Strap yourself in, we are about to stray into legitimate tl;dr territory my friends. In January of 2002, I found myself in Atlanta, Georgia sleeping in a warehouse of some kind that had been turned into every punk’s wet dream of DIY scene housing. Basically just a huge empty space where they could have shows in the middle, and little ad hoc bedrooms constructed along the walls. There were multiple hot plates. There was a living room “area” in the corner, because there was a rug and a couch. There was a pile of VHS tapes containing every episode of Mr. Show. There was someone’s dog hanging out.
On this particular day I remember waking up and seeing snow outside, which is kind of the last thing you want/expect to see in Atlanta. That was emblematic of the day as a whole in retrospect. It was grey, and it was gloomy. Stupid shit happened. Someone in the other band had to leave the tour because they got news that their grandfather had died, and most of us wound up sitting around in this building bummed out until the show later that evening, which was in another warehouse just like this one, like 3 buildings down. It was hours of nothing. For some reason I always remember thinking it was weird that there was a bottle of Aspirin in the shower. That may have qualified as a highlight for me.
The building where (after what seemed like an unrealistically long period of time) the show took place, housed some kind of local record label/distro. I don’t actually remember the name of it even, but when we got there we spent the first 45 minutes just looking through bins of cd’s (yeah cd’s) and records set up on a bunch of tables along the side. There I encountered the final real release by revered Detroit band Thoughts of Ionesco called: For Detroit, From Addiction. I picked up the cd and remember thinking “Didn’t this band break up?”. I bought it without a second thought.
I had loved the couple of TOI records I had been exposed to in the late 90’s, particularly A Skin Historic. They had the rawest sound for a hardcore band I had ever heard, but they also seamlessly transcended the basics of hardcore by shoveling in weird loose jazzy sections and heavy sludgy riffs that were outside the scope of what most bands of that time could or would do. They were what I had always wanted Black Flag to be and was always disappointed to find out they were not. The pain or whatever the fuck that sound was bleeding out of Thoughts of Ionesco’s songs was authentic in a way that was so obvious without even knowing anything about anyone in the band. Living in upstate NY, I had never experienced the band live, but their shows were rumored to be legendary for their chaos, violence, and for alienating entire audiences in minutes. They were the kind of band I would hear people mention in passing, not because they weren’t relevant, but because it seemed a little scary to say too much about them.
When we got back in the van later that night, I put For Detroit, From Addiction in my cd player and started listening. It didn’t leave my cd player for weeks afterward. TOI had accomplished something with that record that I would always try to emulate down the line with other bands I was in and other recordings, and I still feel like I’ve never even come close to their edge. I have listened to it semi-regularly ever since, and every time I am still affected by how intensely real it is. A few years ago I found out that the frontman and driving force of the band – Sean Madigan Hoen, wrote a book titled Songs Only You Know, that partially recounts his time in TOI among other aspects of what turns out was a deeply traumatic and troubled period in his personal life. After reading it, I began to understand fully that feeling I always had that at the core of the band there was a source radiating very real anguish.
Nearly 20 years after dissolving into addiction, mental illness, and fatigue; with the members having dispersed into other projects and moved on with their lives, this relatively obscure band decided to reunite and write a record. It is here now in the form of the new EP Skar Cymbals, released via Corpse Flower Records on 6/23/17. Everything about this reunion feels like the antithesis of bullshit. There’s not a large scale tour, there’s no contract with some hype label that wants to cash in on nostalgia. There’s just 4 new songs and maybe one show; it seems that not much about their aesthetic has changed.
In the opening minutes of my first listen of Skar Cymbals, I found myself amazed that TOI had more or less just picked up where they left off musically. Vocalist Hoen’s insane caterwaul sounds like it comes from the same recording session from 1999 that produced For Detroit, From Addiction somehow. All of the foundational idiosyncrasies of the band are still intact; the extended sections of subdued guitars and jazz influenced drumming, the bass pinning the entire operation to the floor then breaking out to follow its own strange path, and the punishing drive of the heavier riffs. The band is still progressive without noodling themselves into a boring oblivion, they’re still interested in producing songs that ooze venom and vitriol, and while they’re at it they make it known that they can really play their instruments too.
One slight change appears to be that Skar Cymbals obliquely tackles some political subject matter, specifically the looming Trumpian dystopia that dominates our current socio-economic dynamic and its attendant displeasures. This is mainly apparent in the lyrics to the record’s opening track – The Alt. Light (Peer Clear). Hoen intones his anxieties and rage throughout the track atop a musical bedrock that is reminiscent of some of the better moments of Botch’s discography, only containing more filth and acid.
This is followed by Culture of the Eternal Snake, a frantically paced beast of a song that feels like bursts of electricity pulsing directly through the end of a raw, exposed nerve. Third track Salutations follows suit with a similar vibe, bridging the gap between the first part of the album and the closing track, which is almost as long as the others combined. Clocking in at around 13 minutes, Scar Symbols is a meandering rumination that pushes all the band’s quirks up to the max and eventually wends its way into a core section that resembles the other songs on the EP, just festooned with a lot of extra wild musical accessories. That’s not a criticism either, its a pretty fascinating piece.
As a return to form for a band that hasn’t existed in almost two decades, you couldn’t ask for something more satisfying than Skar Cymbals. Thoughts of Ionesco have put together a document that manages to represent their past and their present simultaneously. It deserves to be heard in the same way that the band’s previous records should have had wider recognition than they ever got. In a world littered with derivative and reductive garbage music, Thoughts of Ionesco remain strange, unique, and demanding of your attention, so go give it to them and maybe learn something.
Label: Corpse Flower Records
Release Date: June 23, 2017
FFO: Botch, Kiss it Goodbye, Black Flag, Planes Mistaken for Stars, Coalesce