Rock and Roll and Revolution!
The (International) Noise Conspiracy's moment in the sun should have come a long time ago. One would think that a group who sought to be "a cross between Elvis Presley and Che Guevara" would have rule of the roost in the garage rock revival circa 2001, but as (bad) luck would have it, the unabashedly communist hip-shakers were routinely overlooked in favor of everyone from The Strokes to The Detroit Cobras.
Now, with that revival past its peak, the Swedish rockers might be missing the boat entirely were their new album not such a departure from their previous efforts. Listeners familiar with the (I)NC's rock-as-hard-as-you-can sound might be taken aback to hear The Cross of My Calling's intro: a spacey organ riff that's almost reminiscent of a record from (dare I say it?) 1968!
For a band to embrace the sounds of the 1960s in the 21st century is to wade into undoubtedly treacherous waters. Forty years after the explosions that re-mapped the face of music, it is marketability--not reverence--that ultimately motivates today's record industry to continue selling us the now-iconic Beatles records.
The (I)NC have a different take from the industry, though. To them, young people wouldn't be buying the Doors CDs and Che t-shirts if there weren't something intensely relevant about them. Old school soul, Stones-style R&B, even tinges of tripped-out psychedelia run through this album with a surprising amount of youth and vigor. Thickly layered on top of their gutsy lo-fi guitar rock and lyrics that question just about everything, the (I)NC's latest proves that the spirit of '68 isn't just a stale piece of nostalgia, but alive, well, and urgently needed today.
To be sure, the Conspirators have always taken a cue from that red-letter year. Lead singer Dennis Lyxzen has been open about the heavy influence of Situationism, the radical philosophical and artistic movement that had its heyday during the '68 uprisings in
"[T]he way they [the Situationist movement] wrote their manifestos and the way they lived their lives were like rock stars," says Lyxzen. "They used a language that was so well equipped to talk politics with, to write songs with. I was inspired and amazed by the lives they lived and some of the political ideas they had. The Situationist movement is like the rock stars of the French philosophers."
Such heady ideas might be a tall order for a lesser rock band--or a lesser producer. The (I)NC have been fortunate enough to work with legendary studio-man Rick Rubin for the second time in a row on this album. "Rick likes the fact that we're very political, especially in times like these," explains Lyxzen. "Labels want you to tone down the politics, but Rick recognizes that it's what makes us stand out."
And yet, the politics and music aren't separate entities on The Cross of My Calling. Rubin and the Noise Conspiracy have crafted an album where the righteous sounds of rock 'n' roll are just as important as the group's firebrand radicalism. True to the Situationist mantra "revolutionize everyday life," this is music that finds the kernel of rebellion every aspect of modern existence--from the war in
The opener "Assassination of Myself" is a passionate, leg-jerking rocker that can connect with anyone who has felt powerless in a world spinning out of control. While the track is directly a rejection of traditional male identity, more broadly it's a reclamation of humanity in the face of repressive cookie-cutter society, a theme that features prominently on the album:
"I felt so undecided
I felt so stuck in my role
I felt like I was undecided
This is the way to get back in control!"
Religion in particular plays a large role in several of Cross's best songs. Lyxzen has inverted the battle between good and evil the same way that we hear in the Rolling Stones' "Sympathy for the Devil"--as a way of directly questioning and challenging authority. He's incredibly good at it too. Whether it's his refrain that "my sins will carry me home" on the explosive "Child of God," or his plea to shed his "cross" on the sprawling, 8-minute title track, the metaphor is never unclear.
But Lyxzen also isn't afraid to go for the jugular, and he frequently displays his ability to straight-up agitate. One wouldn't think that phrases like "take control of our industry" would work in such a bouncy, upbeat song, but on "Washington Bullets," the singer somehow pulls it off.
As poetic and analytical as Lyxzen's lyrics can be, none of them would work if the whole group weren't rocking so damned hard! Ludwig Dahlberg doesn't so much play his drums as assault them. Bassist Inge Johanson supplies an ever-solid bottom groove. And Lars Stromberg's guitar riffs are as infectious as ever, veering between brash garage punk and searing blues solos that defy you to change the track. And there are enough curve-balls thrown in here, from soaring organ to the occasional harmonica solo to the relentless bang of the bongo, that it never gets predictable, let alone boring.
One of the best additions is the presence of Lisa Kekaula, singer of the
The ever present Stones influence is brought to the forefront on "Satan Made the Deal," a slow-but-steady, smoldering track that sounds straight out of Exile on Mainstreet. "We wanted the Stones groove on there," says Lyxzen. While it's plain to hear, the group still make it all their own as they reflect on how an inhumane system drives people to degrading and terrible states.
All of this sets The Cross of My Calling apart from most of the hollow 60s throwbacks. The (International) Noise Conspiracy aren't invoking this stylistic shift simply because it sounds good (though it definitely does that). They have deliberately reached back to the era when rock 'n' roll artists sought to deepen the genre's inherent rebellion and directly ally themselves with the forces of revolution.
There indeed was a time when Mick Jagger paid homage to the "Street Fighting Man," and when a rag-tag band of hell-raising radicals called the MC5 exhorted their fans to "Kick Out the Jams (motherfucker!)." It was a time when the global uprisings had become too big for even the music industry to ignore, and when everyone from Marvin Gaye to John Lennon had to ask themselves "which side am I on?"
Such a question may very soon be on the minds of today's artists too. Luckily, groups like The (International) Noise Conspiracy have already decided. Like all great rock 'n' roll albums, The Cross of My Calling, reminds us that our humanity isn't a commodity to be bought or sold, and that rebellion isn't just necessary--it's perfectly natural. It's ironic that such a thoroughly modern group can find their high-point by harkening back to the struggles of forty years ago. If it's any sign though, then maybe our own moment in the sun isn't too far off.
Alexander Billet is a music journalist, writer and activist living in