Straw Man Army’s debut LP, Age of Exile, was one of our favorite punk records of 2020. The duo, both members of imaginative psych-punk group Kaleidoscope as well as crust powerhouses Tower 7 and the Brooklyn collective D4MT LABS, live and make art together, like some of the early anarcho-punk bands that clearly helped shape their sound. SOS, their second formal LP, comes on the heels of their recent film soundtrack, meant to accompany a (most likely fictional) time-traveling Darwin biopic with an anti-colonial lens.
One can easily hear the ways Straw Man Army pushed themselves into more abstract territory on Her Majesty’s Ship OST inflecting SOS. In Kaleidoscope and on Age of Exile they were surely no strangers to the cosmic, rhythmic outer bounds of punk, places that push up against the edges of free jazz, but here, the dynamics are subtler. As on Her Majesty’s Ship OST, they are concerned not just with the processes of history and cultivating a critical and community-focused ecological worldview, but with the stories we tell ourselves about who we are as humans and how those stories impact our world.
Vocals are, as usual for the duo, delivered with sharpened deadpan affect. In the cleverest of punk and post-punk traditions, the lyrics ride the line beautifully between polemic and poetry. They’re impressionistic enough to captivate, but forceful and clear enough to get the band’s message across succinctly. Take “Jerusalem Syndrome,” which describes the occupation of Gaza and the West Bank in terms of the way it’s rewritten the landscape itself: “Feed the compulsion to plant the flag, install a prop/ Helipads, built on top of artifacts/ The desert littered with extended mags.”
Or consider the striking opening verse from the taut, churning “Faces in the Dark:” “In the windows of the hospital, faces in the dark/ “Did you hear about the graves in Central Park?”/ For six bucks an hour, a mask and some gloves/ A kid on Rikers Island lowers caskets from a truck…” How elegantly and plainly to join the worlds of the imprisoned and unhoused, the fates of and cruelties visited upon the impoverished and outcast that are a consequence of our deeply stratified society.
Sequenced carefully, with instrumental tracks and themes returning at points that feel like they’re elevating SOS from a collection of excellent songs to a fully realized and cohesive work of art, this is another stunning statement from one of the most thoughtful punk bands currently active in the U.S. (I am particularly a fan of the dreamy instrumental closer “The Right to Be,” which feels like it’s of a piece with Chicago post-rock in the ‘90s and seems as if it’s opening the door to imagining worlds beyond the modern conditions Straw Man Army describe throughout the album.) Every detail feels considered; every statement feels sincere. As with Age of Exile, proceeds go to worthy places, showing that the band continues to live their ideals; Age of Exile raised over $1K for The Red Nation‘s pandemic relief efforts, and SOS aims to do the same for Roots Unbound‘s commissary fund.