Whoever declared guitar-rock dead way back when forgot to tell Sleater-Kinney. The Olympia-based punk band’s new album, No Cities to Love, released after a decade-long hiatus, is the hardest, heaviest, loudest, angriest, punkiest, fieriest, boomiest, bangiest, crashiest, crunchiest, crackliest, whammiest, powwwiest, brrrrrrrrrrrrrrat whomp whack kapow rah rah rawk record in a long, long time. Laying on classic riff after classic riff, harsh drum slam after harsh drum slam, it perfects and seizes the unshakeable charge so many other bands aspire to. Their noisy, disruptive blare slices fluently through a woolly thicket of difficult indie music and makes everything else sound small in comparison. Buy the record, and get all your friends to buy it too. Roaring, snarling, demanding that the world pay attention to them, Sleater-Kinney deserve to go platinum if anybody does.

Rarely has any band made such compelling art from ideals of defiance and rebellion commonly and rightly dismissed as rock & roll cliché. Their lyrics, rooted in feminist ideology, typically alternate between dissatisfied relationship crises and outspoken political protest; their band sound, shaped from the convergence of Carrie Brownstein’s amazingly abrasive and clear guitar fills, Janet Weiss’s strong, rackety drums, and Corin Tucker’s massive jet-engine storm of a voice, gives newcomers a headache until that headache suddenly morphs into a stimulant. None of this would work formally if the interplay between Tucker and Brownstein’s singing weren’t also sweet and melodious, nor if their quick, sharp ditty-anthems didn’t speed by with a playful lightness that increases their listenability quotient pronto. But their basic musical effect jumps from the speakers, flattens everything in its way, and gives voice to a deeply rooted sense of rage. Their music expressly abjures anything potentially pleasant or mild in the genre, such as a bass player, or singers who don’t damage their tonsils every time they open their mouths, and instead highlights only the most severe aspects of punkoid guitar-rock as it piles on the static, the sizzle, the yell. In terms of sheer skullbusting intensity, the only popular musician in any category to have matched their standard in the last five years is (don’t laugh) Skrillex. Only in their tight, tuneful song structures do they reveal qualities that might qualify as conventionally accessible.

It was their concise, articulate songwriting that, for a ten-year period between 1995 and 2005, made them one of the most exciting bands in the world, and it’s their songwriting that makes their intensity credible. Brownstein and Tucker’s creative partnership, inherent not just in the way Brownstein’s higher-register lead guitar dances around Tucker’s lower, thicker power chords but also in the elegant entanglement of their voices, unifies all seven of their old albums as well as No Cities to Love. Maybe the guitars started scruffy and gradually turned beefy, especially after Weiss joined in 1997; maybe their lyrical focus started specifically on sexual victimization and gradually turned more general as they outgrew and outlived the early-to-mid-’90s riot grrrl movement. Their sound varies from album to album, too — if on 1995’s Sleater-Kinney they creaked and clanged like the basement garage band they were, by the time of 2005’s finale, The Woods, they packed something bearing a strong resemblance to arena muscle. But the lens of artistic progress is an odd way of conceptualizing a band whose albums are all remarkably dependable within the same sonic template and, concomitantly, all equally good. Visit your local record store, find the Sleater-Kinney bin, and choose an album at random. Provided you don’t end up with some live bootleg or other noncanonical pseudoillegal product, I guarantee that the disc in your hands will be a spiky, minimalist punk gem. It will string together naturally flowing melodies through blazing walls of guitar wildfire in a style that somehow manages to sound distorted and clean at the same time. Especially if you choose No Cities to Love.

Whether No Cities to Love qualifies as the Best Sleater-Kinney Album is an issue in which I have precisely zero interest. Rather, I propose that we consider No Cities to Love for the title of Hardest Sleater-Kinney Album — among previous candidates, 1996’s raw, frantic Call the Doctor clatters and yowls rather than entering steamroller territory, and even 2005’s superloud, ultraheavy The Woods has its tender moments, especially the gentle, moving “Modern Girl.” By contrast, even “Hey Darling,” the closest thing to a tender moment on No Cities to Love, plays like an uptempo rocker with extensive blasts of guitar. Just about every one of these crazed songs explodes into overdrive, with Tucker and Brownstein’s twin guitars spiraling around and around like vines, each trying to choke the other, all over Weiss’s jackhammering ratatat drumfire. Power chords, searing staccato riffage, interjections from the two lead singers, and the nonstop beat combine for a consistency that comes across as punchy, solid; this music feels as impenetrable as an anvil, or a giant slab of concrete, which doesn’t mean it’s not also hooky as hell. The refrain on “Gimme Love” bounces through two rapid sets of drum triplets while Tucker twice whispers the song’s title before the full beat resumes and, having suddenly revved her voice up to maximum volume, she yells, “Never enough.” If that doesn’t stick in your head, try “A New Wave,” whose cheerful melody only becomes sweeter upon assault by attendant amplifier noise. “Bury Our Friends” sputters to life with a monstrosity of a guitar lick, loops a thinner, janglier progression under the verse, then reverts to a blocky stomp during a chorus that festivalgoers and tourmongers will be screaming all year.

Brownstein sings lead on “Bury Our Friends,” with Tucker providing harmony in the background, which fits — Brownstein’s lighter, more ordinary voice better captures that particular song’s determined drive than Tucker’s high, piercing, in-the-red wailscreech might have. Nevertheless, it’s Tucker’s voice that defines the band, because their guitar playing, Weiss’s drums to an extent, and Brownstein’s own singing all mimic and match Tucker’s vocal affect. Where Brownstein seems to cannily weave her way through melodies that turn oddly unpredictable in her hands, Tucker’s advantage is purely physical. She sings as if her mouth is plugged into an amplifier, trying to score a 200 on the decibel scale. Simultaneously shrill and tuneful, often adding a little vibrato to extended vowels, her voice cuts through the rest of the music by virtue not just of volume but also sharpness. Walk into a room where Sleater-Kinney is playing and it’ll be the first thing you recognize. Whether faltering every so often during “No Anthems” or shouting past a sore throat on “Surface Envy,” throughout No Cities to Love she strains herself a little, unlike Brownstein, who has never sung more nimbly. This puts Tucker’s vocal vulnerabilities into stronger relief, revealing every crack, every blank spot, every time she takes a breath. Given how utterly cranked she is anyway, it’s a pleasure to hear the human detail in such a powerful instrument, lending texture, variation, and emotion to the album’s pulverizing force.

The focus on voicepower isn’t the only thing that makes Sleater-Kinney stand out among other competing indie bands, but it does typify what makes them stand out. Hundreds of basement garage bands around the world play loud, punchy/punkoid strains of messy guitar-rock, after all; they just don’t have a lead vocalist who could have sung opera if that were the technique that spoke to her. There’s no reason a young indie cause célèbre shouldn’t belt out her lyrics at the top of her lungs, but given the youth audience’s present taste for irony, dissociation, and meandering, singing with skill seems a little, well, old-fashioned, no? Ultimately, everything about Sleater-Kinney is pretty old-fashioned. From their crisp, well-crafted songwriting to their simple tunes anybody can hum, from their straightforward heavy beat to their dissonant guitar barrage, from their strong vocal presence to the unstoppable ear-splitting wail that commences every time they exercise said presence, Sleater-Kinney are paradigmatic rock expressionists. Their voices, guitars, and drums all fuel a cathartic, noise-drenched howl whose urgency precludes words, subsuming specific ideas and even songs into the chaotic spew, tearing through mountains of sludge while crying out with inarticulate, irrepressible emotion. They shout, they scream, they vent, they beat up their instruments, they bust their eardrums playing too loud, they generally let themselves go. Their art is insanely fierce. It’s also a little scary. Conquer your fear. Share the thrill.

No Cities to Love and The Woods are available from Amazon and other online retailers.

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Lucas Fagen

Lucas Fagen's favorite artform is popular music, and that means popular music—bland corporate trash and faceless functional product in addition to critically respectable touchstones and obscure...