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Blacklist - Midnight of the Century (Wierd Records)

25 May 2009

“Your time is past, the guard is changing,” declares singer Josh Strawn in “Still Changes,” the opening opus off Blacklist’s debut full-length. Whether referring to the changing of the guard in a crumbling political regime or a decaying musical landscape, there is always a multiplicity of meanings to be explored with Blacklist – the personal is political and the political personal.

May 26th marks the release of Midnight of the Century on New York City’s Wierd Records. Strawn, drummer Glenn Maryansky, bassist Ryan Rayhill, and guitarist James Minor have created an album equal parts pornography, poetry, post-punk and politics. Together since 2005, they have ransacked stages from New York to Austin and have seduced an online audience from around the world.

“Everyone knows neither left nor right is presenting anything coherent,” Strawn opines via email. “In the vacuum, superstition has become a way of life, and so to be militantly humanistic and to insist on the truth of the material world is to me the most pressing revolt of our times.” And Midnight of the Century provides such a salve.

From my introduction to the band in 2006 when Strawn prefaced a song with commentary on the mainstream American media’s biased representation of Palestine, I knew that Blacklist’s medium was a message not only of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll, but of geo-politics, socio-cultural dynamics, and revolt. Clever and earnest dissections of issues taking center stage around the world are situated side by side with affairs of the heart.

Deeply penetrating and perhaps, most importantly, perpetually groove-y, it’s difficult not to invoke The Sisters of Mercy when discussing such an intersection of politics, romance, and post-punk. Like Andrew Eldritch says of his band, Blacklist’s music is “allusive rather than illusive,” with so much to unpack in the lyrical content — one could indeed speculate for hours.

When asked about his lyrics, Strawn stresses the beauty of ambivalence. “When I heard the song ‘Peacekeeper’ by Fleetwood Mac during all the post 9/11 chaos, I thought it was brilliant. I frankly didn’t know whether it was anti-war, pro-war, whether it was about personal relationships or about nations – then I realized, that’s why it’s brilliant. Because it can be all of the above and yet the lyrics aren’t empty vessels – there are pieces of insight and there are assertions, but it’s not preachy through and through. You don’t get tied to specific times or issues and catchphrases. To me it’s the most sophisticated way of approaching politics in music.”

Much of Midnight of the Century approaches politics in the same way. Whether “tiny iron curtains,” and borders coming down on “Flight of the Demoiselles” or “mouths pressed shut in the crossfire” on “Language of the Living Dead,” political conflict is easily interpreted as romantic turmoil — to Blacklist, love is a battlefield. And while multiple meanings abound in the lyrics, what seals the deal is always the music. Some tracks appeal to the intellect, while others demand a visceral response, but it is the ones that simultaneously inspire all aspects that are most engaging.

“Shock in the Hotel Falcon” rivals “Kashmir” for the best sex soundtrack out there: with a dirty drum and bass coupling spurred on by razor slices of reverb-laced guitar, it’s nearly coitus incarnate. “Julie Speaks” employs crunchy, heavy sonics that drive dangerously forward, inviting you “to give up control,” and “When Worlds Collide” has a sweet, uplifting melody with a singalong chorus that demands a physical response.

As for explicit influences, Strawn cites Arthur Lee and Lindsey Buckingham, despite a darker aesthetic that bleeds through. “The Cunning of History” is dreamlike, almost tribal in the most languid way possible and very Comsat Angels, while “Odessa” brings The Church to mind. Early Clan of Xymox and French coldwave pioneers Asylum Party are written across the aural fabric of the record as well.

And as for the album title, connections to anarchist-cum-Bolshevik Victor Serge and the age of the Hitler-Stalin pact are inevitable, but perhaps the midnight of the century has only just begun. Such is the beauty of Blacklist. Beneath all the analysis still lies a fully captivating core. “When you’re gone, I’ll come on the stereo,” Strawn prophesizes on “Still Changes.” And it’s amidst the changing of the (van)guard that Blacklist will perform this musical coup.