By: Hunter Funk
For Austinites with a passing interest in the city’s rock music landscape, the name Xetas might be familiar, whether because of the local success of their 2014 debut The Redeemer or their explosive live sets in which guitarist David seems primed to actually spit out a lung into the mic – though it was drummer Jay I heard groan “I’M GONNA VOMIT” after ripping through new material at warehouse-venue Shirley’s Temple last year.
Their stomach-churning blend of energy draws on each member’s intense individual performative fire, along with their strange amalgam of personal tastes: hip-hop, Hüsker Dü, stoner metal, K Records, an inexplicable shared affinity for Big Country. Not that the new stuff, batched as flooring sophomore statement The Tower, sounds truly derivative of anything, just masterfully presented and injected with every ounce of relentless creativity that makes this greater-than-its-parts trio uniquely Xetas. “A punk band can do whatever they want,” smirked David in a recent interview. “That’s why they’re a punk band.” In this case, it would appear they’d set out to make one of the first great punk records of the resistance moving forward, and succeeded resoundingly.
The first voice heard as the album kicks directly into a tumultuous gear is that of bassist Kana, usually seen onstage with eyes closed, brow furrowed against the churning buzz of the amps. Here, opener “The Gaze” sees her fighting to tune out male objectification in a hackled rebuke of street harassment, setting the stage for the ensuing 35 minutes of blistering, uncompromising political punk. Thinking of shutting your eyes? Good luck.
“You can tell it by their boots, you can taste it in the leather,” howls David three tracks in, screams souring with heightened hysteria as the band digs in their claws: “I’ve been tying my own noose – will it hang me any better?” Barn-burner “The Burden” proves once more that resident Beerland guru Ian Rundell can do little wrong as a producer, every stop-start drum snap and bruising power chord mixed for prime heaviness to the point where the gulps of dead silence in between feel as bated as the calm before a strike. When Kana’s doubled vocals drop in for a discordant third verse, the effect is almost queasy psychedelia. “I'm tired of feeling the concrete beneath my knees and I wanna believe that if I tell the truth, you will make things better,” she sings. “We've outgrown this cult of youth; can we trust you to know what to do with the burden?” Though the group had all but finalized the album prior to November’s election, the indignant confusion comes off exceedingly timely now. (“It was like science fiction,” David confided to CLRVYNT. “We’ve unwittingly written a concept album about Trump’s America.”) Moreover, such poignant rage makes The Tower timeless: the acridity of both music and lyrics ought to inspire nothing less than steel-nerved immediate action, no matter when or what the cause.
The band follows with the tightly-coiled “The Jaws,” pairing increasingly unhinged depressive verses from Kana and visions of “the sadness monster” with oblique self-care fist-pumps – “chop wood / bend at the knees / carry water / take a drink!” The singers interlock for a chorus that stings in its portrayal of yearning separation before the song splits apart into extended outro, “The Break.” Equally punishing and forlorn, the three-minute instrumental encapsulates the album’s overall nihilistic tension well, flipping between dark pensive drift and distorted full-band crashes at the drop of a hat.
“The Hawk” kicks off in an odd-time vortex of maddening force on the back of a discordant Eastern mode recalling Drive Like Jehu if spiked with Fugazi in focused mid-90s stride. Indeed, the liner notes display a similar fragmented, yet exacting lyrical approach to the seminal D.C. outfit. “An operation, clinical; we don’t have time for healing…. Fire shots into the horde, the rabble weep, like so much bleating.” The track’s ragged refrain sits as the crown jewel of cynicism on an album steeped with it: “The worst is yet to come – fuck yes!”
Jay takes the lead for “The Body”’s burst of frantic, feedback-huffing hardcore, proving just as proficient on vocals as drums in relating a breathless tale of apparent overdose. David and Kana assume the role of reassuring shoulder angels, chanting “Breathe in / breathe out” while Jay screams himself hoarse wondering if anyone gives a fuck. Lead single/late standout “The Future,” perhaps the best song on a record full of great ones, wheels in on a wobbly intro to plunge its hand directly into a wasps’ nest where drum fills and chaotic guitar runs lurch off one another as punctuation for David’s caustic quotes: “we hold these truths to be irrelevant / you may as well salt the earth for the taste of it!” The riff-riddled breakdowns are nothing less than disorienting mania; a bar-length metal blast beat even rears its head from Jay’s muscular rhythm. “There are consequences to your actions,” the band intones impishly before David demands, “what has the future done?" and the track melts into its sky scraping chorus. The subsequent flattening outro, wherein the band crest a wave of squalling guitars, reminiscent of Georgia sludge-rockers Kylesa or Baroness, into the horizon, all but solidifies this record as one of the first landmark punk releases of the new dystopia, my right hand to a dead god.
“The Machine” bows things out on a relatively reassuring note. Not that the subject matter is any brighter than before – what’s bleaker than certain death? But somehow the defiant refrain, “I get so tired of dreaming of races run but never won / Get me off this life support, I’m fine,” worms its way into the realm of lighters/middle fingers-up bar singalong thanks to its raucous rock & roll guitars and driving stomp (hiding a brief blink of Franz Ferdinand-y dance-punk, because why not?) Of all the record’s slanted flirtations with pop structure, its closer might hit nearest the mark, playing a bit like the last living band on earth covering Springsteen. Pop or not, The Tower as a whole is effectively anthemic, each blood-pumping track feeling like a new realization of ever-shifting revolution. For Xetas, dying in the attempt is glory.
This trio didn’t spring fully-formed by any means, but the new release sees them truly coming into their own – dare I say, often transcending their environment entirely in ways previously only hinted. This record simply exists out of time and space, rising above the ranks of DIY punk in its ambitious scope and brilliant structure. It’s the sound of an alternate reality you already inhabit. The feeling of fingernails in your skin urging you to keep fighting, the sick sweat in your eyes, the cruel dust in your lungs. It’s necessary, it’s raw, it’s real, it’s The Tower. “There is no way out but down.”