By this point there’s little room for contention: Orgcore is an established and distinct subgenre under the punk umbrella. Its gruff, beardy likeness has witnessed adherents swell in popularity as new acts derived from the style’s pioneers pop up every week. And as a sovereign species, it is allowed to merge and cross-pollinate, fusing with other genres and charting new territory as a result.
Orgcore: meet ska.
Of course, I’m not talking about any kind of brassy, third-wave ensemble, nor am I claiming it’s the first time such a union has come together. Against Me! tapped the upstroke for “Jamaican Me Crazy” (or “Scream It Until You’re Coughing Up Blood,” depending on which part of the jewel case you believe) and American Steel has employed some skankable rhythms for songs like “Got a Backbeat” and “Shrapnel.” Cobra Skulls have embraced the two styles to an even greater extent with a handful of tunes like “Charming the Cobra,” “Cobra Skulls in D Minor” and “I Want Bigger Cobra Skulls.”
But with Holding on to Sound, the two styles are indivisible. Take for instance the five-minute opener “War” that leads in with tom-toms pounding like Warren Oakes before an uneven sequence of grand barre chords that catch the beat like the semi-ska of Common Rider’s This Is Unity Music. On the following “Song for the Earth,” the emphasis on a bouncy up-tempo is more clear -- that is, before the first of several spastic punk freakouts that roll forth with the snappy, slurred verve of the Falcon, or perhaps the Lawrence Arms after a bit too much of the sauce. Where HOTS deviate is the intriguing incorporation of peace-punk elements, as apparent in the crusty scorcher “Mistakes” that comes complete with a nearly apocalyptic spoken-word outro. But the band quickly return to its newfound alcove with one of the album’s most memorable tracks, “Outsider,” which has lead singer Bennet Mains shouting above a quickened reggae rhythm: “Teach me to believe in all that you’ve seen / Stop using God as a marketing scheme / I’m gonna rise up to the sky, sword and pistol by my side / Tonight we’re gonna sing our song for freedom.” On “Creatures of Habit,” he churns out a dizzying Hot Cross-like riff before it moves in stages from hard-hitting punk to head-bobbing ska and back again. Bassist Zabi Naqshband lays down a fuzzy groove on “Bogus” while Vanessa Tidwell beats the skins to a noisy pulp, showcasing the band’s versatility once again in its seamless transitions, captured by Ben Kersten of Sub-Pop fame in the sound booth.
Songs of Freedom is impressively assembled of elaborate structures and ideas, and executed with poise incorporating ska, reggae and the grizzly melodic punk known as orgcore. Holding on to Sound have proven that you can have your skank and beard it, too. Or for those who frown upon ending reviews with puns: They’ve made a damn fine record.