by Tom Alexander (@___alexd)
Punk has always been about ideology. Whether it be anarchism, straight-edge living, socialism, or nihilism, punk music is (often) dissatisfaction with society made manifest. USA Nails, the London noise rock band, is not exactly a punk band, but their chugging bass, sneering vocals, and jagged guitar certainly share certain qualities of that genre. More than anything, that sense of cynicism – that something about us is wrong – is about as punk as it gets, and that’s what USA Nails is here to talk (or holler) about. Their new record, Life Cinema, takes listeners to the brink of nihilism forcing them to see their own reflections in that great void of nothingness.
And if that sounds like a lecture, it’s not. Life Cinema is, more than anything, like grabbing an exposed circuit with your bare hands, making your hair stand on end, jaw clenched, eyes wide. The album is a dozen concentrated denotations of loud, abrasive post-punk. While USA Nails does not reveal their hand until the end of the album (more on that later), they let listeners know exactly what they are in for with the opening seconds. Once started, Life Cinema is a machine that cannot be shut down. Take, for example, the opening track “Smile,” where by the 0:31 timestamp, the initial waves of loud guitars and cymbals have been pulled back only to reveal that the distorted bass hasn’t changed at all. It’s the same feeling as entering a hallway and turning around only to find that the door shut, the exit, is already closed and there’s no way through but forward. USA Nails won’t give you a second to pause, catch your breath, or reconsider turning back. They want you to get to the end of Life Cinema, not just because they want you to hear these songs – every single one of them is good – but because it isn’t until the end that the album’s true themes are revealed.
Many of the songs on Life Cinema feature repetition, whether that be a shouted lyric, a circular guitar riff, or a breathless bass run. That repetition becomes meditative and powerful. For example, on early single “Creative Industries,” vocalist Steven Hodson shouts “Instant this. Instant that. You’re instant nothing,” during the chorus. The accusation here is not just that we are surrounded by tools of instant gratification; it’s that people themselves have been the readymade, single-serving capitalist products we have surrounded ourselves by. Or consider the chorus of “Life Cinema,” which circles around variations of “tune in” and “turn off,” which invoke Timothy Leary’s famous counter-culture call to “turn on, tune in, drop out.” The angled, up-stroked guitars of “It’s Ordinary” reflect the zombified denizens of the suburbs. Like sonically-similar Future of the Left, the brutal pummeling of USA Nails’ music and its darkly grinning lyrics are just an expression of modern day life brought to life.
The penultimate track of Life Cinema provides the diagnosis to the underlying problems, however, and re-contextualizes the rest of the album before it. “A Sense Of Self Will Always Limit You” is the longest track on the album, clocking in slightly over the 3-minute mark, and its title sounds like a statement that could vaguely enough be taken as a neo-Buddhist mantra. As USA Nails unpacks this, they confront how easily something that feels profound could be passed off as cynical nihilism or vice versa In their words: “A routine that best suits you. Wake. Drink. Sit. Sleep,” Steven Hodson shouts, “Tip away, tip away. He said ‘a sense of self will always limit you’”. A couple of things to note here (1) the “routine” here is something that USA Nails has been railing against for most of Life Cinema, (2) the band put these words in someone else’s mouth, and (3) the ominous minor chords during the guru’s advice tell us everything that we need to know about how USA Nails feel about the statement. Where the phrase “A Sense Of Self Will Always Limit You” sounds like something a motivational speaker or vaguely spiritual guru (think Deepak Chopra types) would say, it is played here like an utterance of abject horror. It is something to be terrified by. While mystics and Jungians may see ego death as an ultimate form of self-surrender, USA Nails might argue that the sense of self is the only thing that holds us back from total annihilation. That monks life? That wake, drink, sit, sleep cycle? That’s exactly what we do every day, and it has brought us no closer to happiness, peace, or fulfillment.
Now that USA Nails have ushered you to the end of the album, pushing you through that corridor from start-to-finish, a reprised verse of “Life Cinema” plays as an exit theme and the credits roll. “They’ve replaced you with a deathless actor,” they remind you. What? Were you expecting a happy ending? Life Cinema gives you a lot to think about, and that’s what makes it good. What makes it great is that it’s so visceral and immediate that even though it’s a bumpy, hostile ride, you’ll feel the need to take it again and again.