Living in the heart of America’s political machine is a provocation to start a punk band. Washington D.C.’s youth have been harnessing their disaffection to mangle the punk template for over 40 years, giving us some of the biggest names in hardcore (Minor Threat, Bad Brains, Black Flag’s Henry Rollins), post-hardcore (Fugazi), and grunge (Nirvana’s Dave Grohl). The latest bands to emerge from D.C.’s left-wing underground make music that is more tempered, more intellectual, less violent, but still ineffably belonging to the punk-rock family. The most exciting newcomer to this scene is Flasher, whose debut album Constant Image exemplifies that movement towards a more controlled dose of punk. Borrowing members from across the city’s fertile scene (singer Taylor Mulitz used to play bass in Priests – the scene’s biggest band, bassist Daniel Saperstein is in Bless, and drummer Emma Baker is in Big Hush), and sonic touchstones ranging from Kim Deal to the cool restraint of The Strokes, Flasher have created a hugely satisfying album of snapping indie-alt-punk.
Constant Image is politically engaged, but in a way that is more enduring than most Trump and Brexit-inspired offerings. Living in D.C., political turmoil is surely mere background noise. So Flasher’s political commentary is a constant hum throughout the lyrics, but they eschew engagement with the salient features of the contemporary news cycle – this is age-old left-wing critique of the establishment and exploration of the self. That said, the band have been part of the news in quintessentially contemporary fashion, having been caught up in the baseless, thoroughly-debunked ‘Pizzagate’ theory, promulgated by the American alt-right, that alleged a Democratic party paedophile ring was operating out of the esteemed D.C. pizza parlour Comet Ping Pong, where all of Flasher have worked. The pizzeria exists as a kind of portal where the consequences of internet shit-posting becomes nauseatingly real. In December 2016 it was attacked by an armed gunman (no-one was hurt), and has since been forced to close numerous times due to threats of further attacks.
Yet Flasher seem more concerned with the monotony of working in the service industry than the dangers posed by fake news enthusiasts. The album opens with a scene of “doing drugs at midnight”, surely a reference to the typical restaurant-worker’s late-shift pick-me-up cocaine. Opener ‘Go’ refuses to let the beat settle for a good minute, then quickly segues into the artful rush of ‘Pressure’, lead single and album highlight. Mulitz’s chorus urges us (and himself?) to view the pressure of a stressful lifestyle as pressure to “find another way”, and his oblique verses speak of restlessness (“can’t sleep, sweat the sheets”) and a “touch-and-go” existence punctuated by “another line” of nose powder. The music is controlled, but Mulitz’s sneer and Saperstein’s insistent down-strokes push against the boundaries in which they are confined. Both its riffs really hit the spot: a flip-flopping verse riff that recalls New Order, and a clever chorus riff which distributes the melody across the bass and guitar.
The constant on Constant Image is Flasher’s musical intelligence, particularly with respect to rhythms – they are masters of figures which are at first awkward but later compelling due to a soupçon of prediction error. The rhythmic logic of “Sun Come and Golden” is at first ambiguous, but satisfyingly resolves itself. They already seem tired of the drugs, wondering “can you take another cigarette?”, and the chorus gives way to something pure and delicate as Mulitz seeks a natural high in the warmth of the sun, over a pretty chorus-drenched guitar hook. “Skim Milk” also employs rhythmic trickery, Baker powering through a barrelling beat and vying for attention in the instrumental chorus with melodic, adventurous drumming. Mulitz recalls the Sex Pistols, yelping about having “no future” at the apex of the impressively-layered bridge. “Material” brings more angular rhythms, and Mulitz impressively delivers a chorus that intersperses visceral verbs – “crush”, “touch”, “clutch”, “fuck” – with abstract nouns – “physical”, “typical”, “visible”, “liminal” – that seem to trip over each other without stalling. It’s almost an oblique Marxist tongue-twister. Whereas its popular to argue contemporary politics is remarkable for its oddity and extremism, Mulitz doesn’t buy it, referencing “centuries of misery”.
But if the original spirit of punk was borne of anti-intellectualism – of purposefully unintelligent music-making – Flasher can play nasty too. “XYZ” is, in title, an inversion of “ABC”, the Jackson 5’s pop classic, and is its inverse in sound too. It sets off with purpose, a citric, buzzing guitar lead navigating precipices in Baker’s momentous drumming. Mulitz is feeling anti-capitalist (but again, only obliquely), urging the listener to violate terms of service, shoplift, and burn trash. He parodies the fake intimacy of friendly cold-callers and businesses asking you to rate your experience. Next track “Who’s Got Time?” goes even faster and dirtier, easily their most pop-punk track with its pinched vocal and harmonies. Musically it is simple, the whole band blasting out quavers and changing chords in lock-step. But for a singer in a punk band, Mulitz has a very cordial voice, and thankfully doesn’t contort it into that of a social outcast in classic punk style, instead using its geniality as a tool for subversion. The politeness of his delivery contrasts almost sarcastically with the fuzz of guitars and nasality of the verses as he asks to “pull the shadow from my name”, speaking of personal reinvention and the fluidity of the self.
The final three tracks are somewhat more adventurous. “Harsh Light” features their most abstract guitar work, fizzing indistinctly in the background as Baker’s floor tom duets with Saperstein’s bass. After two minutes it sets off somewhere new, with wilfully discordant keys creating an atmosphere of forward momentum and pathos that’s not far from the grandeur of an Arcade Fire outro. “Punching Up” is highly detailed, borrowing dream-pop/shoegaze textures and vocals to create something that aims for transcendence before a George Harrison-style guitar solo is debilitated by heavy distortion. Lyrically, Mulitz plays the necessity of agitating for progress against its futility, but reminds us in the outro that “everything done” started from nothing. We end with the most adventurous track – “Business Usual”, which begins with a guitar melody that is almost Dadaist in the awkwardness of its rhythm and melodic intervals. Further oddity is provided by the duelling saxophones that decorate the middle eight. It’s not clear whether Mulitz’s chorus – “once a man now a boy in blue, this whole world’s got it in for you” – is taking the piss out of the police or earnestly critiquing how employers infantilise the working classes (both are plausible). His ending question “What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done?” is ominous, deviant, but also intimate – a compelling way to end an album that comments on both the political and personal.
There’s little risk-taking on Constant Image, and that ensures that everything here works. What Flasher attempt is not easy: these songs rely on the success of their hooks, and are not let down; Baker’s drumming expertly balances complexity against effectiveness; Mulitz’s lyrics tackle themes that are both familiar and scoffed at by many, yet he makes them interesting and artistic through a filter of obliquity. But the lack of risk-taking also means that it’s hard for the album to endear itself to you, other than through its style or quality alone. Mulitz reveals little of himself in terms of emotions or personality and so there’s little that can resonate with the listener on a personal level. Stylistically, they recombine sounds whose coolness has been established through decades of trial and error, and semantically they focus on common grievances about modern life – and they do both these things excellently, with energy, detail and an appreciation that goes beyond mere mimicry. But part of making great music is exposing yourself to risk, sharing your inner thoughts, feelings and vision in the hope that they’ll connect with the others out there who feel the same (a cornerstone of D.C.’s legendary bands’ successes). Great music takes those risks and pulls it off. While it would be a greater shame if Flasher had taken these risks and failed, it remains a shame that they don’t try to at all. That said, for an album of bracing guitar music that is classic in sound but lacks contrivance, it’s hard to think of anything recent that’s better than Constant Image.