Review: Various Artists – If You’re Frightened of Dying

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Originally published in Delusions of Adequacy Sept. 13, 2004

The staccato stops and starts and shifting time signatures of Rescue’s album-opening “Like Spaceships” can be pretty addictive, but Rec Records’ 20-band comp If You’re Frightened of Dying really hits its stride on the sixth song, Tubring’s “Two Minus Three.”

On the track, digitally distorted vocal harmonies, turntable scratches, and Middle Eastern scales on keyboards and guitar collide with machine gun kick-drums and bouncy, nursery school rhythm refrains, a kind of bizarre head trip a la Mr. Bungle-by-way-of-Limp Bizkit. It’s less than two and a half minutes long but presents this comp’s thesis, writ large: we’re not dealing with some half-hearted punk-rock variety show here.

In the liner notes to If You’re Frightened of Dying, producers/label heads Patrick Mooney and Brandon Wojcik present the record as a kind of collaboration without genre, boundaries, or a pre-constructed sense of “scene.” To an extent, such statements, no matter how heartfelt, can only exist in theory, as each band that offers a track herein presents the listener with a unique set of loaded contexts. But, over the coarse of 20 songs, Rec Records gets pretty close to delivering on that promise.

The listener’s treated to So. Cal-style power-punk (Ryan’s Hope, Divide By Zero) and punk of the more angular variety (the aforementioned Rescue track, Members of the Yellow Press, Mount Saint Helens), straight-up, radio-ready guitar-rock (Long Distance Runner), some semi-lo-fi pop-rock (Goodnight Sweethearts), folksy acoustic ballads (Hanalei), and even a blast or two of full-blown hardcore (Dearest Fae’s blistering “For Old Times Sake,” the lightning-fast “A Dedication” by Solo Mono).

It’s an intriguing palette of sound, more a mix tape shared between music aficionados than a single-minded set from a budding Illinois indie. For the most part, it works.

Over the span of some 70-odd minutes, there are clearly standouts. Tubring’s sense of rhythm, uninhibited exhilaration, and ingenuity seems matched early on by Rescue, whose ability to interweave dissimilar patterns and rhythms is impressive and intricate, and Members of the Yellow Press, who don’t hesitate to cut between separate but engaging interludes at points the listener would expect them to launch back into a safe but hooky chorus. Solo Mono delivers an incredible piece of melodic hardcore, complete with tight verses, stop-on-a-dime shifts, and intense vocal delivery. Acts like Hanalei turn down the volume but not the intensity. The group’s “Curtain Call,” some awkward lyricism aside, manages to mesh the balladry and dreaminess of Stevens with the pop-blues vocal accessibility of someone like Weiland.

The Evaluation’s “One Thing John Grisham and Wal-Mart Have in Common,” set near the center of the 20-track disc, is a solidly structured mass of choppy guitars and roared vocals, a hybrid of Fugazi and the punk cousin, perhaps, of June of ’44’s Anahata. On first listen, the song seems sharp but unremarkable. A few spins later, you begin to realize how deeply its chords and progressions have penetrated your skin.

Chiral’s “Balzac” is riveting for the exact opposite reason: you realize how good the song is after a few notes. Starting with the glassy notes of an electric guitar, digital delay and all, suspended in mid-air, the track adds a gritty reality with the gradual approach of crunchy, distorted guitars before falling back on a spacey but firm refrain. Cast next to the roars of punk bands fixated on making stereo speakers tremble, the song feels like it can border on the mournful.

There are some songs that sink more than they swim, but this seems to be the form and function of compilations: a few bands treat the chance to strut their stuff alongside peers as an opportunity to really shine while others see it as a window to unload lesser material, outtakes, songs that are still being fleshed out for future release. Even the more rusty moments on If You’re Afraid of Dying — the bubblegum of Little Joe Gould’s “Social Gatherings,” the radio-ready sheen of Roy G. Biv’s “I’ll Never Care,” the predictable, three-chords-and-a-cloud-of-dust rumble of Divide By Zero’s “One More Reason” — are still pretty good.

If you’re a punk-rock fiend or a loyal follower of one of these acts, a curious passerby, or just someone looking for an unopened window onto a handful of bands and artists you may not yet have in heavy rotation, the disc is worth a look.

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