The Pittsburgh punks released their fifth album 20 years ago. Punktuation's Josh Watts revisits the album's tracks and powerful messaging.
“Pull on the trigger with heart and soul/ ‘Cos War is Peace – now we know”
So sings Justin Sane on ‘Sold as Freedom’, the fourth track off Anti-Flag’s 2003 album, ‘The Terror State’. It turns 20 years old this year but remains just as relevant today.
The record opens with ‘Turncoat‘. And if you haven’t heard this in 20 years (or ever), I can tell you that it is still bloody catchy: “Turncoat! Killer! Liar! Thief!” Justin Sane and Chris #2 play off each other to excellent effect, in the tradition of dynamic vocal duos such as Armstrong/Frederiksen (Rancid) or Lazzara/ Mascherino (Taking Back Sunday). In fact, ‘Turncoat‘ points precisely to what follows: polished punk rock with punching instrumentation and piercing, pissed off politics.
‘Rank-N-File‘ is a song “for those less fortunate” than the narrator, who gives thanks for their comparable situation.
‘Post-War Breakout‘ interprets words written by Depression-era musician/activist Woody Guthrie and may well be one of the strongest recordings ever put to tape by the band. With distorted chords in the first verse, a creeping bassline in the second, unnerving lyrics and a relentless lead guitar, the song offers an uncomfortable sense of foreboding.
‘Sold As Freedom‘, whose pre-chorus (taken from an Arundhati Roy essay) provides the epigraph to this review, as a Jello-esque song, advising those who want to “save the world” and “end terror” to “fight for the wealth of the few” by:
“Pouring gasoline on the world inferno/Burning it so hot that the world incinerates/When they’re all dead we’ll have no issues to resolve”.
The following track, ‘Power to the Peaceful‘, is inspired by the writings of Russian activist Emma Goldman, such as her essay ‘The Road to Universal Slaughter‘. One of Anti-Flag’s strong points is that there is an ideological intelligence to their lyrics: they are often more nuanced than the first appear. The subject matters are expanded on in their liner notes, with sources and directions to additional information.
The title track from their 2001 album ‘Underground Network‘ discussed the controversial NAFTA trade agreements and ‘The Terror State‘s sixth track, ‘Mind the G.A.T.T‘ is something of a sequel, taking on the practices of the WTO (“We seek to build on the success of NAFTA” states George W. Bush in an opening soundbite). The song paints a global picture, observing that wherever common people reside, “we find our adversaries woven of the same thread” and encouraging resistance:
“Don’t sit there and take it! They build it, we can break it!”
Taking it’s title from a popular refrain, the seventh track ‘You Can Kill the Protestor But You Can’t Kill the Protest‘, presents a litany of violent images all too familiar to those versed in US atrocities in (to take but one example) Latin America. Its message is clear: “You can murder the rebel, but you can’t murder the rebellion”.
‘When You Don’t Control Your Government People Want to Kill You’ takes up the notion that acts of terror such as 9/11 are almost inevitable due to destructive foreign policies:
“Such a wicked force, you had never seen/Though countless times it took place in your name…/Your apathy comes with a price tag after all, it seems”.
This is an apt moment to mention that Tom Morello (Rage Against the Machine; Audioslave) was the album’s executive producer, which makes it unsurprising that its sound is so polished yet retains its fury all the while (think of RATM’s 1992 debut).
And it’s thus unlikely to be uncoincidental that ‘Wake Up!‘ closes with a crescendo of Chris #2 screaming “FREEDOM!” (RATM’s ‘Freedom’, anyone?).
Next up is ‘Tearing Down the Borders’, which returns to the issue of international trade, with excellent lead guitar and particularly pointed lyrics that are too good to pass over:
“No patriotic pledge from multinational companies/ Only a commitment to lock away equality and steal away all freedom/ From the poorest to the poor, so that the boardroom can ensure/ Their stockholders profits are higher in return”.
Vocally, Justin Sane goes between a pained intonation and rapid-fire lines, as if the injustice of what he describes provides fuel to his fire – and this contrast works to great effect. Whilst ‘Post-War Breakout’ channelled Woody Guthrie, ‘Death Of A Nation’ takes up the spirit of one of Guthrie’s heirs: Bob Dylan and his landmark protest song, ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’’. It’s a fierce song – with a blistering breakdown – as Chris #2 castigates the selling out of some and the writing off of others:
“Just because most hippies and their parents have sold out
Does not mean that you, your children, and their kids won’t last”
Opening with both bassline and Bush’s words – “And now with Iraq’s liberation…” – ‘Operation Iraqi Liberation (O.I.L)’ creates that same sense of unease found in ‘Post-War Breakout’. Covering the travesty of civilian casualties (which the US government in April 2003 announced it would not bother counting in Iraq) and US military intervention generally, the issues are highlighted with haunting lyrics:
“To save you we may have to kill you/For freedom you may have to die”
The last track ‘One People, One Struggle’ takes its cue from the song ‘¡El pueblo unido jamás será vencido!’ an anthem of the left-wing Popular Unity government in Chile in the early 1970s. Following the military coup in September 1973 which overthrew the government of Salvador Allende and installed a repressive military junta, the song become one of resistance.
‘One People, One Struggle‘ is, then, a fitting closer- and is in fact about COINTELPRO: an FBI counterintelligence program which ran from the 1950s to the 1970s, disrupting dissident and popular movements by any means necessary. Like many of Anti-Flag’s works, the song is educational; its message pulsating throughout, before ending with an immortal call to arms:
“The people united will never be defeated”.
To employ the adjective a third and final time: The Terror State is polished – but that detracts from neither its power nor its place amongst other punk classics. “The fist of fury that is [drummer] Pat Thetic” (Chris #2) propels these 13 songs from the stereo with the seriousness they so plainly warrant, whilst guitar and vocals from Chris Head strengthen the music still further. If politics is your thing, this album’s for you. If politics ain’t your thing – it soon will be.
‘The Terror State’ was released in October 2003 on Fat Wreck Chords.
- Post-War Breakout
- Sold as Freedom
- Power to the Peaceful
- Mind the G.A.T.T.
- You Can Kill the Protester, But You Can’t Kill the Protest
- When You Don’t Control Your Government People Want to Kill You
- Wake Up!
- Tearing Down the Borders
- Death of a Nation
- Operation Iraqi Liberation (O.I.L.)
- One People, One Struggle
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