Monday, October 24, 2011

Prayers for Atheists - New Hymns for an Old War Album Review

Every now and again a band will reach out to me with genuine interest in being reviewed or covered. When it happens, it is definitely a treat since most of the submissions and emails I get are from PR companies and labels that are ferrying off albums to any publication to cover them. Their press sheets and emails so desperately want to appear genuine, but it's almost always a ruse. But when you run into an artist that you can actively email back and forth with, who knows your publication, and asks for valid criticism... it's so refreshing. Prayers for Atheists were one of those artists and they were as genuine as could be in both my interactions with them and in their music. This review was originally published on April 5, 2011.

In 2009 Prayers for Atheists put out what I saw as one of the best EPs of the year with their self titled effort. It had moments of conscientious hip-hop, old-school flavored hardcore, and even some rap-rock elements. The topping on the cake was that there was a genuine sense of meaning and passion underlying every song. The 8 tracks on that EP were a huge debut from a great new artist bursting into the underground scene.

The inspiration for Prayers for Atheists’ debut EP was the Republican National Convention held in July of 2008. At that time, hate for a governmental regime that supported war, torture, and an obfuscation of policy was at the forefront of political movements. Since then, times have definitely changed—we now have a democrat for a president, the conservative movement and the Tea Party are gaining momentum in a response to government spending, the economy remains in shambles for the middle and lower class, and we are seeing political change throughout the Middle East. There’s a lot to be angry about, but there isn’t a single source to direct your hate towards like there was when George Bush was president. The United States seems to be a cauldron of unrest and anger that is desperate to find something to rage against, but there are simply too many sources of localized evil cropping up all over. Scott Walker is busy attempting to land a killing blow to Wisconsin’s unions. Dick Fuld and numerous c-suite bankers are laughing their asses off at pulling one over on the American people as they had their bad decisions completely subsidized on the backs of taxpayers. Barack Obama is waffling left and right on promises he made only a couple of scant years ago. And there is no shortage of seemingly corrupt local figures in communities throughout the nation. It’s exasperating just to think about it all. This wealth of evil is fuel for Prayers for Atheists’ fire, but the lack of a singular source of malice not only has affected the mindset of our nation, but I believe it may have lead to the feel of this record in comparison to the band's previous EP.

Unlike their EP, there are no strict hip-hop jams on this album. Instead Prayers for Atheists have focused exclusively on crafting anger fueled, late 80s inspired hardcore punk tracks interspersed amongst Rage Against the Machine flavored rap-core songs. Since there is such a divide between the two styles of songs on New Hymns for an Old War, I think it is prudent to look at the band in two different lights, one for each approach.

When cranking out decidedly retro hardcore tracks, such as “Ramsey County Blues,” you can hear the influences from past greats such as Black Flag, Dead Kennedys, and TSOL. The songs are balls out, straight-ahead hardcore punk and wouldn’t feel out of place if played between tracks from the aforementioned bands influencing Prayers for Atheists. From the raw production to the raspy vocals to the simple, rapid playing, it all screams classic polipunk and hardcore, which is so damn refreshing in an age of autotune and over-production where every band sounds glisteningly clean and glossy that you wonder if they actually played the songs on their albums.

Then there’s the other half of the record where Prayers for Atheists play a brand of music decidedly influenced by more modern bands (relatively speaking) such as Downset, Danko Jones, and Rage Against the Machine. Yes, the production is still raw and the band is still as pissed as ever, but you have songs that break out of the hardcore punk mold and take on a more decidedly rap-core sound. Don’t get any ideas that this is some Limp Bizkit bullshit, though. No, instead it is a straight up infusion of rap, hardcore, rock, and even some melodically sung choruses. A great example of this amalgamation of styles is the one-two punch of “Guns Up” and “Flies on the Water,” two tracks that capture all of the disparate elements of the band. Another track of interest, simply because it doesn’t fit either of the previously described molds very well, is “Keep Left.” There’s a reason I mentioned Danko Jones earlier in this paragraph… this track is as close to a classic Jones track as you can get without breaking out We Sweat Blood.

Genuine music is hard to find nowadays when it seems like so many bands just care about Facebook likes, Twitter followers, and other measurements of how popular they are. When you play exclusively for popularity, you sacrifice your voice in favor of appealing to those you want to so desperately like you. Prayers for Atheists don’t seem to care about this, but instead they want to get their message out and do so in their own way, whether you like it or not. Thankfully, if you do cherish music with a message, even though it may sometimes be muddied, that was made by people who truly believe in what they’re doing, then you will fall head over heels in love with New Hymns for an Old War.

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