Reviewed by John Brady
Friday, December 8 2000, 5:00 PM
Language is a vexing thing indeed. On the one hand, it is an indispensable part of our lives. Without our ability to communicate with one another, so many things that define our everyday existence would be unthinkable. Love, friendships, conflict, creativity: all of these things crucially depend on the ability to express ourselves that language facilitates. Given language's centrality, then it is perhaps not surprising that many view our ability to speak as that which distinguishes us from the rest of the species with whom we share the planet, as that which makes us human.
Yet, at the same time that we are aware of our fundamental dependence on language, we are also aware of its shortcomings and inadequacies. Words fail us. Constantly. In our everyday interactions with others, we find ourselves unable to express our feelings or adequately describe what we have experienced. "Guess you had to be there," is often then the refrain. Words fail us in more politically relevant ways, too. We find, for example, it difficult to find a common language with which groups with sharply different worldviews and values can work out their differences and find an agreeable means of regulating their affairs. Or, to cite another example, we discover that historical developments have outstripped the ability of our vocabulary to capture the realities of what is going on around us. New forms of oppression develop, but also new forms of freedom are opened that we can't precisely describe and thus cannot either effectively combat or fully appreciate. The endless debates about globalization and whether it really exists are an example such a search for new words to capture the flux and flow of history in the making.
In cases of language's failure, we often look to art to help us in our struggle to find the new words, the right words to express our social and political environment and our experiences, feelings, desires there. On their latest release The Underclass, anarcho-punk vets Rudimentary Peni offer such an artistic diagnosis of the times, focusing on the trauma and human suffering that accompany the latest period of accelerated capitalist development. The Peni have penned twelve songs highlighting the loneliness, despair, oppression, and nihilism that continue to haunt everyday life in spite of (or perhaps exactly because of?) the prosperity and relative peace citizens of the late capitalist world currently enjoy. These explorations of the age are delivered in short, quick bursts of metal infused punk rock. So quick and short, in fact, that the album's twelve songs take up less than fifteen minutes. Loud, angry, and just barely in control, Rudimentary Peni strike a classic punk pose, defiantly spoiling their listeners' day by reminding them that behind the shiny, stylish facade of a consumer society in overdrive there lie darker realities -- keenly felt pain, deep despair, aborted relationships.
Angry, yes. Shocking, yes. Refreshing in a bitter way, even more so. But in the end these words fail, in no small measure because the band has attempted to apply an increasingly elderly vocabulary -- the vocabulary of punk rock protest -- to a vastly changed social and political situation. They do this without, however, simultaneously updating this language, adding to it new descriptions, new noises, new chords, new shouts that express the novel forms of oppression, alienation, and domination at work in the present. Take one of the album's central concerns, the underclass. Without a doubt we still have an underclass. Yet, in the current situation such factors as mass migration, new transnational forms of capitalist exploitation, and the increasingly hegemonic position of corporations within politics have altered how the underclass is defined and what it must suffer.
In order to begin to fathom this new reality, we need a new musical language, one at once more supple, but also more urgent, more passionate than loudly shouting, as Rudimentary Peni does during The Underclass 'Oppression, Rejection, Oppression, Exclusion.' This is a familiar refrain, too familiar really, to help us express and talk about the particular forms of class oppression people now face. Granted, there will always be an audience for rock that speaks this way, but whether it has the same kind of political significance in comparison to the early eighties - when Rudimentary Peni first got started - is subject to question, particularly in a fashion-obsessed country like England where punk rock is largely the domain of nostalgia driven back catalogue distributors for record collectors, like Southern Studios, which not so ironically is the retail end of Rudmentary Peni's Outer Himalayan label.
This is not to say that Rudimentary Peni's is an empty gesture. Quite to the contrary. In a world that is all too adept at forgetting the individuals and groups that haunt its margins, we need noisy, grating reminders about the costs of our comfort and prosperity. In delivering such a reminder, Rudimentary Peni has done the rest of us a needed political service, because good politics are never anachronistic.
The Underclass is available from Outer Himalayan Records, PO Box 59 London N22 1AR United Kingdom