motivation and inspiration, have made it important at a personal level both for me and for other people. I know from my own experience that this album has the power to console and comfort, but also the power to raise spirits and inspire, all in one listen-through. The re-press also echoes this sentiment. In the gorgeous 12” book that comes in the gatefold record, there is a two page spread, where people (friends, peers, fans, journalists?!) write something about what Witness means to them. I am not an emotional person, but reading these comments choked me up a little bit. Perhaps it is that validation that you aren’t alone. That to feel so much passion for a 28 minute hardcore record that has helped define you for 10 years, has not happened in isolation.
Witness 10 year anniversary edition is available on Deathwish