Issue #121: Progress by Rx Bandits
July 9, 2018
Released On July 17, 2001
Released By Drive-Thru Records
I must have been 19 when I first heard the music of Rx Bandits. (I remember eagerly anticipating the time when my age would match up to the line “It’s 3 years till 24 / And I don’t wanna die in a nuclear war.”) It was my sophomore year of college and I was living in a suite with three of my very best friends. Andy, a former OYR contributor, had a Drive Thru Records DVD, (which Discogs tells me was released in December of that year, which means that he probably got it for Christmas) that we all gathered around to watch. Among New Found Glory, The Starting Line, and The Early November, who were all playing pop-punk that I could not get enough of, there was Rx Bandits.
I was somewhat familiar with ska as a genre, but this seemed to me to be ska that was set on fire. And it wasn’t about girls and trivial things — it was about racial equality, addiction, and all sorts of heavy topics. I was very intrigued by this band, but honestly, the lure of pop-punk was more seductive to me. My friend Riley, on the other hand — he was in. He got Progress and the albums that preceded it the way you do when you’re suddenly into a new discovery. And so Progress became a part of my life, soundtracking everything. We would put it on when we were driving places and just wanted to sing and play air-everything. This excellent album might have stayed in rotation whenever I wanted to reminisce about those good times and the specific set of memories that I had surrounding it and my one friend.
Only it kept recurring in my life due to it being such an outstanding display of musicianship and songwriting. For example, the first mix CD I ever made for the woman that would eventually become my wife started with the horn intro to Catch 22’s Alone In A Crowd album and went straight into “Status” from Progress. Fast forward to today when I put the album on and “Status” came up, there’s my wife, singing along to that very deep cut and just making my heart soar.
I gave this album to my dad, who may or may not have listened to it, but who I maintain would very much connect with the sentiments expressed in various places on the album about how technology and “progress” are not always good things and can, in fact, lead to some very bad things. I especially thought the line from “Nothing’s Sacred” that goes “When was the last time that you gazed upon a shopping mall / And thought, ‘How beautiful’?” was in line with his way of thinking.
And then there are the lasting personal and solitary connections I have to the album. Screaming along with “Who Would’ve Thought” (“Pleading protest, I grab my heart and scream out loud”) any time it comes on. Smiling like you do when you’re eavesdropping as the band marvels at the amazing jam session that they’ve just finished (it’s the one the bridges the gap between “Nugget” and “Progress“) and how lucky it was that they ended when they did because they were almost out of tape. Getting goosebumps damn near every time the horns come in on “Infection,” in what is certainly my favorite moment on the record and definitely in the running for all-time champ.
I considered proposing that we cover The Resignation, which is another excellent album, and Doug might be wishing I had suggested it, since it’s on Spotify and this, for whatever reason, is the only album of their catalog that is not. In the end, I had to go with the album that ignited my love of the band and the album that wove itself into the important events of my life. This was definitely a situation where the album was so enormously on my radar, that it took me a while to realize that it might not be on everyone’s. And that that was a travesty in need of quick correction. I hope that my fellow OYR-thors enjoyed listening to it, and that everyone reading this will track it down and let it into their life as well.
James Anderson (@unabashedjames)
Devoted Docent Of Musical Concepts
Third wave ska votaries with an experimental streak and a political conscious.
The esteemed philosopher Ice Cube once put it this way: “Life ain’t a track meet / It’s a marathon.” I think about that lyric often, especially in situations where I’m not pacing myself like I should be. To accomplish anything big or important — and political resistance certainly qualifies — you need to be in it for the long haul. There’s a really interesting moment in the second half of Progress, when the dub-influenced “Nugget” is coming to a close and you can hear folks in the studio reflect on what they just finished playing. “That was like a 30-minute jam, dude,” someone says. About two seconds later, the title track kicks in with an aggressive 1-2-3-4 count — the kind you would normally hear from a band whose whole set might max out at 30 minutes. That jagged transition is when it hit me: Rx Bandits’ versatility allowed them to make an album that’s geared toward every stage of a sustained political mobilization. They can shake you by the shoulders to get your outrage going (“Wake up / The world is changing”). They can switch speeds to provide a downtempo thought experiment on the true motivations behind war (“In All Rwanda’s Glory“). They can force you to question your complicity (“If you’re paying income tax / then you’re helping to build bombs”) and then offer words of encouragement to bolster flagging support (“We can live with no regrets / This ride’s not over yet”). These shifts in tone mirror what it’s like to try to find your voice — and make a positive impact — in a complicated, messed-up tangle of injustice and influence. I think many of us can identify with that sense of confusion at the moment. In fact, I’m amazed at how applicable Progress is to America’s current political climate. It’s a good sign for the album’s endurance as art, and a bad sign for the direction this country is headed in.
Davy Jones (@youhearthat)
Idealistic Seeker Of Neoteric Sounds
Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about book covers. How often do fellow bookworms stroll through a used bookstore, heads tilted at a 45 to the right, scanning book titles and spine details for a worn paperback to take to the beach, to shove down into a backpack for later, the desire to thumb the pages predicated by an attraction to the font, colors, and images of the spine and cover? This, more than reviews in The New York Times, have led to the purchase of some of my favorites, most recently a book about eating all the oysters available up and down the East and West Coasts of the USA, a book I never would have anticipated loving until I saw that spine. In thinking about Progress, I have to mention the cover art, which, while not the driving force in my listening to this album, certainly clarified my thinking about a ska/punk/reggae album that otherwise I would not have picked up off the shelf, those genres being decidedly difficult for me to connect with. The stoic face of a Native American in full headdress, the reds and yellows of that photograph offset by a sea of blank whiteness speak so much to the conflicts sung out by the band. Track after track on this album plays concerned with issues that still, in stark relief, plague our country, issues like capitalism, racism, war, poverty and feminism, so much so that listening to this album for the first time now feels like a mini-rebellion, a call past the reggae beats that can often feel playful and fun. While there’s a fair amount of personal heartache that must have gone into the creation of these lyrics, listening in the pre-apocalyptic times makes reading this album, the spine of this album, a more serious affair than the ska beats imply. I’m drawn more to the implications of that cover art in juxtaposition of the album than I usually am, and if I’m forgetting the swag melodies and hypnotic beats of many songs, you’ll forgive me in my focus on those lyrics.
Laura Burroughs (@_thetwors)
Jestful Musical Erudite
My friend Madison Turner and I play music together sometimes. These days she’s a folk-punk singer with a ’90s-alternative streak, but her roots lie in the world of ska. However, I was blown away when she played me her old band — while there were ska elements thrown in on occasion, they sounded way more like metallic post-hardcore to me than any traditional definition of ska. I’d never heard anything like it, so I was really shocked when she told me that she’d been influenced by a variety of other bands doing similar sorts of things at the time. She didn’t mention Rx Bandits to me at the time (her influences, bands like Folly and Flaming Tsunamis, were quite a bit heavier), but it was only due to that conversation with Madison that I had any context at all for understanding this Rx Bandits album when it showed up in Off Your Radar this week. I was fully two songs into Progress before I realized, “Oh wait, is this a ska band?” Sure, they make it quite clear on some mid-LP songs — the double-shot of “In All Rwanda’s Glory” and “Babylon” that forms the album’s centerpiece replicates both the rocksteady groove and the political consciousness of classic Jamaican reggae. But a great deal of this album is devoted to the sort of melodic post-hardcore riffage that dominates tracks like “VCG3” and “Anyone But You.” Then there are the Goldfinger-style Green-Day-with-upstrokes pop-punk vibes all over tunes like “All The Time” and “Who Would’ve Thought.” At their least engaging, these guys veer towards the territory of Sublime (“Status“) or Incubus (“Analog Boy“). But those moments never last the entire song, and they’re more than balanced out by this album’s melodic heights. Honestly, even if you hate all straightforward ska, you’re sure to find plenty of great non-ska moments here to carry you through the upstroking moments. And if you can handle a bit of skanking in your poppy punk and melodic post-hardcore, this album is sure to be a blast for you. And what’s really cool is that, as Madison recently demonstrated to me, there’s a whole world of unorthodox twists on ska to dig into if you enjoy Progress. This is just the tip of the iceberg.
Drew Necci (@buzzorhowl)
Insightful Scholar Of The Underground
While writing this review, my partner asked me, “What kind of album is it this week?” to which I replied, “Ska mostly… but actually, it’s got a lot of pop-punk in it too… and you know what, it’s got more punk than pop… but it’s not like No Doubt at all, so don’t think that okay? More like Operation Ivy, I guess? No, that’s not right. That’s really not right. To be fair, some songs have virtually no typical ska techniques at all. Oh, and the way it all flows together is really cool. It reminds me of Quadrophenia by The Who, but obviously more modern, like early 2000s. No, wait that’s more confusing…” It was at this point a silence fell between us as we exchanged confused glances. I uttered gingerly, “It’s good though.” Clearly Rx Bandits are a band with a longstanding personal vendetta against anyone who dares try to genre them. Progress is an album with such diverse influences that to say it’s simply ska, punk, or alternative clearly isn’t effective. If you were to persist with trying to put a label on this record, you’d have to say something like ska punk and even then, you’d be ignoring their distinct pop, alternative, and hardcore sensibilities. For those of you with breathing troubles like asthma, it could be potentially life threatening for you to even attempt to describe what you hearing. For the rest of you, just trust me, attempting this feat is not worth the risk. You don’t want to find yourself frustratingly half singing “Who Would’ve Thought” in sounds like “ba-na-na-na-na-na-nuhnuhnuh-na.” This is how people get sectioned here in the UK. So the next time someone asks you what Rx Bandits sounds like, just say it’s good and promptly play this record in full to whoever it is that’s curious about their sound. After that, describing can be their problem, not yours.
Erin Calvert (@erinpcalvert)
Elder Goth In The Making
Bucking the trend with some prophetic thoughts.
Let’s talk about how Progress absolutely does not ring off the typical boxes for a California based, ska-influenced band. Somehow though, the mix of post-hardcore style group vocals, screaming leads, minor-key orbiting guitar progressions, and clanging metal sound effects all manage to far more-than-civilly share space with the cheerful tone bending of trombones and trumpets — staples of ska arrangements. The coexistence of stylistic polar opposition seems odd but then there are other cases of seemingly black and white genre combinations that work well — take symphonic metal, folk punk, electro-acoustic for example — creating excitement the same way Rx Bandits do here. Lyrically, the band isn’t all about the carefree, happy-go-lucky narratives of good times and full kegs like what is sometime presumed by way of bands like Reel Big Fish or Dropkick Murphys and that encourages more attentive and-or repeated listens if you’re trying to really get to know the Rx Bandits. One might even say some of the themes could speak to socio-political tensions on the rise today. (“Human rights went on vacation / Money took over a long time ago / Cry for this racial war / In all Rwanda’s glory / there ain’t no glory in a war.”) But, without looking up the words for extra clarification, the way guitarist, songwriter, and lead vocalist Matt Embree delivers — rounded consonant enunciation and hooked together lines via slurs, which are also a common stylistic marker of ska performance — the depth of concept that permeates Progress loses some of its ultimate potential for impact. Then again, perhaps this was done intentionally so as not to overwhelmingly tilt the emotional balance of the record to a place that might feel remote for people who want their ska core kept relatively fun and not so serious. I give them credit, rather than deride Rx Bandits for this because it’s not easy to keep songs from getting too long, write memorable hooks (either lyrical or melodic), and provide a meaningful message with detailed phrasing in the same song; something they manage to do well in other places like “Analog Boy.” Straight away, the song connects in its central, superficial concept (analog vs. digital) with deeper topics like social nonconformism and, even more specifically, turning girls away from unattainable physical “perfection” that is often tied to digital enhancement (“She lays awake tonight, this ain’t the way she wants it / And it’s so bad, she cries herself to sleep / She can’t have the body of a model / Oh, she wants it, she reads it in the magazines”). Crazy that such a relatively simple verse can paint such a viscerally realistic picture of the social pressures still plaguing girls today. Progress as a whole gives a head tilting first impression, but once the music is given a chance to sit and rest in the ears, and things can come into focus, suddenly what you’ve been presented with will only bring continuous pleasant surprise. Just because a sonic idea isn’t commonly seen or heard, doesn’t mean it will by default be bad and in the case of Progress, such thinking going in is not only pertinent but liable to benefit anyone heading for first time exposure to the album.
Kira Grunenberg (@shadowmelody1)
Prolific Sonic Scribe & Unifier
Progress features a little bit of everything, doesn’t it? Obviously the main ingredients are the ska elements, but the Bandits bob and weave in key spots to diversify their record and keep us interested. My favorite moment of Progress is the lifting string arrangement that comes out of nowhere on “Infection.” One moment it’s a chorus of monster guitar chords and banging drums, but then it flips right into a frenzied closing sequence John Williams would be proud of. I was also moved by the vocal aggression at the end of “Progress.” The unexpected screams at the end of the track go that much further to separate the album from the standard ska outing. I’m glad Rx Bandits made it onto OYR this week because, truth be told, I never gave their brand of jams the proper attention. Ever nice my teenage years, I’d hear the word “ska” and immediately dismiss it because “I know what that is” and go about my merry way. Sitting down with this record from a critical perspective opened me up to some of the nuance that I’ve always missed because of pure apathy. I’d call that progress.
Kellen “J. Clyde” Ford (@jclyde757)
Steadfast Hip-Hop Historian & Creator
Last week, I suggested that Let Go’s title was not meant to be taken in a negative fashion, but instead as an uplifting suggestion of sorts. With Rx Bandits’ Progress, however, that’s likely the opposite. Indeed, given the lyrical content, the album’s title is almost certainly meant to be sarcastic or ironic. The album’s major lyrical through-line is that of existential dread towards modern life, and it’s spoken in relatably broad language. There’s anxiety towards technology and how it has pervaded every aspect of life. (Considering Progress is about to turn 17, RxB was way, way ahead of that curve.) There’s anxiety about conformity and how technology, especially television (because Facebook and Twitter didn’t exist then), is the engine driving that forward. There’s anxiety about the assembly line-ness of modern, workaday life. And there’s anxiety — perhaps more accurately described as anxious anger — towards (our) government’s penchant for prioritizing military spending over anything else. Sometimes angst is just thrown out as a kind of verbal limb flailing (i.e., “What is money if you ain’t got happiness?”), and even then it’s both in step with the album and accessible to the listener. And so is the summery fun music, which I found to be grin-inducingly subversive in context: Here we have hummable ska punk over which is laid cries (and the occasional scream) for help about materialism and war and docility. Maybe that’s why there seems to be a push-pull effect to the songwriting. RxB mostly refuse to stay in one tempo or mode, even within a single song, constantly speeding up or slowing down. It could be another level of commentary on the world around them. Or maybe it’s a coping mechanism for it.
Steve Lampiris (@stevenlampiris)
Sure, Let’s Go With That
Looking past ska, the band utilized a broader spectrum of sounds to help support their heavy subject matter.
Though never quite making the notoriety of their contemporaries, Rx Bandits — or Sublime’s more temperamental younger brothers — demonstrated a certain strength in their 2001 record Progress which in many ways was ahead of its time. Though the Third Wave Ska elements are all still present from the horns to the syncopated guitar licks, there’s a lot more going on with this record that hints at an appreciation for complexity. Thrown in with a generous 15 tracks, you’ve got scream-o style vocal backing, and Primus-level pattern changes. The whole thing has a schizophrenic feel that propels it forward throughout making for an interesting listen, if not an immediately sticky one. With the possible exception of “Analog Boy,” there isn’t really a track on this record that stands out as an immediately accessible radio hit and while Goldfinger made a name for themselves covering “99 Red Balloons,” killing it with a little more heavy emphasis on the punk elements, you have to give The Pharmaceutical Bandits credit for wanting to differentiate themselves through sheer speed and volume. On “In All Rwanda’s Glory,” for example, they begin with percussion popping like popcorn and then completely change approach in less than two phrases. The energy present on all of these tracks must have packed clubs in 2001 and sent patrons firing their bodies into sweaty pits in seedy nightclubs all over southern California. Horn blasts are met at every turn with guitar riffs which sound almost more metal than punk. Matt Embree’s vocal style sounds like it’s always pushed to the limits of his capabilities even when he’s relaxing into the strangely poppy “Anyone But You.” This record was a new experience to me and a welcome introduction to a band that were clearly major players in a sound that never quite got its due.
Darryl Wright (@punksteez)
Lovechild Of The Music & Technology Marriage
I have a very distinct memory of borrowing a copy of Progress from a friend when I was in high school. I had just learned how to make an mp3 CD thanks to my latest discman, so rather than put only Progress onto a CD-R (for a story that isn’t even twenty years old, that last sentence sure make it sound ancient), I decided to make an entire disc of my favorite ska-punk acts. Unfortunately, after 45 minutes of mp3s being transferred to a CD, my computer had trouble reading and copying the file name “0:28” and it abruptly ended the process. This was the end of my attempts to make any more mp3 CDs ever, which kind of worked out because iPods and Zunes had already been commercially available for a few years at this point and it seemed more practical to use one of those instead of a discman anyway, and it also affected how frequently I listened to Progress as a whole because I irrationally blamed the introduction track. There’s probably a fun parallel that one can draw between my attitude toward this album, which was largely based around my perceived lack of convenience provided by technology, and the general theme of anti-technology flowing through Progress. Perhaps “anti-technology” is a bit strong, but given that four songs in a row (“VCG3,” “Consequential Apathy,” “Analog Boy,” and “Get“) all have direct criticisms of television (“a malfunction of minds lacking decisive control are filled with a TV sense of life,” “is it just routine trained behavior, does the TV set control your life?,” “conform, believe anything on TV find your identity soon and let the channel change you,” and “In this land of hypocrisy, where all of the best things in life are free, you don’t need to be a movie star or on TV” respectively), and that the album’s working title was Artificial Intelligence and Fall of Technology, it’s easy to conclude that the Rx Bandits had some issues with the way technology was being used (and I assume that their criticisms have only grown in the past seventeen years). Despite the mishap that got in the way of me listening to this album when I was younger, this album is enjoyable and captures the Rx Bandits at a crucial point in their career: they were beginning to experiment with more progressive and post-hardcore elements (“VCG3” is what I imagine a band like Finch would have sounded like with a brass section, and the spacy outro of “Infection” was a sign of things to come on later albums), while still churning out plenty of third wave ska and pop punk tunes (“Anyone But You” is in line with what one might expect from a Drive-Thru Records band more so than any other track on this album). The title might be in reference to humankind and civilization, but it also reflects the changes that the band gone through in just a few short years (compare the lyrics of a song like “In All Rwanda’s Glory” to those of “What If” from the band’s previous album and you’ll hear the distinction). Progress is probably the best entry point for any newcomers to the Rx Bandits discography; it’s halfway between the band’s early ska meets pop punk sound and their latter-day post/proggy/reggae what-have-you reinvention.
Dustin Gates (@cmonch eermeup)
Relapsed Pop Culture Junkie
What I like about this album is that each track has its own unique sound. Yes, the band overall has their sound, but, for example, the eighth track “Babylon” has that very distinct ska/reggae sound — the instruments, the lyrics; it all jumped out at me right away — whereas the fifth track “Get” has more of a punk rock, angsty sound — the choppy guitar and even the lyrics “no time to get what you wanted /it’s time to get what you need” speak to that rebellious tone that I got while listening. For me, when a band has songs that sound so completely different to one another, yet still sound similar in a way, it gives me a great amount of respect for that band. It shows that they are confident in their abilities and aren’t afraid to experiment with their sound or keep pushing their boundaries. I also really respect how political the album is. No, not every song is political, but there are the ones thrown in there that are clearly speaking about issues going on in the world and it is always great when anyone with a platform to speak out does exactly that. My personal favourite track would have to be “Status.” It’s got a great sound and a great “live life for the moment” message, one I think we should all try and live by.
Chelsea Kostrey (@chelseakostrey)
Retrophile & Festival Enthusiast
There’s something damning and laudable about a 17-year-old record called Progress being a suitable guide to today’s society. Damning for the world we live in, laudable for Rx Bandits. Ahead of its time, this record — a record any ska diehard should definitely know and love if only to use as a staunch genre defense — definitely called a lot of things that would unfold in the 21st century. But calling the album’s message prophetic doesn’t quite do it justice… though the band name being an early indictment of a greedy medical industry definitely puts a tally in the oracle column. Think less of Cassandra and more of Prometheus. The band just seemed to think five, maybe even ten years ahead of everything. Lyrically of course, but musically too. Third wave ska took the world by storm in the late ’90s and early ’00s, undoubtedly helped by the Warped Tour and countless Tony Hawk games, but it wouldn’t be long after the release of Progress that the tide would shift and the genre qualities that once seemed carefree and catchy would become vapid and annoying. Rx Bandits were ahead of the curve though in 2001, not only infusing ska with plenty of interesting hardcore punk qualities, but also retreating back to the spiritual core of ska and its close cousin reggae, using both to relay memorable grooves and fiery messages. While other bands around them were using up-down guitar rhythms and spunky horn sections as sturdy platforms, Rx Bandits were using them as launching pads that would hopefully slingshot them into something bold and new. And for the most part, they did just that, landing in territory completely detached from their major contemporaries. You can sense that detachment when you listen to Matt Embree’s wonderful lyrics, words that seem less fixated on cultural fun and more on social critiques ranging from technological to militaristic. But surround those lyrics with the sound of bands like Reel Big Fish and Goldfinger and it’s not going to have too much of an impact, or even an audience. Mix in some prog and hardcore thoughts, place them at the forefront of the record (like album highlight “VCG3“), and you’ll make sure people know this isn’t your typical ska music, one you can just put on in the background, tap your foot too, and pick out a catchy lyric. No, this is music that’s demanding your attention so it can shine a light on issues they feel are going to be wildly important (they were right) while also showing you that ska can be so much more than cheeky pop punk in a different package (right again).
Doug Nunnally (@musicdoug)
Garrulous Aural Braggart
Wulfband by Wulfband
Chosen By Darryl Wright