Overexposure - California '98 (Cover Artwork)


California '98 (2021)

War Against

When I first heard about this album around the time of its streaming release in the second half of 2021, I’ll admit I took a guarded approach to it. Call it the Stranger Things Problem: while I enjoyed watching the popular Netflix show, the whole thing felt like it was created in a lab to appeal to someone my age, and to push all the right nostalgia buttons to bypass any sort of objective critical evaluation. It felt like a trap. With its guest spots from not just one but two AFI bass players, its album structure referencing The Nerve Agents’ Days of the White Owl (for the uninitiated: creepy piano/raging hardcore/somber piano), and even its title, Overexposure’s debut LP California ‘98 is that, but for kids who grew up on late 90s/early 00s dark aesthetic west coast hardcore punk.

After just one or two listens though, the album hung around in my head long enough for me to decide to check out Overexposure live and pick up a freshly-released LP copy when they did some west coast dates in April 2022. While spinning the record, two counters for my earlier hesitation hit me. First, I don’t actually know that many bands who take this set of influences and nail it like Overexposure does. I can think of a lot of bands who do the look, but the sound ends up coming out as either cliché horror punk or melodic screamo pop punk-ish stuff. Second, and this one’s more important, California ‘98 stands on its own as a solid hardcore punk album. Appreciating the nods to its west coast predecessors is just a bonus for listeners who are so inclined.

The clarity of vision on California ‘98 is particularly impressive for a band who seemingly sprang forth from pandemic lockdown to release a full length album, with no demo, no 7”. and just a couple shows under their belts. The foreboding piano intro, performed by AFI’s Hunter Burgan, tiptoes around to distract you for just long enough for proper opener “Static” to jump you with a crashing power chord and a fast bass intro. Side A is pretty relentless from there, but all the songs have memorable choruses or guitar leads or structural deviations (dig that vocal break in “Smoke Screen” and the noisy crash of the second guitar that follows it!) that keep things interesting.

Side B provides a breather by opening with a quiet instrumental interlude, and is also peppered with some brief X-Files dialog samples that make it a little less manically-paced than the first half of the record, but the final song “Open Your Eyes” feels like an appropriately hard-hitting ending. The song features arguably the most commanding of California ‘98’s many guest appearances, with Efrem Schulz of Death by Stereo ranting and screaming through the song’s second half. Another Burgan piano piece bookends the album.

Despite my cynical approach to them, Overexposure are definitely not merely retreading a subgenre that I’m a big fan of, and California ‘98 functions as both a good album on its own terms as well as a worthy successor to the sound that inspired it.