Having heard the Arthritic Foot Soldiers' single released earlier this year, which featured two tracks from this then-forthcoming album, I was looking forward to hearing if they had produced two gems for that red slab of vinyl with something kept in reserve for the rest of the long-player, or if they had peaked with nothing to keep the momentum going.
The opening track, “No Wonder” is off the single and despite the inclusion of some ska-like guitar, it is a worthy starting point for this album. AFS provide a sound that is drenched with the history of Bad Religion in as much as there are bucket-loads of tunes and melodies, with a lot of “ooh"s, "ah"s and “whoa"s for backing vocals. However, the difference is that lead singer Munki Boi has a gruff singing voice that means the band do not sound like one of the many BR sound-alikes that have crawled out of the woodwork over the past 30 years.
The second track is “Lies,” which was not on the single, and pleasingly it’s already better than what came before, so AFS do have more than the single might have indicated. With “TV Minds” coming next, this provides the highlight of that single and also of the album. This is the song that has had me humming more than any other on the album and it’s no surprise that it was featured on the single. The message behind it is obvious--we’re in danger of becoming obsessed with television as it fights to become the way we are all informed of what is right and/or wrong in the world. It still amazes me how many people live their lives through what happens on a small (well, not so small in the days of 48-inch screens) box and are so heavily influenced by what they hear and see. So, a hummable song and one with a message I can relate to--always a bonus.
From here on in, the album is a tale of mid-ranged peaks, with one particularly deep trough towards the end. None of those peaks reach the lofty heights delivered in the opening trio of tracks, although that’s not for a lack of effort as “Protest Song” is a decent song but just not good enough to stop me hearing “TV Minds” playing repeatedly in my head. Similarly, “Another Whiskey,” a song written about Wilf, the singer/bassist in the Bullet Kings and sung by Carl Arnfield (the guitar powerhouse in both AFS and the BKs), breaks the album up a bit, offering a significantly less gruff vocal. I always liked it when Stiff Little Fingers "allowed" Henry Cluney to sing one song on each album as it gave them the feel that they were more than just a one-trick pony, so hats off to AFS for doing likewise.
However, there is one occasion where the quality of song is lacking quite a bit. The lowest point of the album is reached with “Radicals”--I don’t like this song and I think it’s a case of how so many punk bands are slowing things down with more of an acoustic approach. Sometimes it works and other times it doesn't--this comes into the latter category for me.
“Freedom Ain't Free” has a nice metallic guitar riff that lifts me out of the depths plumbed by “Radicals” and despite its fairly basic construction and approach, it works well, coming in as my fourth favourite track on the album. Oddly, the title track is sequenced to appear last--I’m not sure I've encountered that before--and is obviously giving Las Vegas a hard time for luring people into handing their money over as they gamble to improve themselves, whilst in reality the bank never loses. Good sentiments again and not a bad ending to the album, but it doesn't really go out with a bang.
Apparently this album was written and recorded in nine weeks. To me that seems quite a short timespan and perhaps that has stopped the album from being as consistent and as good as its predecessor, Immature Nobodies. However, it would be wrong to write this off as a release to avoid as there are a handful of really good, gritty and tuneful punk tracks to get your ears around. This time last year I’d not heard of AFS at all, but I've acquired a fair chunk of their output this year, and although they might never be one of the fashionable bands with the kids, they have a certain charm about them that will ensure I keep looking forward to future releases.