By J.R. Nelson
If you have one or two to spare, take a second to pity the middle-aged punks, the ones who think punk’s heyday is a decade behind us. Meanwhile, G.L.O.S.S., White Lung, The Bug, and Good Throb are currently and eloquently shouting their thunder, passing us by while we’re still out in the weeds, silently cursing the early-’80s hardcore legends that framed us. Diarrhea Planet has been the return address on our hate mail since Fugazi were still patient boys, but what’ve we got to show for it? Punk’s stilted, shabby reunion culture is full of low-wattage, pinch-faced festivals like Wrecking Ball and Riot Fest. Discogs.com has made it so all that tridactyl-shaped vinyl by The Locust we hoarded in lieu of a 401K won’t stay afloat in a pot full of piss.
The stakes didn’t always feel so low. If you were posted up in front of a stage on the west lawn of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on the night of January 29, 2002, freezing your ass off like I was, you could see the storm clouds of a literal war roiling over your head. Chicago post-punx Milemarker were performing for about 500 socialists, old Labor freaks, Green Party chill-brokers — the very definition of a lit antiwar rager in the tense post-9/11, pre–Iraq War window.
Supposedly, this was a protest concert called “Sorry State of the Union,” but the empire didn’t look too fucking sorry. Brutal displays of power abounded around us; motorcades of armored limousines from the White House raced down 3rd Street, helicopters scanned us with searchlights, horseback riot cops massed on Maryland Avenue, and barely disguised batteries of surface-to-air missiles dotted the national mall toward the Washington Monument. We were all shivering about 1,000 feet from the well of Congress, where President George W. Bush was delivering his most famous State of the Union speech — you (might) remember the one, where he shifted his animal eyes more times than normal, pounded the drums of war, and coined the phrase “Axis of Evil” while he was at it.
After watching that sorry-not-sorry display of geopolitical turpitude on a hastily erected projection screen with the rest of us, Milemarker laid down a 45-minute fusillade of not-in-our-names rage, as we tried to sing along with a freshly served helping of presidential feces in our mouths. That night, the band offered up a blistering fever dream called “The Fear Is Back in Town” that caught the mood of impending national revenge lust so fully I felt my blood boil.
Through the late ’90s and early aughts I saw Milemarker play a dozen shows nearly as good. Even at their very best, they were an awkward punk band: an antiwar bird of barely riveted parts including Roby Newton’s wimpy new-wave keyboards, Dave Laney’s wailing talent-show prog guitar, Al Burian’s Black Flag bass murk, and a series of drummers pumping out four on the killing-room floor disco beats. All three sang their asses off, trading around arena-size basement melodies and the kind of technophobic, brand-averse lyrics that write themselves if you’re a righteously paranoid maniac whose every paranoia emerges to terrible, burdensome fruition. The band’s anticapitalist subtext literally wrote itself, as Burian was as well-known for Milemarker as he was for his down-on-luck/up-on-silent despair zine Burn Collector — think Cometbus set in a dead-end copy shop job instead of a squat.
Facebook didn’t exist and iPhones weren’t yet a gleam in anyone’s eye, but Milemarker could read the digital tea leaves, and somehow they managed to soundtrack the Assange-ian eon of snooping, with electronic claustrophobia just around the corner. Like any punk band worth their salt, they were better live than on record, and their records were pretty fucking good. 2000’s Frigid Forms Sell was a glacial batch of snappy, syncopated hardcore and Anesthetic — which hit shops less than a week after 9/11 — upped the ante with an anthemic streak as wide as a U2 B side. After 2005’s Ominosity, Burian and Laney started new bands; they both left the States and ending up living in Germany.
I thought we might have heard the last of them, but at Milemarker’s recent Chicago tour stop at Empty Bottle on an August weekend, I was heartened to see the old punks were once again up to their familiar and best tricks. Burian’s microphone cord ended up as a noose around his neck more than once, and the band plowed through an elegant, slicing version of Anaesthetic’s “Ant Architect” along with a bushel of vocoder-heavy jams from their new album, Overseas. Overseas features cover art of a robot staring over clouded, scraggly cliffs; it’s a brutal rip-off of 19th-century German romanticist painter Caspar David Friedrich’s “Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog,” which you’d probably recognize from the cover of that Nietzsche Penguin paperback you dumped after Philosophy 101. Two-hundred years later, the painting may still symbolize “industrial age progress” or a “search for truth” or whatever — don’t ask me, I didn’t fucking paint it — and Milemarker’s music still carries a muscular, bionic thrill. Although there were no smoke machines on stage, the show felt intimate and clouded-in. Laney and Burian, joined by new hench-folk Lena Kilkka on keyboards and drummer Ezra Cale, were too quiet by half even as they were way too loud. I still yearned for them to drown out the rest of the world. They played as if time had collapsed around them.
After a few post-show spins, Overseas reveals itself as a canny anti-statement; the future Milemarker predicted is finally here, and it’s confusing the shit out of them. Opener “Conditional Love” questions commitment in the era of social networking while riding a dry-hump groove; on “Supercomputer,” our Hobo Humpin’ Slobo Babes chuck in the technological towel completely. It doesn’t get more grim than a vocoder chorus droning “Scrap the structure and start again / Reality becomes a tunnel and it’s just your position, social formation disintegration” over a whale of a synthetic bounce-beat. On blink-and-you-missed it scorcher “Blue Flag,” Burian shouts his oldster’s lament (and the album’s signature line) over a Gang of Four strut: “Your Black Flag bars tattoo is turning blue / What the fuck are you going to do about it?” If they ever figure it out, I hope the band is still around to air-mail the rest of us a clue.
Getting old and remaining invested in punk rock involves watching most of your musical heroes lose the thread. Milemarker, Octagrape, Joan of Arc, Sleater-Kinney, and Ex Hex are among the few to have earned a furlough pass, but under the paving stones there is ever more dross. Tight jean poppin’ daddies Blink-182 recently returned to build themselves a pool with the same old Billboard chart-topping steam shovel. How much shame can that deep end drown these days?
Maybe the better question is the hardest. Why do I still care? Tonight, in the darkness on the edge of an anytown DIY house show, a merch table is staffed by the veteran of a war fought across the decades in the VFW halls — a pirate struggle where major labels were conquered and most of the indies fell too, where Bandcamp pages replaced the 7-inch single as a sidearm, where the old soldiers recognize fewer faces on every tour. It might be me in the darkness back there, and if you decide to stay #true, someday it’ll be you. The fifth waves of post-punk, d-beat, and power violence are only now descending from the barricades; the in-their-moment kids at the front of the stage are all right. They always are. I’m glad to see it. What a time to feel less than alive.