What does it mean to be punk? Forty years ago, it was easy to point at the kids with green, spiky hair and skinny jeans and answer that question. But what can you say now? Green Day once scared parents. Then they sold millions of albums and made a Broadway show. If you want to buy an official Minor Threat t-shirt, you have to pay thirty dollars to buy it from Urban Outfitters. The question goes much deeper than just “selling out,” but a young Canadian band is saying it’s not the question we should be asking at all.
The Flatliners’ fourth full-length album, “Dead Language,” doesn’t start with an explosion of power chords or gang vocals like their first three, or like many other albums out there labeled “punk.” From the very beginning, it subverts the punk tropes many bands spend their careers perfecting.
That opening soft ride cymbal count-off in “Resuscitation of the Year” has, on countless albums, prepared young punks’ ears that a breakneck riff is about to burn through their speakers. On “Dead Language,” it precedes a gentle, folksy electric guitar line. The way the melody wraps around the cymbal count before finally hitting some heavy power chords shows you this is no ordinary punk album. It’s an album about a band pulling itself up above the genre that birthed it by having more heart than anyone else.
For context: By the time the guys in The Flatliners were 19 years old, they had released their second album after being signed to one of the most respected labels in punk music, Fat Wreck Chords. That was 2007. Their sound evolved throughout the years: the adolescence-fueled ska-punk of their debut album, “Destroy to Create,” matured into the bittersweet anthems on “The Great Awake.” By “Cavalcade,” The Flatliners was a band bursting with so much passion they couldn’t fit it all into the format of the punk songs they wrote. These records are all classics in their own way, and their maturation is evident in the way their songs have moved away from what is a “traditionally” punk sound into something much more timeless, all while using the punk tropes they know to their fullest effect. “Dead Language” is the essence of that maturity.
For that reason, this is the record that will stand the test of time. Singer Chris Cresswell’s voice careens from screaming to yelling to singing in a way that would make Bruce Springsteen proud. I don’t take the comparison to the Boss lightly, either; songs like “Birds of England” walk the listener through the issues of youth with the maturity that made Springsteen so legendary. Each chorus on “Dead Language” would sound just as good being sung around a campfire as it would being screamed by a hundred people crammed into a punk-rock bar.
Cresswell’s voice, its youth belied by 10 years fronting a punk band, is like the smoothest gravel. He bellows, but with a rough edge. It makes lyrics like “Sew my mouth shut so I can’t say a word/it just gets me in trouble/trouble I’m not worth” scrape the listener’s emotions. The Flatliners’ reflections on life spent on the road, the personal cost of addiction and their love of their friends are all on display here. Everyone from young punks to older fans looking for something new in rock music can find something to love here.
Instrumentally, the skill of the guitar duo of Scott Brigham and Cresswell cannot be overlooked. The melodies they wring out of their Les Pauls are understated, yet carry with them the full weight of emotion. John Darbey’s bass and Paul Ramirez’s drums make the perfect rhythm section for this collection of songs. The bass speeds along when necessary, and the bass and drums so often find the perfect pocket of groove.
Despite its individual parts being incredible pieces of punk rock artistry on their own, when assembled, “Dead Language” transcends genre boundaries.
It’s unfortunate The Flatliners have never had radio support, except occasionally in their homeland, Canada. The songs on “Dead Language” could thrive on the radio. Not that The Flatliners are “selling out” or anything, it’s just that these songs are that accessible. Their songwriting craft is well-honed. It seems they can do no wrong.
Wondering where “Dead Language will bring The Flatliners is a great joy. I can only hope it is the stepping stone to their rightful place in music history.
Photo courtesy of Matt Warrel, Wikimedia Commons