It's no secret that some of the best music, or at least the most outspoken, comes out of times of turmoil. The 60's and 70's were a heyday for such music, much of it politically righteous and fervently anti-establishment. But there was a lot to be righteous about back then, and in times when there is so much to be upset about, people find that they have much to say. Music has always been a vehicle for creative and independent thought, and in my own humble opinion, music that says something almost always trumps music that says nothing at all. In softer times, the outspoken often fade into the shadows and out of the mainstream, angry and rebellious still, but not at anything in particular, and rarely with the strength of conviction that inspires one to actually get out and change the world. I used to laugh at my elders, who shook their heads upon hearing the sonic tripe I was into as a teenager, saying that back in their day, rock and roll actually stood for something. It wasn't until I was older that I began to see where they were coming from. Now, stuck firmly in the era of Vietnam II, activist music has once again reached its zenith. Music finally stands for something real again, and though the tie-dye, patchouli "free love" may not have the presence they once did, the days of peace and love through song are definitely back.
In the last seven-plus years, I, like a great many other people, have rediscovered the appeal of music with a message, music that says "fuck you" to The Man (and one man in particular). Admittedly, it would be hard not to, since even the mainstream has re-embraced the musical activist. People like Neil Young, the Dixie Chicks, and Kanye West are at once scorned by those they speak against, and praised as heroes by those who agree with them, while people like Brittany Spears are forced to yield the spotlight and are finding their only celebrity in the pages of gossip magazines.
A recent favorite in my personal palette of rebel rock is State Radio's newest album, Year of the Crow. Although not a new record per say (it was released back in February of this year), it deserves to be acknowledged in what is possibly the most important election season of my time. Year of the Crow is a no-holds-barred criticism of everything to do with the current ruling administration, touching on such dare-not-speak-its-name issues as the torture of uncharged political prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, the CIA's new "right" to spy on its own people, and the idea of America as an Imperial force, and not the gallant freedom fighter some politicians make us out to be. Some people would call such criticisms unpatriotic, but these things need to be said. Our government is only as evil as its people will allow it to be, and ignorance and complacency are the only real treasons in our fine country.
State Radio's style blends elements of punk, rock, ska, and reggae to create music that is both listenable and deliciously contrary. If the vocals sound at all familiar to anyone, it's probably because you used to listen to Dispatch. Chad Stokes Urmston used to sing and play guitar for the hippie rock and folk group until they disbanded, at which point Chad joined up with Chuck Fay and Mike "Mad Dog" Najarian to form State Radio. The trio has been cranking out politically conscious rock and roll ever since. Unfortunately, State Radio is a little too pissed off for radio play, but that hasn't stopped them from amassing a sizeable following of equally pissed off fans. But political consciousness is a two-edged sword. Music that focuses too closely on the present is rarely lasting, and as those issues they sing about are resolved (as hopefully they will be), the songs lose much of their poignancy. Their spirit and strength of conviction, however, may live on, just as the spirit of more noteworthy activists like Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King have lived on even though the days of Apartheid and "Separate But Equal" are, thankfully, behind us. Even if State Radio's message doesn't have the power to mobilize and free a nation like Mandela or MLK were able to, the things that State Radio has to say need to be said (I'll say it again), and mankind always needs people who closely examine the morality of the present.
I will refrain from giving a track-by-track rundown of Year of the Crow, but if you're in a politically righteous mood, here are a few of my favorite tracks from the album that deserve listening to both for their message and for their more purely musical appeal. The first track on the album, Guantanamo, is a hardcore, fists-in-the-air track whose topic is probably obvious to anyone who reads the newspaper. Gang of Thieves touches on the dichotomy of power and resources between the ruling class and the common man, and is equally fast-paced and punky. Fight No More, is more of a ballad, aptly quoting the words of Chief Joseph who, upon finally realizing that war ultimately solves nothing, surrendered to the genocidal forces of post-colonial America with these words of protest: "I will fight no more forever." Sudan takes the focus off of America for a moment and puts it on the atrocities committed in Darfur in a universal call for peace and disarmament. Although politics creeps into nearly every song, there are a few where its influence is minimal. The Story of Benjamin Darling, Part 1 and Barn Storming are two such songs, and prove that State Radio has serious appeal even without the message of rebellion. After all, we can't be infuriated by the government all the time – it causes ulcers.
I give Year of the Crow an A- grade. Listen to it if you have a craving for music with a message, music that stands for something. The instrumentation itself, if you ignore the lyrics, is pretty good in its own right, high energy, laced with passion, and with several pleasing forays into melody and away from the distorted electricity that is the standard State Radio has set for themselves. I will say, however, that if politics is something you would rather keep out of your music, you probably won't enjoy this album as much as I did.