Flashback Friday: Violent Soho, “Violent Soho”

Laced with distorted power chords and overdosing on teenage angst, there’s an endearing quality to Violent Soho’s eponymous LP. Stepping up from the lo-fi rock buzz of previous efforts, the release of Violent Soho’s gut-punching rock wasn’t greeted with the pathological tide of praise lathered upon their subsequent work, but to contextualise the genesis of the album and the group more generally, it’s worthwhile taking a historical detour.

Tempering a raw and heavy grunge sound with Butch Vig’s radio-friendly production, the upsurge of Nirvana’s Nevermind brought alternative rock crashing into the mainstream. Rockists rejoiced. Throughout the 1980s many underground rock acts had courted major label success. Some like the Pixies and The Replacements had come close, yet ultimately failed to secure public recognition and chart success. Yet by 1992 Nirvana had seemingly restored the rebellious, caustic and gritty elements of rock to their rightful place. For a moment, it seemed that rock’s promised (but never quite arriving) revolution might finally be at hand.

Things quickly soured. The tragic death of Kurt Cobain in 1994 proved that those living by the underground’s anti-pop ethos could not exist comfortably within worlds of celebrity and large-scale commercial success. Subsequently, an entire generation grew up with grunge’s bandwagoners more than willing to assume Nirvana’s mantle. Calculating contemporaries like Pearl Jam and shameless cash-ins like Nickleback followed quickly in their wake. In the eyes of many, the momentum of grunge had all but burnt itself out by the close of the decade.

It’s likely that it was through this jaded lens that Australia’s critical establishment came to view Violent Soho. Many were quick to deride the LP, yet they stood firm by the sonic foundation they had created. What those fixated upon the sanctimonious reverence for grunge’s legacy overlooked is that the inspiration of this past burnt strong. Beyond these critical biases lurked something which another generation of untapped ears could deeply resonate with. The group wasn’t just championing the cause at the behest of ‘90s veterans, but for the benefit of a newer generation.

While the epicentre of Grunge was exploding overseas, things were afoot in Australia too. Brisbane, “Australia’s biggest country town” is best known for oppressive heat and heavy-handed policing, but with the 1990s came the release of long-stifled optimism. An autocratic government and the deep-seated conservatism it embodied had been swept away (if not entirely uprooted). Musically things were changing too. Where in the ‘80s even the clean cut Go-Betweens would have been treated with suspicion by passers-by, the city’s enduring music scene was beginning to flourish under a more favourable social and political climate.

The emergence of nationally successful Brisbane locals Powderfinger, Savage Garden, Screamfeeder and Regurgitator were also important drivers for cultural change. The decisions of these groups to record, perform and reside in Brisbane showed other musicians they no longer had to move to Melbourne or Sydney to make a living. Instead of leaving town, breaking up or buckling under police harassment, a new generation of bands helped strengthen their local network. tripe j’s support of local acts in the late 90s also allowed artists to reach a national audience. Slowly people began to look to Brisbane as a vibrant source of Australian music.

Yet there’s still something insular about the city. Away from the industry hub of Sydney or the creative incubation of Melbourne, bands are free to delve deeply into non-commercial sounds. The raw essence of rock music seems to hold a special sway. Perhaps a group like Violent Soho couldn’t have come about anywhere else. It’s very easy envisioning these boys sitting back in the suburbia of Brisbane’s Southside, tucked away in some dimmed down living room blowing smoke and listening to “the classics.” Whether Brisbane’s bands had any direct musical influence is another question. The group may find a closer affinity with Australian acts like Silverchair, The Vines and You Am I bands whose development also occurred in the wake of grunge.

The placement of the band within these two historical contexts makes them truly unique. As music fans, Violent Soho were conscious enough to catch the rise and fall of grunge. As musicians, they were well situated to absorb some of the sensibilities and benefits of Brisbane’s musical coming of age without having to pander too closely to fickle contemporary tastes.

This brings things to the album itself. In all honesty, Violent Soho can’t entirely lay claim to being the group’s first album. After gaining momentum from the release of debut EP Pigs & TV in 2006, the group recorded debut LP We Don’t Belong Here in 2008. To further muddy the waters, many of the tracks from Violent Soho are reworkings of these earlier releases.

Their second album came about through a short-lived signing to Sonic Youth co-founder Thurston Moore’s newly minted Ecstatic Peace! Records in 2009. Spending the better part of the year touring overseas, the group also took time away to record an album. Under the auspices of veteran alt-rock super-producer Gil Norton, Soho captured the songs in Wales’ Rockfield Studio.

The LP opens with Here Be Dragons, an adrenaline pumping riff accompanying barking screams evocative of Cobain to the tee. Even these opening seconds mark a critical juncture for the group, the crystallisation of a signature sonic concoction. Adding a polished gloss to an underlying lattice of scrappier rock noise, Soho set themselves apart from many contemporaries with a willingness to imbue their work with a little radio-friendly sheen. While this digital frosting can often condemn a live band to the depths of tepid genericism, a reluctance to find the balance keeps all too many Australian rock bands away from mainstream ears. Beneath the polish, these tracks are teeming with the off-the-cuff and of-the-moment momentum of live sound.

Follow-up track Jesus Stole My Girlfriend reimagines a previous release into one of the group’s largest hits. Telling the tale of a lover lost to Jesus, the track nods back to the group’s genesis within a Mansfield youth group. A hybrid of Black Francis’ Doolittle era vocal scrapings, sing-song hooks and chugging ‘90s alt-rock choruses, the track’s dense instrumental thicket melds itself into an infectious lead single. The track oscillates between timbrally subdued verses and exploding choruses. Its lyrics tie into the album’s messianic grunge iconography.

Speaking with the voice of a heartsick suburban kid, Outsider invokes many the elements which would later see the group through to success with single Covered In Chrome. Angst-ridden lyrics like “They don’t know/They don’t care/They don’t even understand” connect with the inner teen. It lends well to the confessional and heart-on-sleeve lyricism which sits at the centre of the band’s music, injecting its own subtle influence of terminal disillusion.

When connecting with an audience, it’s often the vocalist’s addition which is the most readily identifiable. This is certainly true here, it’s Outsider’s gentler acoustic showcasing of Boerdam’s tranquil yet melancholic vocal timbre which elevates it to one of the album’s finer moments. Accompanied by its sparse instrumentals, the track wallows in all inviting gloom.

Following its raw rocking introduction, My Generation sounds a little cheesier than the earlier Pigs and TV EP variant. Swapping some antecedent rawness for polish, the track sits closer to the slicker pop leanings of Silverchair’s Neon Ballroom. Yet a bombastic delivery still secures Soho’s status as something more than a hard rocking pop band. It’s these moments that make this album worth the spin. The musical idea behind many great songs can kick around for years until they reach perfection, but it’s rare to be privy to anything but the final product. The group’s career has been marked by incremental improvement, hard work and learning by doing. This isn’t a musical folly so much as a failure to strike the balance. Here they were still getting it right.

Son Of Sam incorporates a Steve Albini-inspired low-end rumble juxtaposed against gentle vocals. Helped along by massive distortion, doubled vocals and paint stripping growls, it isn’t long before verse-born serenity gives way to sonic chaos. Muscle Junkie continues to channel the seething pathos of grunge. Replete with crunching guitar lines, Slippery Tongue’s mingles romance with drug-addled paranoia.

Love Is A Hidden Word throws back to the grunge-treated Britpop of The VinesGet Free. Subdued yet quietly powerful, Narrow Ways adopts a rarer tone. The track demonstrates another musical direction, a trajectory the group may not have taken themselves upon. Permeated with ominous atmospherics, the devotional Paper Plane, channels the darkly defeatist introspection of Nirvana’s Something In The Way.

The overdriven distortion of Eat Your Parents marks a thundering conclusion. Reassuming the album’s religious thematic, pugnacious and drawling lyrics enshrine the depths of anguish and frustration. The track refuses to sit tidily as either vitriolic secular rejection or some twisted affirmation of faith. An energetic spiralling structure sends things out with a moment of rock brilliance.

At times Violent Soho may not top some of the more lo-fi moments it brings forward from previous releases (which are excellent works in their own right), but for the most part, it cultivates their ambrosial signature sound. The LP may have fallen short of the impact supporters of the group expected, it certainly led to a near burning out of the group’s musical ambitions. Yet when they were finally able to muster themselves together and move forward, it’s this eponymous LP which would lay the foundation for the impact of Hungry Ghost three years later.

Stripping away the self-mythologising aspects of popular music, most successful acts aren’t the stratospheric innovators, but neither are they those who wallow in second-hand safety. It was with this album that Soho consolidated their inspirations and worked hard to take them further. What was startling about Violent Soho (and still is) is that while the fingerprints of the group’s antecedents become fainter, their own tracks remain increasingly resonant and blisteringly volcanic. Violent Soho laid a foundation which continues to see these Mansfield natives continuing to push an idea of grunge-laden exuberance to its seeming limits.