Sauna Youth - Dreamlands
Sauna Youth are a snapshot of where punk is at in London in the 21st century. The English capital-natives rarely venture beyond the borders and have been regulars on the scene since 2010, releasing four cassettes and three seven inches in the process. It would be untrue if you said they were completely straight-up punk, as they regularly try to broaden their horizons. Whether that is by recruiting Short Story writers, visual artists or whatever, they like to experiment whilst assuring us all they're still just "a punk band that loves The Ramones." So, as I understand, both Gringo Records and Faux Discx have decided to release their first long-play release Dreamlands as a collaboration, hailing it as the marker of their 'mutation of sound' and 'new line-up'. So, with the privilege of reviewing the material, I rolled out the cups of coffee and slipped into my kimono.
The record is clearly split into two halves, the first being the opening ten-minute piece 'Town Called Distraction' and the rest being the rest. So I'll tackle it that way. 'Town Called Distraction' aims to juxtapose hardcore punk with a dead-pan short story reading; mirroring a quote from the press release – "Why can't we be both The Ramones and Steve Reich". The short story itself is written by Patrick Fisher (Cold Pumas) and Sauna Youth's Harper Ecke. I love the idea, I really do - and as a beginning to a narrative, or a concept record; it's perfect. However, frankly, it just isn't a good enough piece – and it isn't executed very well. The track doesn't texturally develop as the story progresses, and neither is it repetitive and hypnotic like a minimalist piece. There are moments where the language is terrific – 'cold disaffection' and 'burgeoning bank of clouds' are lovely nuances to indulge in, but I just can't forgive sentences like 'I can't explain how exactly, but it was like I'd visited the site of the painting that I'd feared since childhood, and found that it was merely the style of the brushwork that had put me off'. Whilst the long descriptions and general blunt outlook in the dialogue peddle between lonely seventeen year-old and dystopian idealist, I really do admire Sauna Youth for attempting something so ambitious to begin their opening record - scrutinising it this much is merely a compliment.
Ok, half two.
'Planned Designs' whizzes out the barrel without a trigger having been pulled. The loose production and stylised sound in the vocals are instantly enticing; most British music shies away from this aesthetic, and it's no surprise that the guys mix the material themselves. For some reason an urge to listen to The Wrens' Secaucus sprang to mind. To end the track, a wall of sound ensues and a guitar solo comes out on top.
When you work in such a distinct style there's even more of an emphasis on lyrical content, and I just don't think that's one of Sauna Youth's stronger features. The themes revolve around social commentary, and aspire somewhere between Bukowski and Dee Ramone. Sometimes we hear straightforwardly how Sauna Youth just "Want Somewhere To Play" to soon enough listen to a more flowery style, heard prominently in 'Viscount Discount' with the exchange "Straight, Narrow, Guidelines, Rules Cut to fit/There's a mind just disengaged Boxes to tick." When you're art-punk like this instance, the latter style compliments the songs more so.
'PSI Girls' is the track in which things really come together. The terrific backing vocals bring the best out of a characteristic main vocal and both the staccato and smooth guitar lines alike. To me, when the tonality varies and the voices are strong, Sauna Youth really do find a lovely balance which isn't actually that 'Punk'. I do understand that this might not be what Pines, Mince, Boon & Ecke are looking for, but when it occurs frequently throughout the release, it must be in their accumulative psyche.
Dreamlands is rough, really rough, but if you listen to Sauna Youth's previous material, it's most certainly made strides in varying interesting directions, which is great for a band. The record has an unkempt disposition and a core which is striving to be as foreward thinking as it can be and, whilst it often comes a little short of the mark, it's far more ambitious than most releases you'll hear this year.