By Ashley Zimmerman
By Dana Krangel
By John Hood
By Ashley Zimmerman
By David Von Bader
By Sayre Berman
By Steve Brennan
By Ashley Zimmerman
Hardcore act Boy Sets Fire,by its own definition, is a group of politically active young men. The band regularly turns its volume-heavy, slam-dancing live shows into forums about the future of the nation. But the drug history of George W. Bush and the wooden pronouncements of Al Gore rarely enter the discussion -- not even this close to November. That's because at least two members of the quintet are planning to cast their votes for Gus Hall, presidential candidate for the Communist Party U.S.A.
Guitarist Josh Latshaw and singer Nathan Gray are the two official Communists in the Delaware-based quintet, which visits Fort Lauderdale on June 29. But Matt Krupanski (drums), Rob Avery (bass), and Chad Istvan (guitar) are also down for social change. As high schoolers living along the New Jersey/ Delaware border, Latshaw and Istvan gravitated to the writings of Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn while cultivating a strong antiracist mindset. Deciding to form a punk band with some radical ideals, they set out to find the right -- or left, as it were -- participants. Gray, Avery, and Krupanski fit the bill, musically as well as politically.
The five then-teenagers released Consider shortly after the band's inception in 1995. Raw as road rash, the album found a middle ground between Hüsker Dü and Fugazi and tilled it -- hard. Two years later The Day the Sun Went Outcontinued the energy level, and the lyric sheet (a necessity if you wanted a clue as to what Gray was shouting about) showed that the band's anger wasn't average middle-class rage but a rage against the class system in general. In Chrysalis, from 1998, began to slow down the frenzied pace and added melodic elements to the roiling brew.
In April, Victory Records released After the Eulogy, which offers more coherence and diversity than its predecessors. The title track explodes with swashbuckling dual guitar work, while Gray screams, "Where's your anger/Where's your fucking rage?" He doesn't have to look far to find his own. "One of the biggest things that pisses me off in the world today," he explains from his home in Wilmington, "isn't famine, hunger, war, or anything like that -- it's people who are keeping themselves and others from taking care of the issues."
Gray often emulates a drill sergeant barking orders. "(Compassion) As Skull Fragments on the Wall" begins with his command, "Front and center!" But closer inspection of After the Eulogy reveals at least three sides to Boy Sets Fire's sound. There's the mosh pit-ready material characterized by Gray's ferocious, vein-popping bellowing and the pummeling, regimented rhythm section. There's an in-between mode where Gray's voice downshifts from a bawl to a near-soothing smoothness, as the band discovers harmony and seems to temper its rhetoric with Ritalin. "The Abominations of Those Virtuous," for instance, starts with an a cappella vocal intro. By the album's ninth track, "My Life in the Knife Trade," Boy Sets Fire's melodic aspect fully asserts itself. "All the worst of enemies are somehow always friends that used to be," Gray sings, adding an almost sweet yearning to his voice, while the guitars originate from a locale closer to Hootie than Henry Rollins.
But that's a temporary digression. When the angst resurfaces on "The Force Majeure," Gray is back to bullhorn mode, shouting, "Behold the capitalists bathing in the blood of the working class!"
On the liner notes for After the Eulogy, Web, e-mail, and mailing addresses for Anti-Racist Action,Free Mumia Abu-Jamal,the Leonard Peltier Defense Committee,Michael Moore, Sexpanic,and Refuse & Resist!are referenced. But Gray acknowledges that the communist affiliation is often met with skepticism and disbelief, especially when it's as hard as ever to look around the globe and find an example of the system actually working. It's easier, in fact, to point to its smoking wreckage.
"People always throw that in my face," Gray says. "Russia, Vietnam, all that shit." He's slightly defensive as he adds, "It's a theory, it's an economic system, it's an idea. Those countries didn't perfect communism or do it well. I'm not going to try to justify Russia or Vietnam -- or even Lenin or Mao, who did a lot of horrible things. But I will justify the idea of communism and the idea behind where it's supposed to go."
Of course Boy Sets Fire's music appeals primarily to a certain demographic -- angry, young, suburban white males. When informed that different groups (Birkenstocked liberals, perhaps) might well go for the message if the music were less harsh, Gray appears baffled.
"It doesn't bother me, really. I wouldn't even know how to react to that. If they don't like the music, then they don't have to listen to it."
In fact the members of Boy Sets Fire (still in their mid-twenties) bristle at being labeled a hardcore band, since they lay no claim to punk puritanism. The band has come under fire, Gray claims, from hard-to-please followers who hear any tinge of melody as a coerced concession to the Man.
"If we came out with a new album that was more melodic, everybody would say, 'Oh my God, they're selling out.' But that's just how we are. It's not like we write a pretty song to get a radio hit -- we write a pretty song because we like it."