Fear No Empire - Fear No Empire [EP] (Cover Artwork)
Staff Pick

Fear No Empire

Fear No Empire [EP] (2020)

Killing Season

Fear No Empire is mostly Zebrahead. Literally. By that I mean that ¾ of the members of Fear No Empire are from Zebrahead: rapper Ali Tabatabaee, bassist Ben Osmundson, and guitarist Dan Palmer, the last of whom splits his time already between Zebrahead and Death by Stereo. Rounding out the foursome is current Adolescents and Death by Stereo drummer, Mike Cambra. So, in essence, it’s Zebrahead without singer/guitarist Matty Lewis and drummer Ed Udhus. And what are they doing that Zebrahead doesn’t do? Well, getting political, of course.

I was frankly surprised to hear a political EP from members of a band that once wrote the song “I’m Just Here for the Free Beer” which featured a chorus with the line “I don't give a fuck 'bout your revolution.” Of course, that was singer Matty Lewis’s line in that song, and perhaps that’s why he’s not in this side project. Tabatabaee, on the other hand, makes it obvious that he does give a fuck about revolution, as that’s pretty much what this whole album is about. In fact, the word “revolution” comes up many times on this EP. In essence, this whole project is the members doing their best job of imitating Rage Against the Machine and, while Ali Tabatabaee may not be as profound a rapper as Zack de la Rocha and Dan Palmer may not be as adept at wild guitar tricks as Tom Morello, neither one falls as short as you might expect. Without Matty Lewis’s singing voice to balance out Ali Tabatabaee’s rap-screaming, it makes for a much more aggressive and harsh lyrical sound that anything Zebrahead has done. And, freed from a band that revolves around feel-good music and party anthems, Tabatabaee shows much better rapping skill when focusing on politics in Fear No Empire than he ever did in Zebrahead.

Despite having a co-frontman who was born in Tehran, Zebrahead tends to be the suburban white kid’s punk-rap group, as Tabatabaee, despite being a person of color, never writes lyrics that highlight his race or race in general, or really much of anything that might make listeners uncomfortable in the least, for that matter. That all changes in Fear No Empire, where Tabatabaee confronts racism head on and talks from the specific perspective of a person of color outraged at the current state of racial hatred in this country. “My brown skin is an amplifier,” he states on the song “Amplifier,” meaning that it attracts attention from the police. “Protests ain’t treason/When you’re trying to stop the black and brown killing season” he says on the EP’s closing track, “On Fire America.”

Of course, race isn’t the only topic of protest on this EP. “Super Spreader,” the first punk song I’ve heard about the COVID-19 crisis, starts out with an audio clip of a woman complaining about being forced to wear a mask. The song then starts up and strikes back at her and all anti-maskers and COVID-deniers with a taught, fast little track that hits hard with its comically blunt chorus of “Wear a fucking mask you dumb fuck!” “Revolt” takes aim at Trump’s immigration policy and says it’s fighting for “the kids in cages,” while “Feed the Pressure” focuses on the border wall and other policies directed at undocumented immigrants.

To be frank, based on his work in Zebrahead, I had no idea that Ali Tabatabaee was this knowledgeable and aware about politics, much less that he knew how to properly use the word “bourgeoisie” in a sentence. I’ve always wondered what it would sound like if Tabatabaee ever put out a solo record, and I think this is the closest we might ever get to hearing it. While most of his familiar bandmates are still beside him, Tabatabaee branches out a little bit, on his own for the first time in his career without anyone singing catchy and upbeat choruses for him. Despite being “mostly Zebrahead,” as I stated at the beginning of this review, it develops a whole new sound quite separate and distinct from Zebrahead, and forges a new path for itself that its parent band would never take.