Welcome to Anniversary Records, a column where we reflect on records that meant the world to us way back when, and what they mean to us now. This week: The Locust’s Safety Second, Body Last.
Anniversary Records: The Locust – Safety Second, Body Last
by Chad Jewett
The Locust are quite possibly contemporary punk’s definitive post-modernists. Certainly they’re the genre’s most endearingly idiosyncratic modern figures, explicitly political at a time when punk and hardcore was (and is) all too content to hew towards a marketable centrism, yet coating their Marxism with those strange costumes (looking like Shredder’s Foot Clan dressed as steam-punk cicadas) and neon layers of feral noise. You can tell that there’s righteous critique, and anarchy, in all of that swirling, spiky explosiveness, but it’s simultaneously strained through the band’s threshing grindcore, Justin Pearson’s fanged shrieks, and song titles like “The Half-Eaten Sausage Would Like to See You in His Office”. The band’s songs tear past in about a minute or less. The Locust’s best album, 2003’s excoriating Plague Soundscapes clocks in at twenty-one minutes. But where fellow avant-hardcore travellers Orchid offered their classic Dance Tonight! Revolution Tomorrow! in a similarly tight window of ten songs/sixteen minutes, The Locust packed twenty-three songs onto Plague. It’s among the many funny, fascinating knots that surround The Locust that the band balances clockwork efficiency with its critiques of the mechanizing soullessness of modern capital.
The fact that The Locust were normally hell-bent on packing as many songs into a drive to the grocery store (wherein you’d likely have a subsequently surreal experience) as possible is important when considering Safety Second, Body Last – the band’s most distinct aesthetic outlier – which is celebrating a ten-year anniversary this month. Where Plague Soundscapes and New Erections (and the essential odds-and-sods collection Molecular Genetics from the Gold Standard Labs) brimmed with frothing noise, whiplash time changes, corroded screams, and jagged edges, packed-to-bursting with songs, Safety Second, Body Last contains just two tracks – suites really – both five minutes, evenly and symmetrically balanced. The mere facts of the EP (twenty-three songs down to two) serve to underline The Locust’s taste for the perverse, zigging when you’ve spent years perfecting the zag.
Yet for anyone familiar enough with The Locust’s discography, this all may seem like a distinction without a difference. Plague Soundscapes claims twenty-three songs, but the thrill of the album is that it can also sound like one bag of melted-together candy, a half-hour long burst in-and-of-itself. What sets Saftey Second, Body Last apart, and what makes it fascinating as a modern punk document, is the ambient space that floats up, hauntingly, between the outbursts of “Armless and Overactive” and “One Decent Leg”. “Armless” begins as you’d expect it might – with thirty seconds of skittering thrash laced with plummeting keyboards. But then it ebbs into a valley of spare, echoing synths. And even if you know The Locust well enough to expect it, the band’s hard left turn back into dynamic action – in the form of a brutal floor-tom wallop and a curdling yelp – still serves like a jump-scare, the punched-up horror-movie reveal that you know for a fact will happen, but for which your body’s instincts can’t actually prepare.
The EP is full of these moments (the record’s middle is devoted to a two-and-half-minute span of eerie near-silence), but Safety Second is just as remarkable – though less frequently credited for – the sheer ingenuity and flexibility with which The Locust moves within its most chaotic passages. Indeed, while that first quiet passage is followed up with a bracing explosion of Converge-style doom-trudge, the way in which the band turns from that dinosaur stomp into an almost bop-like skitter of flailing drums (drummer Gabe Serbian does tour-de-force work throughout) and swarming keyboards, then back into an even more sludgy breakdown is impressive and enjoyable baffling. The EP ends with a minute of free-form digital chatter – one of many times where you can spot The Locust becoming locusts – but can’t resist, with twenty-six seconds on the clock – one last sidewinding burst of roiling, anxiety-attack hardcore. Safety Second, Body Last becomes a punk record that plays like abstract-expressionist art, even if The Locust might only admit to splattering paint around.