Priests: Punk with Precision
Mike Donovan | Friday, February 17, 2017
The punk mentality, in the eyes of many, revolves around indiscriminate mudslinging. Landmark punk acts (i.e. The Sex Pistols, The Dead Kennedys and Black Flag) rallied swarms of fans, not by complexity of thought, but with sheer force. They threw ideas like grenades, aiming for whatever target would cause the biggest ruckus. In doing so, they embraced the superficiality that punk was built to destroy. Effective punk requires a little more subtlety. Ideas, both lyrical and musical, hit a lot harder if employed deliberately. The D.C. band Priests, on their debut LP “Nothing Feels Natural,” sets a new standard for intellectual punk. They forgo ideological grenades for the precision of razor sharp poetics and eclectic musical stylings. Tools in hand, the brainy punks methodically strip away every layer of falsity covering the cultural pressure cooker that is modern America.
“Nothing Feels Natural” begins its surgical condemnation of the modern condition with deep cuts into culture’s commercialist outer shell. “It feels good to buy something you can’t afford,” singer Katie Alice Greer shrieks on “Appropriate,” applying a sardonic lens to an economic system that shoves garbage down gullets by the ton. She remarks later on “Pink White House” that this rampant consumerism thrives because it offers “Anything you want, anyone you want, anywhere you want,” whether it be a nice new car, a binge-worthy sitcom or a method of inquiry that never ventures below the surface. Everything is tailor-made to go down easy and foster addiction. Commercialism churns out potent distractions to stage what Greer calls “A puppet show in which you’re made to feel like you participate.”
Having broken through the facade, the album turns its attention to the toxic social hierarchy underneath. The deceptively melodic single “Jj” welds together a series of images — “a rich kid low-life in a very big jacket,” a speaker who thought she “was a cowboy” because she “smoked reds” and some “jock frat boys” — with a nostalgic soul groove. The lyrics convey depravity while the music distracts from it. “Puff” does just the opposite by soaking the mundane imperative to “Make your dreams a reality” in the expertly crafted dissonance of drummer Daniele Daniele, bassist Taylor M and guitarist C.S Jaguar, adding a sarcastic hue to the uneasy blend. These tracks, through their juxtaposition of cultural idealism and innate conflict, discredit the American Dream as a viable notion. Priests’ America is drowning in a sea of illusions and complacency.
The album, having established commercial dissonance on the macro scale, rides its themes into the individual’s headspace. Greer lays personal disillusionment bare on the spoken word piece “No Big Bang,” when she compares the consumer perspective to witnessing “the sheer stupidity of a roller coaster just staring you in the face / as blank and inescapable as the slab of concrete below.” The consumer knows that progress, motion and meaningless fun are empty concepts but has no power to escape them. The cultural sedatives inhibit communicative ability. “No words / No Big bang,” Greer mutters during the chorus.
While the record stays, for the most part, on its raging tirade, there are a few hopeful points. The title track, an uncharacteristically delicate indie pop piece, searches for sincerity in self-criticism. “If I go 100 days without will I finally hallucinate a real thing?” Greer asks herself, flipping the roles of reality and imagination in one fell swoop. Maybe disconnecting from society and embracing the role of the outsider can free us from commercial America’s suffocating grip, and maybe the only natural course is the countercultural one she ponders over the dreamy arrangements. In this way, the quieter, more saccharine moments in “Nothing Feels Natural” also point back to the punk mentality.
Priests’ debut succeeds because it glues together a disparate patchwork of lyrical and musical ideas with the punk rock ethos. Their unique approach transcends the genre’s accepted parameters and gives their subversive ideas a deeply personal flare. “Nothing Feels Natural” creates its own miniature counterculture and stirs the pot however it pleases.
Album: Nothing Feels Natural
Label: Sister Polygon Records
Tracks: “Nothing Feels Natural,” “Jj,” “Pink White House”
If you like: Sleater-Kinney, Savages, Sheer Mag