If ever there was a genre that catered to the underdog, it was punk. Always on the margins, it spoke to disaffected youth, it terrified parents across the land and gave those brightly mohawked surly characters at Camden Lock a soundtrack. It was the noise of a troubled simmering, an unresolved anger, acting as the grubby, unfriendly sibling of guitar music that flew in the face of the vacuous pop scene, spat on its shoe and put its head down the toilet. In recent years, the likes of Snow White, Neils Children and Pettybone have employed its antagonistic spirit to wonderful effect, but in terms of mainstream recognition, the genre has retreated and remains a fringe concern in music. Looking to change all that is four piece London band, Flats. After two EPs and the brutish delight that was single ‘Never Again’, they release their debut album, Better Living and, as someone who’s always partial to a bit of bratty punk, I was pretty damn keen to hear it.
Opening track ‘Foxtrot’- one of five mysteriously dance-step titled songs – kicks off with a brilliantly ominous bass sound spliced with early Faris Badwan vocals. Though the song mainly relies on one riff it doesn’t get boring, rolling along deliciously in a grunge stupor. Fantastically sludgy, musically it is most reminiscent of My Body The Hand Grenade-era Hole with Daniel Devine similarly harnessing a visceral delivery of his vocal. ‘Tango’ takes the pace a little faster with his feral screams set to crashing drums and a muscled riff that drives the song along. ‘Shuffle’ sees Devine crying “Burn it to the ground, burn it down” which leaves you feeling unsure of what exactly he wants to set fire to: the muffled nature of the rest of the lyrics mean that the root of his anger is a little muddled, but it nevertheless packs a punch; while ‘Country’ sees him shrieking “I’ll make you get on your knees”. Though the band see themselves as separated from the hardcore scene, the whole effect is quite vicious and the album is characterised by furious, guttural screams and an uncompromising snottiness.
Citing their heroes as Crass – a clear influence throughout – and Anthrax – recognisable on the likes of metal homage ‘Slam’- Flats are aware they may not be bringing anything new to the table but have previously admitted they’re not worried about the cyclical nature of it all and only hope to play like they “fucking really mean it”. The real issue is whether that’s projected through this album. The good news is that it does at least sound like they fucking really mean it. (What “it” is, I’m not totally sure, but that’s another argument.) The riffs, style and even spiky vocals are of course derivative of well-trodden territory in punk but they are assembled in such a way that, while conventional, is no less thrilling. Drenched in brattish fury and pedal-to-the-metal guitars, it does set itself apart from most current guitar bands.
Brooding by nature, the album is undeniably aggressive and is a short, sharp, fly-kick to the system, clocking in at 35 minutes long – practically indulgent when you consider that the band’s live shows are generally over in 15 minutes – and leaving you breathless. It’s also pretty relentless and might prove too much in one sitting for some. At times the songs fade into each other in an indistinguishable din but there are killer parts to each which strengthen and invigorate them. If they truly want the mainstream appeal they confess to chasing, they still have big steps to take when it comes to songwriting and creating something that sticks, but for a band that is really still in its infancy they have so much room to grow. That being said, there’s something amazing about the immediacy and primitive delivery of an album like this, without pretension or irony.
Indeed, Better Living is single-minded and focused in its fury, but decidedly apolitical as Devine doesn’t see a place for politics in his music, and although is can be risky territory and can lead to appearing disingenuous or contrived, it’s these facets that the band would perhaps benefit from exploring. There’s a fear of talking about politics in music because of the associations with people like Bono, and there’s a history of bands being ham-fisted about it, but since hardly anyone seems to bother pushing an agenda anymore, Flats could well take up the baton, in the same way they’re flying the flag for a largely neglected and marginalised genre in contemporary terms. Having supported Morrissey on tour, you’d think the band would realise politics in music doesn’t have to be embarrassing and can prove to articulate frustration in a fantastic way while avoiding cliché.
Devine has claimed in interviews “I’m a young guy that makes aggressive music that will annoy teenagers’ parents. I never want to lose that”, and there’s certainly a sweet charm in the adolescent desire to provoke for provocation’s sake. At the absolute guarantee of sounding condescending, Flats are a young band with a young frontman with all the green enthusiasm and hopefulness of a teenage punk enthusiast and it’s indisputably rousing to hear the pure, joyful homage to the music that fuels him. The professed desire to make it big might be a little premature given the initial buzz afforded to bands like Gallows and Fucked Up which was quickly snuffed out at the realisation that pop music is still pop music and – despite mutating into the bastard child of euro, dance and R’n'B – has not yet extended its tolerance to pissy, confrontational punk. Nevertheless, Flats seem pretty determined to establish a new punk scene in the UK and Better Living would be a great part of its legacy.
Bands like Flats sure do divide opinion. It seems that whenever a group appears with an iota of attitude their authenticity is questioned as though it’s embarrassing to be anything other than unfailingly apathetic. Devine has also faced suspicion as his father is Alan McGee, but all this cynicism is boring and irrelevant. There’s no subtext with Flats, it’s all laid bare and comes from a real place. Whether they can sustain this level of rawness and passion is yet to be seen, but what’s most notable is that the music is just real mindless fun to listen to. The band’s commitment to the genre and their audible conviction ultimately stem from their unflinching belief that punk’s not dead. Well, not if Daniel Devine has anything to do with it anyway.