The trajectory of Propagandhi over the past twelve years has been a sight to see. In each of their releases, the band has reinvented their sound effortlessly. From the Southern-California-meets-Winnipeg melodic skate-punk of How to Clean Everything to the speed-metal-infused power of Today's Empires, Tomorrow's Ashes, Propagandhi has never failed to provide remarkable leaps forward in an endless succession of nearly flawless releases.
Their first two albums were sarcastic, wry and saw the band using humour to tackle lofty subjects; but the departure of John Samson (and coincidentally a Bush presidency) took the band into even darker, angrier territory. With Potemkin City Limits, the band continues on this darker path, and has again managed to surpass even themselves to deliver one of the best albums of the year in this genre or any other.
One of the most immediately noticeable qualities of Potemkin City Limits is certainly its length; with previous albums barely reaching a half hour, a forty-plus minute Propagandhi album is quite remarkable, but the band finds plenty to do with the added space, with the songs taking their Venom-meets-Bad Religion to newly unearthed depths of dynamic and range. Even at four minutes, it's almost like the tracks can barely contain the sheer volume of ideas in them.
"A Speculative Fiction" explodes out of the gate, a track that could very easily see concert attendees destroying their venues. The relentless track posits a cold war between the U.S. and Canada, focusing both on the small ways -- the imperial measurement system, stupid, stupid Fox Hockey coverage -- and the big ones - American policies of domination, the war in Iraq, and civil liberties. The lyrical content, like the music, is uncompromising and relentless. Vocalist/guitarist Chris Hannah very ably shreds throughout the track which pummels with visceral power chords while stopping to allow single plucked strings to resonate.
The next track, "Fedallah's Hearse," tackles the Israeli occupation, and is one of many songs which criticizes the tendencies of strong nations to subvert weaker ones; even Canada is not immune from the attack, as the band examines the treatment of aboriginal Canadians in "Bringer of Greater Things" from the perspective of two people who were left out to die by those sworn to protect them and the unconscionably slim punishments received by those police officers. Bassist Todd Kowalski takes over vocal duties for this track as he does on the speedy hardcore of "Impending Halfhead" and a handful of others.
With each track, the power of the lyrics is not allowed to overshadow the music, which is both beautifully melancholy and devastatingly heavy. "Die Jugend Marchiert" slams military recruitment, showing the increasingly desperate U.S. military as calculated pseudo-patriots worthy of Leni Riefenstahl but couples it with an speedy metal-tinged punk accompaniment.
Of course, it'd be an error to make no mention of what will turn out to be the more controversial track on the album, at least within the "punk" scene: "Rock for Sustainable Capitalism," a track which takes plenty of time to attack the major label mohawks of Rancid, and even Fat Mike who released both this album and the Rock Against Bush series that drew the ire of Propagandhi early last year.
Though some will listen to the song and be more interested in the gossip of a band rebelling against a beloved label, the criticisms are quite reasonable, as the band sees the difference between idealism and pragmatism as the difference between compromise and collaboration. Still, it's worth mentioning that no matter where you stand on the Rock Against Bush issue, the band has valid concerns and hopefully this will provoke some discussion and not turn into a Internet-exaggerated fight between band and label. Complex issues aside, this is another track that is going to send people jumping off their beds.
"Name and Address Withheld," which surfaced on the Take Penacilin Now! compilation earlier this year, was an incredible song then, and remains so now. Taking a harsh look at dehumanizing American policies which place less value on the tens of thousands of dead Iraqi civilians then the two thousand dead soldiers and the tendency of people to view American lives as inherently valuable compared to the "worthless" lives of non-white peoples. It's a hard topic to raise, and the band does so directly without euphemism and without apology.
As many will point out, it has been almost five years since this band has released an album, but listening to Potemkin City Limits it becomes abundantly clear that the intervening years has not seen Propagandhi willing to end their pledge to "whine and kick & scream, until everyone has everything they need." and with this album, like each that proceeded it, they have shown that they are a band at the very forefront of music and message.
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