I've waited a very long time for this record to materialize. Three
years ago, Portland quartet the Intima released a debut EP, No Lullaby for Sleep, that remained in my stereo for months on end. I remember putting my favorite track, ìTo the Daring,î on repeat and wondering how a band could manage to make a Emma Goldman quote rock this hard. At their best, the band sounded like a mixture of Unwound and Godspeed You Black Emperor, playing politically charged punk with the compositional density of classical music. I waited impatiently for more, but additions to the Intimaís discography were few and far between. They released a seven-inch and a live EP last year, but as good as both releases were, they could do little more but further whet my appetite for a full-length. It took a while for the band to gather up both the songs and the financial resources to make their debut album, but it was worth it. Peril and Panic consists of
thirty-nine minutes of music that, from beginning to end, live up to the promise of ìTo the Daring.î
Their sound hasnít changed much in the last three years. Like Unwoundís Justin Trosper, Intima guitarist Andrew seems unable to decide whether he wants to sing or shout. However, whereas Trosperís voice is nasal, Andrewís is throaty and possesses a much wider range. Sometimes his singingís a little flat, but even on these occasions his voice is mixed low enough not to interfere with the overall quality of the music. As a guitarist, Andrew is quite familiar with the Sonic Youth handbook of alternate tunings, close-interval note clusters, and rapidly strummed droning chords. Although Noraís violin and voice are most often the tuneful sugar to Andrewís dissonant salt, she also knows how and when to make a racket. During the introduction to ìMiles City,î she plays full, grinding chords and fast fills that make me wonder just how she got such a sound. Did she use extensive overdubbing, or was that really a guitar? Almost every song on Peril and Panic sounds as if itís stitched together from the best parts of many different songs. Alexís drumming is accomplished enough to handle the frequent tempo changes, but loose enough to sound as if he could accidentally drop one of his sticks at any moment. Thembaís bass functions as a sort of glue to hold each song together as the other three musicians go berserk. The Intima has a knack for cramming compelling melodies into every nook and cranny of their songs without things sounding cluttered. On many instances, the instrumental interplay is in the same league as symbiotic string-strangling ensembles like the Thinking Fellers and Polvo. The bandís exclusive reliance on minor keys (especially A and E) does make the album blur into one long song, but their rhythmic attention deficit disorder keeps things from ever getting boring.
As much as I can continue rambling about the music, I cannot review
this record without discussing the political perspective behind it. The CD booklet has short pieces of song-by-song commentary, as well as recommendations of books that elaborate on the topic of each song. Normally, this would be considered an extremely pretentious move, but in this case reading the liner notes will actually increase the musicís emotional impact on the listener. For instance, album standout ìBlue Coffinsî is about a massacre initiated by US-trained soldiers twenty-one years ago at a city in El Salvador. When Nora and Andrew harmonize the words ìShe cannot cry/She cried herself dry,î it sounds like a trite lovelorn plea---until you realize that theyíre singing from the perspective of the sole survivor of said massacre. Then, it becomes truly heartbreaking.
Another prominent theme of Peril and Panic is the destruction of nature by the forces of industry. ìFrom Exileî critiques the hypocrisy of national park services that claim to preserve nature while exploiting it for tourist purposes. Of course, Iím phrasing the sentiment much more blatantly than the songís lyrics do; when Nora and Andrew sing ìThe natural world/A packaged tour,î the inherent paradox in those two small phrases speaks for itself. ìCult of Cultureî is the only song in which Nora sings lead (maybe sheíll come out of her shell on the next album), and she attacks capitalism itself with a similar paradox: ìYouíre giving me morethan one person could ever need/You're taking me from what I need."
This is as plain-spoken as protest music gets these days, and the
Intima are to be praised for neither beating around the bush nor beating dead horses. (Okay, the hidden bonus track is an extremely obvious John Ashcroft joke, but at least they had the decency to make it a hidden bonus track.) At a time in which our government is doing things that many people disagree vehemently with and/or about, it is good to have records like this to continue a tradition thatís been present in rock since its genesis. From Phil Ochs to the Minutemen to Bikini Kill, there have always been bands and artists encouraging us to think about the issues of the day, even as we dance to their music. You can tune out the Intimaís vocals and lyrics, and Peril and Panic would still be an excellent album. However, it would also be an incomplete one.