Angry, Loud and Swedish

Wolfbrigade. Stockholm, 2008.

Some punk bands, like Wire or Fucked Up, get bored with the genre and experiment. Others, like the Cramps and the Ramones, double down and refuse to budge. Long-running Swedish hardcore band Wolfbrigade are firmly in the second category. Their new LP, Damned, is a perfect example. Like their idols Motorhead, Wolfbrigade abide by a “if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it” mantra. And when the formula is as effective as Wolfbrigade’s, there’s no need to change it up.

Damned is a barnstormer of an album — wall-to-wall, downtuned guitar thrash with pummeling drums, sore throat-style vocals, and a weighty bass guitar that serves as a firm anchor for it all. From song one, “Feed the Flames,” until the last track, “Peace of Mind,” there is no letup. “Curse of Cain,” with its relatively medium tempo – but which is still fast by other bands’ standards – is the closest thing there is to a respite. Whether you want to call Wolfbrigade’s trademark style d-beat, neo-crust, or simply hardcore punk, the band have not slowed down with age. Along with Tragedy, they are one of the highest profile contemporary bands making the sort of hardcore they do – a dark and embittered form of Discharge-influenced thrash that marries the grim atmosphere of Amebix with the blisteringly fast drum patterns of Scandinavian and Japanese hardcore punk.

An interesting thing to note is that in the old days, bands like the Sex Pistols or Minor Threat would do pretty much all they were ever going to do in three years, and then break up. Within those three years, those bands would instigate sea changes in the music going on at the time, setting the bar anew. Wolfbrigade have been going since 1995 – seventeen years now. In punk years, that’s ancient. Wolfbrigade set the bar high early on, and have stubbornly stuck to their guns. The danger in this approach is that one LP – and Wolfbrigade have seven LPs of original material to date (not to mention many EPs and splits) – can become interchangeable with another. In fact Damned’s “Hurricane Veins” reminds me a lot of an earlier song of theirs, Enter the Gates. I liked that song a lot, and it’s probably why I like “Hurricane Veins” a lot, too. Then again, several songs on the last Ramones LP reminded me of stuff on that band’s 1977 Rocket to Russia album, and I enjoyed the hell out of that last record anyway. I enjoy the hell out of Damned. It’s a very good LP, and it’ll probably make most punks’ year-end “Best of 2012” lists.

Although they hail from Sweden, Wolfbrigade have always been unusually popular in America. I suspect that’s because their solid grounding in kang-style Swedish hardcore is tempered with a healthy dose of influences from Black Flag, Negative Approach, and Poison Idea — bands that are the very definition of US hardcore, and much beloved by US punks. A lot of Wolfbrigade’s song titles and lyrics are in English, too. (In fact, all lyrics on Damned are in English.) But maybe it’s because English isn’t their first language that some song titles are as awkward as, well, “Hurricane Veins.”

Wolfbrigade, Punk Illegal Festival. Sweden, 2009.

To illustrate my point about Wolfbrigade’s popularity in the US punk scene, I was at a Warcry show in Texas in 2004 when I was given a Wolfbrigade flyer from someone. I looked at the flyer and was shocked to see where Wolfbrigade were playing. “This show is in Minnesota,” I pointed out in disbelief. The punk passing out the flyers told me that a few cars from Texas were loading up with people to go to it anyway. Granted, the show also featured Pisschrist from Australia and La Fraction from France, so it was an international gathering, of sorts. But – still! These punks weren’t carpooling to a festival; it was just a one-off show. That was when it hit me how big a deal Wolfbrigade really were in the hardcore scene,  and how exciting their appearance in America was. Although the band may not loom large in the consciousness of some, Wolfbrigade are one of the heavy hitters of the genre and, like fellow major leaguers Tragedy, can easily sell out 750-1000 capacity venues in whatever town they play in the US. Probably much more, in fact, depending on the lineup they are paired with. This is pretty remarkable for an underground, DIY band that generally only communicates through zines, Facebook, and independently-run blogs.

I have one other Wolfbrigade anecdote to share. Some know that Wolfbrigade began under the name Wolfpack and released two LPs under that aegis. But, due to a criminal neo-Nazi gang in Sweden with the same name, the band chose to go instead with “Wolfbrigade.” Fate is cruel: In the early days of the Iraq War the US set up and trained an Iraqi policing unit called the Wolf Brigade, who quickly became controversial in Iraq for extra-judicial killings. Alas, I was at the time at a bookstore wearing a Wolfbrigade t-shirt that featured as a graphic only the band’s spartan, vaguely militaristic, heraldic-looking logo. A GI who must have just come back from Iraq came up to me and, with some irritation, demanded to know what my shirt meant. I guessed what his suspicions might be and quickly told him it was a music group from Sweden. The answer obviously confused him; he stayed silent for a few seconds and then walked off, slowly shaking his head.

Damned is a solid addition to Wolfbrigade’s catalog. It’s not their best LP. That would be either 2003’s In Darkness You Feel No Regrets or 1997’s Lycanthro Punk. Wolfbrigade’s best song of all time is the anthemic “Outlaw Vagabond,” almost uncontroversially so. There is no “Outlaw Vagabond” on Damned, but track 10, “Damned to Madness” (the closest thing to a title track here) is definitely up there. Damned is a raging, explosive, and invigorating dose of hardcore punk that’s among the best out there these days. It’ll surely be on my own person year-end “best of” list as well.

Notably, Damned comes out on the Southern Lord label, who have fast become one of the premiere imprints for this type of dark, modern hardcore punk. (See the Greek hardcore band Sarabante, also on Southern Lord – great stuff.) The label is a good fit for the Swedish kings of d-beat. I hope the relationship between the band and Southern Lord continues.

Photographs courtesy of xcalaverax. Published under a Creative Commons license.

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