At the peak of ’70s Cold War tension, post punk acted as a window into a society living in the shadowy, brutalist architecture of collective anxiety. Artists like Gang of Four and Talking Heads wrote songs that were simultaneously self-indulgent and socially-minded. This juxtaposition was the pulse of people surviving in a world seemingly on the brink of collapse.
Today, sitting closer to midnight on the Doomsday Clock than when the first hydrogen bomb was tested, the world seems primed for a return of socially aware post punk: enter Street Sects’ The Kicking Mule (The Flenser).
For those familiar with Street Sects’ previous full-length, End, you might be surprised to hear that the Austin-based duo pulled influences from Brian Eno and Berlin-era Bowie for their latest release. Luckily for new and old listeners alike, The Kicking Mule retains the best elements of End Position while shaping into the band’s most accessible and sonically ambitious album yet.
Using brutally compressed drums and jarringly layered samples, multi-instrumentalist Shawn Ringsworth creates rainy, oil-stained streets that swallow the characters introduced by vocalist Leo Ashline. Whether it’s the direct chopping of “269 Soulmates” or the brooding din of “Dial Down The Neon,” Ringsworth’s powerful sonic landscapes feel oppressive yet eerily like home. Sawblade synths, gritty guitars, moans, warbles, and static fill the album.
Complimenting Ringsworth’s instrumentation, Ashline belts erratic and sometimes dangerous characters into existence. For instance, in “Chasing The Vig,” we find the main character “coked out in [their] uniform/one hand on [their] service weapon.”
Ashline’s other characters add complexity to the full cast, elucidating that they’re less nihilistic than they are deeply embattled. Lines like “I know I wasted half of my life/drunk on doubt/and now I’ll do without” (“Everyone’s At Home Eventually”) and “Everyone you love/Lets you down/Stop reaching out ” (“In For A World Of Hurt”) seem to come from survivors of severe struggle that now informs their worldview.
With a stark, neo-noire tinge, Street Sects’ vignettes broach the topics of mental illness, addiction, socioeconomic struggle, oppression, and their intersections. Dark undertones dominate The Kicking Mule, and there’s never any obvious resolution to the conflict introduced in the album’s stories. The decision to avoid resolution is a bold one. Rather than giving the listener any relieving denouement, the album crystallizes a raw, gut-wrenching feeling that perfectly fits the album’s sonic urgency.
The Kicking Mule contains a depth of awareness wrapped in a healthy dose of self-indulgence that speaks to post punk’s history of cool social consciousness. The album carves out a neo-noire dystopia that parallels the modern world in subtle but uncanny ways. Still maintaining compositional similarities to End Position, Street Sects manages to evolve into something entirely new and intriguing. With The Kicking Mule, Street Sects have crafted their most accessible album yet, simultaneously capturing the shape of a modern collective anxiety.