Ads Top

Dark Ages - Can America Survive?: A 10 Year Anniversary Essay

I can’t explain to you how perfect it feels to be writing about what is -- and will likely remain -- my favorite local album of all time, ten years after its release, in the first print issue of this magazine. A running joke I have with myself is that I don’t believe in fate or karma or anything like that (simply too much bad shit happens to good people for this to feel true), except they do exist in my life. Far too many funny coincidences and full-circle moments happen to me, and this seems to be the latest of them.

My interest in music slowly took hold when I was in sixth grade. I discovered pop-punk bit by bit through video games and movies, eventually finding music videos on YouTube, and joining message boards dedicated to different bands. Sum 41 and Blink-182 were instant favorites, plus Green Day was inescapable post-American Idiot. The intensity and catchiness of the music and the members’ crude sense of humor made perfect sense to me. On the last day of school that year, after digging backwards a bit and discovering the melodic punk of the nineties, my first concert was The Offspring at City Market.

Seeing my favorite bands every few months through middle school made the experience tolerable enough. I loved showing up to school the next day in my new band tee and bragging to my classmates after they asked about the X’s on my hands. It’s exciting to have something of your own.

During these years, I’d always stumble across mentions of hardcore punk, but when I’d try to check out a song, I was always put off by the lack of melody and my inability to decipher the lyrics. I loved the original seventies bands like The Clash, Sex Pistols, and Ramones, the EpiFat melodic punk of the nineties (Rancid, NOFX, etc.), and the glossy pop-punk of the aughts, but essentially, the eighties didn’t exist to me.

Though the movie has been derided for its lack of narrative focus and fairly narrow view of the movement, my first viewing of Paul Rachman’s 2006 documentary American Hardcore made everything click for me. I saw clips of live gig chaos unlike anything I had ever seen, principled critiques of government, media, religion, and lifestyle, and teenagers starting their own bands, booking their own shows, making their own flyers, and traveling the country with their friends. Quickly, my new favorite bands became Black Flag, Bad Brains, and Minor Threat. It pained me that I would never get to witness such bands live, but there were so many albums to dig through that I was content for the time being.

Then, one evening, a friend’s older brother who had been made aware of my interest in hardcore invited me to my first DIY show. We arrived at what was the final show at the infamous Studded Bird, a small, nondescript building at the edge of the Crossroads District off Highway 71. Though I enjoyed being in a room with more leather jackets and crazy haircuts than I had ever seen in one place, I was stuck at the back of the room and couldn’t see or hear much of the action before my parents texted me and demanded that my friend drive me home before the show was over.

When the next show rolled around, my parents had decided that they didn’t want a slightly older teenager driving their teenage son to the city to see a show at a semi-secret, Ask A Punk location. So (sorry, Mom and Dad), I was dropped off at a trusted friend’s home for a fake sleepover that I would be whisked away from on my trek to the Asshole Castle (a house near the corner of 41st and Troost).

The first couple bands we watched were fun enough; more in the noise rock and skramz vein, one of which smashed their instruments at the end of their set. The basement was crowded as I returned downstairs before Dark Ages began, so the only room I could find was a cramped spot just behind the drums. Never having heard of the band before, they proceeded to blow my 14 year-old mind. The band played some of the meanest, tightest eighties-style hardcore I’d ever heard as bodies flew across the floor; some fans even crowdsurfed their way to the front to sing along. It was the most exciting experience of my young life -- I think if you had looked at me during that set, my eyes probably looked like they were about to pop out of my head. Hardcore punk was alive in my hometown. My friend sent me the MP3 files of Can America Survive? that week and I haven’t looked back since.

A lot of bands and records that were coming out of Kansas City at the time were just as fast as Dark Ages. There were also bands that sounded a lot angrier than Dark Ages, at least in a traditional punk rock “fuck you, fuck off” type of way. What made Dark Ages special was the band’s brooding energy, precisie and blistering playing style, and monolithic mystique present on every song.

Jordan Carr’s urgent shouts and maniacal laughs are unmistakable and his songwriting style is simultaneously bold and cryptic (in an artful way, rather than a too-cool-for-school, impossible to decipher way). Over the course of the album (as best as I can interpret), Carr takes on the subjects of consumerism, corporate power, sexism, racism, conformity as a whole, and the rigged, crumbling state of our country. In a twisted kind of way, Can America Survive? has aged like fine wine over the last decade. While much of white America was participating in political avoidance through the Obama years, Carr was writing doomsayer anthems for those who knew the other shoe was going to drop sooner or later.

The music paired with this incisive prose was just as powerful. Guitarist Justin Betterton’s style was complex, frantic, and anxiety-ridden without losing an inch of the frustration the songs were built upon. Neal Dyrkacz’ bass playing was equal parts ominous and effortlessly cool, often kicking in a second or two before the guitar and drums, sweeping the listener off their feet. It’s been said that a band is only as good as its drummer, so lucky for Dark Ages, Jason Shrout can drum like crazy. And when you’re as talented as Shrout is, it’s easy to over-play and steal attention away from other parts of the songs, but his motor-like rhythm and short, engaging fills never once cross that line.

To top it all off, after nine exceptional originals, the band closes the LP with a cover of Kansas City hardcore punk band Choke’s “Easier To Die,” released exactly 30 years previous. The song is a bleak five-minute march into the unknown and the logical conclusion to an album that so acutely outlines the ways in which America oppresses its citizens (the album cover’s chains, perhaps) and offers, to most, a monotonous existence (the cover’s gray backdrop).

While I could not offer you such a detailed analysis of this album those first several years I listened to it, I loved it just the same. Needless to say, returning to school each week after participating in such a visceral and supremely cool underground music scene, I felt a sense of superiority to my classmates (which admittedly took a second to unlearn), but also one of belonging -- a feeling that many kids who don’t fit in at more traditional extracurriculars often miss out on. If walking around my high school ever made me feel alone (it often did by my junior and senior years, after many friends had transferred or dropped out), I knew that I could at least find a quiet place to sit with my iPod and immerse myself back into a world absent of teachers, parents, cops, bosses, jocks, and evangelists.

Dark Ages played its final show in 2015, just a few months after I graduated high school, and two years before I would move into the same house where they first blew my mind. Though they’re no longer together, the band has continued to embody their DIY spirit in other ways. Carr currently owns and operates Oddities Prints, a print shop responsible for t-shirts, record inserts, and other art prints (and occasionally host to basement shows). Betterton hosted KCDIY Radio up until 2020, blasting punk and hardcore on 90.1FM KKFI Kansas City community radio airwaves. He still posts flyers and other pieces from his personal archive online. Shrout and Dyrkacz are still playing music, Shrout in metalcore band 34 and Dyrkacz in the proto-metal Inner Altar and oi!/glam project Bootkrieg.

It’s rare that a group of four individuals has such a positive lasting impact on a creative scene. I only hope that I can accomplish a fraction of what they have and, with any luck, inspire the generation that follows me to do the same.

Do whatever it takes to track down your own copy of Can America Survive? and thank me later.

Stream or download the album on Bandcamp here.

[This article first appeared in Issue 1 of Shuttlecock's free monthly print edition. Click here to read more about the issue and find your copy.]   

No comments:

Powered by Blogger.