June 16, 2010

Million Dead - Listen to This Band

One of the best bands I've ever come across is now-defunct British band Million Dead. The band intelligently combined punk-rock, heavy metal, and the British Sound, topping every song with witty and politically profound lyrics.

I've had a number of "favorite" bands in my lifetime, but few of them hold up in retrospect like Million Dead. Like most good bands, Million Dead was short lived, only playing together for four years from 2001 - 2005. Since their break-up the only member of the band I've followed is Frank Turner, whose punk-folk music is strong and catchy. Because of their short existence, they released relatively few recordings, the best of which I'll write about below, along with music samples.

A Song to Ruin

A Song To Ruin while being Million Dead's first full length album, has the sound of a band who has already reached maturity. The album can be called anything but formulaic, with unorthodox song forms, masterfully crafted lyrics, and a range of styles from the brooding epic "The Rise and Fall" (an allegorical story about the fall of the Roman Empire and other empires as told by the people who toppled them), to the grindcore influenced album opener "Pornography for Cowards".

Frank Turner's lyrical construction shines brightly on this album, with every song containing deep references to mythology ("The Rise and Fall"), popular culture ("MacGyver"), Soviet government stuctures ("I am the Party"), and fairy-tales ("Charlie and the Propaganda Myth Machine"). A sample of these clever lyrics from the fourth song on the album, "Charlie and the Propaganda Myth Machine", a play on the Roald Dahl classic, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

Willy Wonka was a capitalist confidence trickster,
a poster boy for neo-liberalism, a full-stop on revolt.
and the BFG a propagandist for an unaccountable regime,
Orwell's vision with a wrinkled face.
Hold out the arm and quiet the voice.

Most amazingly, Turner is able to twist arhythmic lyrics like the ones above and fit them to the music in such a way that few others can do. The most powerful song, and closest to a "single" off the record (although "Smiling at Strangers on Trains" is the first official single), is the raucous "I Am the Party", a song complete with references to Orwell, the Bolsheviks, and a number of Eastern European revolutions. 

This same music video rip was my first exposure to Million Dead, and to this day I still get chills from this song. The power of the drums and bass combined with the intricate guitar riffs drive the song musically, while Turner expertly combines screaming and singing more skillfully than most hard-rock vocalists. I was originally drawn to the song by the music, and upon looking up the lyrics I was only rewarded further.

Harmony No Harmony

Million Dead's second (and last) full length album Harmony No Harmony was quickly followed by the release of their break-up notice. Having discovered Million Dead around 2003, I was devastated to have this new musical treat taken away from me, before they ever got a chance to tour America (or get any airplay or recognition in the States). Harmony No Harmony is as strong an album as their previous effort had been, but strikingly different. The lyrics are less overtly political, and more social and philosophical in nature. 

The creative and academic references can still be found with songs like "Carthago est Delenda" referencing the Punic Wars, "Holloway Prison Blues" referencing philosopher Francis Fukuyama (famous for being a founder of neo-conservatism), and a slew of musical references including "Holloway Prison Blues" (referencing "Folsom Prison Blues" by Johnny Cash), "After the Rush Hour" (Neil Young's "After the Gold Rush"), and even the title of the album is a reference to liner notes in Blag Flag's album Everything Went Black. 

While mantaining the rough sound from the previous album (despite the replacement of the guitarist), this album finds itself with more streamlined and formulaic song constructions. The post-rock forms of the last album have been replaced with the more standard verse-refrain-bridge constructions of popular rock-and-roll. Despite this change, Million Dead ups the ante in song arrangements. "To Whom it May Concern", an open letter from a cubicle worker to his/her boss, and "Father My Father" a confessional about the broken relationship between Turner and his father, both end with expansive choruses, with the former featuring a multiple-harmony chorus on the words "I'm only working here because I need the fucking money". 

The video for one of the best tracks on the album, "After the Rush Hour":

and because I know you're curious about that chorus (sorry about the sound quality):

In addition to their two full-length albums, the band released a number of singles and EPs, the most interesting of which is the EP I Gave my Eyes to Stevie Wonder, the title song of which sounds like this:

For those of you who are already hooked, I also recommend looking up their cover of the Smith's "Girlfriend in a Coma" and all of Frank Turner's output.

Frank Turner, while not writing music of the same aggresive quality, keeps his lyrics in fine form, but continues the mainstreaming of his music. His lyrics have become more social in nature, but are still clever, and occasionally contain the same intelligent politics of Million Dead. He plays in a realm halway between folk and punk-rock and keeps an avid fan-base. I corresponded by email with him soon after he split from Million Dead and began doing his own music, to ask his permission to play his music on KSTO. He was excited at the prospect, sent me a CD and even offered me free tickets to any shows in England if I could find someone to give them to. If Million Dead seems too hard for you, or if you simply want more, look up Frank Turner.

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