Arguably, noise/industrial/etc.-leaning pop music has always been politicised on an implicit level (with Einstürzende Neubauten’s challenge of musical aesthetic norms in their early work and The Jesus and Mary Chain’s nihilism as a narration of Thatcherite England coming to mind). As far as I am aware, however, there has not really been an attempt to bring the subversiveness inherent in the genre to the fore. Supermax, the second album by the Seattle-based artist Charlatan (Omar Rashan), is an attempt to do just that, in what he describes as essentially a representation and synthesis of his personal struggles with the larger political landscape.
The result is noisy. Opening with screaming chords sweeping over a skittering drum machine in ‘Spectator,’ Rashan sets a fierce tone that runs over into the next track ‘Empire Comes Home.’ These first two songs establish the overarching style of the album: textural guitars, sopping wet with reverb, juxtaposed against a metronymic combination of synth and drum machine. For the larger part of the album, this is a winning strategy, as Rashan is unambiguously stronger when he lets his instruments speak for him: Just look at the percussive freakout that closes ‘I Regret Everything,’ or the brilliant sonic journey that is ‘Resignation’ (my favourite song on the album).
In contrast, songs that seem structured upon their lyrical content (‘King Kaiser,’ ‘Clockwork’) are typically weaker, with Rashan’s heavily-obscured vocals rendering the ambiguous lyrics difficult to parse without reading them during the song. Even then, given their extremely vague imagery, their meaning remains hazy, which seems a little bit self-defeating for a politically motivated album. There are exceptions, however, like ‘Still Life,’ which opens with the incendiary question “How much does it cost to die in the USA,” leading into an interrogation of the life(style) that we are essentially ‘sold’ by Late Capitalism. And one of Supermax’s highlights is also its most lyric-heavy, with the monotonous march-like structure of ‘Every War is a Civil War’ belying its vivid and harrowing imagery (“Childrens’ eyes, they watch the door/As mother gently holds them down to the floor/Invaders tire, just like the last ones/Mountains won’t be moved by them nor their sons”).
Ultimately, Supermax’s subversivness arises from its reframing of industrial music’s sounds within postindustrial American culture, and while the lyrics can be profoundly incisive, they are not consistent enough to situate Supermax in the same territory of the ‘great Marxist albums’ like, say, Gang of Four’s Entertainment (given that anti-fascist hero Stjepan Filipovićm appears on the album art I assume this was the intention). That being said, Rashan is obviously an excellent songwriter as musically, Supermax is a fantastic listen, with his choice to deploy his apocalyptic soundscapes towards a political end an inspired one.