Sounds You Need In Your Ears
Episode 5: Head Automatica
Anybody who has spent any time around the post-hardcore scene has likely come across the name Glassjaw. For quite a while after the arrival of the new millennium, they commanded a fairly well-earned place in the upper echelons of the genre, riding with the best there was. And deservedly so: their tunes are excellent.
Their output wasn’t especially prolific during the period — two LPs (2000’s Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About Silence, and its 2002 follow-up, Worship and Tribute) and an EP (El Mark, released in 2005) were all the credits that they could count to their name until the turn of the decade, but their position seemed fairly well secured despite.
Strange, then, that some of their lead singer and primary creative force, Daryl Palumbo‘s greatest work wasn’t with Glassjaw at all. It wasn’t even post-hardcore. No; in between exercising his talents for creating hard-hitting rock in the early 2000s, he was engaging in another, altogether more ambitious pursuit: blending rock with hip-hop and pop.
Being spawned from an unlikely encounter with hip-hop producer Dan ‘The Automator’ Nakamura (an alumnus of Handsome Boy Modeling School, and owner of credits including Gorillaz, Deltron 3030, and Lovage) at a party, the project allowed Palumbo to exercise sensibilities which would never work with his Glassjaw project. Being free of an existing body of work which pushed him in one direction or another with creative output, he was free to explore a range of songwriting and production techniques absent from his other projects.
These updated techniques gave rise to a much richer musical soundscape than his previous works, in part thanks to heavy involvement from Nakamura‘s production efforts (offering sampling, synth, and turntables to the mix), and several collaborator contributions from the likes of Tim Armstrong (Rancid) and Cage. Make no mistake, though – this combination isn’t Nu-metal wank like so much of the time, it’s straight to the point pop-rock doused in the powerpop sensibilities of Palumbo‘s favourite musical influences.
That landscape lead to their debut release, Decadence.
At the time, critics weren’t exactly sure what to make of it. That wasn’t without cause, of course — during a time of dwindling relevance of rap/rock fusions that dominated the years prior, the move was at least somewhat of an anachronism. Further, the critical response seemed to suggest that the record itself was in some ways flawed, falling off of the tightrope of high production and sleaze and falling face-first into an abyss of pomp and pretentiousness.
In hindsight, it’s not an inaccurate characterisation of the result. Palumbo, being infamous for his lingering and peaky vocals and his regularly- cryptic lyrical output, offers a vastly altered input in this instance. Gone are the long, drawn-out line-ends delivered with attack, and in their place we have a much more punctuated delivery more worthy of its album namesake. That is probably best exemplified in tracks like the opener, “At The Speed of A Yellow Bullet”, and closer “I Shot William H. Macy”, both high-energy, fast-paced rockers.
When you delve into the premise of the record, you do understand why these decisions were made. The motive force behind it is largely the over-the-top nature of celebrity and personality, fixed with all the trimmings that come along with that. Dripping in ego and circumstance, it’s like the amplifiers have been on a weeks-long cocaine binge and would talk incredibly highly of themselves at parties. This can be at times disorienting, leaving you with a dizziness as you struggle to know which way is up. At moments, it is soaked in the same ego that Duran Duran lead the charge through the New Romantic era in the 1980s, when everybody was either high or getting high, bathed in garish neon light.
In all, you end up with this kind of maelstrom of noise and sound effects, weaving back and forth through the band it supports. “Dance Party Plus” (a track featuring both Tim Armstrong and members from Eisley), for instance, is a wall of distorted bass and more samples than a modern electronic record, swirling to a climactic zenith that then throws you back down to earth, and delivers you on the doorstep of its follow-on, “Disco Hades II” — almost its mirror image. Where the former is fast and powerful, Disco Hades is more musical and subtle (by Decadence standards, anyway). These changes arrive several times through the record.
Is it a perfect album? No. Debut albums rarely are — even when sporting mainly heavyweights on the cast of players, and additional production credits from the likes of Howard Benson. But, and I feel this is an important disclaimer, I feel the flaws actually add to the character of the whole affair. It’s more of a persona than a musical release, letting you slip on this jacket of utter pretentiousness of moral bankruptcy for a few minutes and experience all the glitz and glamour. Its flaws are closely tied to the lifestyle it mimics, which to me makes it all the more authentic.
Two years later, in 2006, we were offered a hotly-anticipated follow-up. Decadence had found moderate success on the backs of tracks like “Beat Heart, Baby” (offered up as a remix on the second release), and the expected touring took place. Propaganda, the culmination of that anticipation, was once more polarising. This time however, instead of being chagrin over a somewhat unexpected fusion of genres, it came from a removal of that fusion.
With Dan the Automator not contributing to the mix, it sounds in many ways like a musical desert, far removed the bustling porno-neon city that was Decadence. It still has many of the high production sensibilities of the pop music it apes, but differs greatly in motive and intent. Gone are the huge, booming walls of sound and attacking vocals, and in are much greater emphasis on melody and being “musical”, drawing heavy inspiration from the Mod revival era of the 1970s.
Tracks like “Scandalous” and “Shot In The Back – The Platypus” smack of Elvis Costello and The Attractions, and others like “Curious” feel more like early Nick Lowe numbers draped in the clothes of The Knack. There’s even the simplistic progressions and melodic hooks of the likes of Cheap Trick and Graham Parker offered by “God”. All of these are influences Palumbo suggested he was drawing from in creating Propaganda, delivering them with an updated take for the modern age. Broadly speaking, this worked well to the intent it carried.
The collaborations are gone, the big beat sampleganza that Nakamura delivered are gone, and the pompous sleaziness is well and truly gone. I guess in a lot of ways, then, Propaganda is a much purer and honest sonic experience than its sibling. Where Decadence is an experience, Propaganda is a much more self-controlled affair — and as a result, it strikes in a very different way. It’s like a Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde played out over the course of years, and then condensed into hours.
I’ll be up front. Propaganda isn’t an album I’ve ever given particularly much time to. I was amongst the polarised when it arrived, longing instead for a Decadence Mark II in its place. For the longest time, that’s left a bitter taste in my mouth that was hard to get over. But as time has burned by, my opinion of it is softening. The musical merits of it are certainly there – it’s well-played and it’s well-written. The production doesn’t get in the way of the message, and it just gets on with the job of being a pretty solid release. I doubt it’ll ever hold the same accord with me as their first, but I suspect much of that is nostalgia.
A year later, in 2007, talk began to circulate about a follow-up to Propaganda, under the epithet Swan Damage. This was to be a “darker” and “more dancefloor-ready” affair, straying further from the hip-hop roots that the project began with. After years of waiting for its issue, fans were finally met with discouraging news — Palumbo, via his Twitter, announced that Warner Bros. had pulled support for the record and shelved the project indefinitely. This, in tandem with his own conflict with the label over contracts, meant that for all intents, Swan Damage would never see the light of day in a finalised, recorded form.
Around the same time, in 2012, the band went on the road as a four-piece. Several tracks ostensibly from Swan Damage emerged as part of the set, as well as reworks of earlier songs, offering at the time some slight hope for the future of the band. Over half a decade later, however, these hopes have been all but dashed.
Will they ever return? Who knows. It’s fair to say that if they do, they will likely have been through another stylistic evolution. If they return, what will it look like? We can only imagine. For now, looking back is the best we can hope for.
Look back and enjoy one of those gems delivered from a time of very intense flux in the world of music. They aren’t perfect, but when you get right down to it, who cares? Just put them in your ears and thank me later.
Feature by Benji Alldridge