by Chad Jewett
Sarah M.’s voice is an instrument of startling sharpness, an incendiary alto that laces the coiled hardcore of the Phoenix-based quintet Lilith like July sun through thick tangles of ivy. Punctuating the band’s roiling, abstracted punk with a whittled scream that is intangibly stunning in its sheer ability to, at all costs, connect, M. (only an initial is listed for Sarah’s last name) crafts barbed hooks out of activist poetry, searing melodies out of progressive/feminist resistance. That combination, the band’s deep, grinding, bass-heavy aesthetic, and Sarah M.’s crystalline shout, is utterly compelling, a gale-force statement of righteous hardcore abrasion. Simply put, Bloom, the band’s debut EP (ahead of a full length to be released on 6131 Records), is one of the best hardcore records in years – a radiant statement of purpose, a thrilling repossession of punk rock, a short album that commands attention.
“Wolves’ Den” begins the EP with the taut, curling post-hardcore of Quicksand and Jawbox, all syncopated snare wallops and corroded bass. M.’s screams burst in the middle distance, concerned with the politics of punk: “You’re a joke. Taking what’s ours and making it yours / Like you invented the thought. Like you’re the one who fought.” Even more to the point are M.’s later arguments, closing out “Wolves’ Den” with a trenchant critique of punk’s self-serving inaction: “There’s no room in a forward-thinking community for people who refuse to acknowledge the flaws in their thoughts / How dare you attempt to justify your lack of action.” Just as the band has a gift for carving away at the possible abstractions of mathematic post-hardcore until the whole thing is one sharpened surface, so too does Sarah M. find beautifully direct language for the complexities of progressive ethos and the solipsism and selfishness that would mute punk’s activist values.
“Patronus” comes and goes in forty-five seconds, splitting its time between pure forward-motion punk and a short interlude of stomped bass drum, serving as a spotlight for M.’s devastating phrasing: “This isn’t my guilt to live with.” Indeed, Sarah M.’s narrative here is brief and potent enough to quote in-full: “I refuse to shrink down to how fucking small you make me feel / I refuse to shrink down to how fucking small you want me to feel / Your violence won’t dictate me. This isn’t my guilt to live with / I refuse to shrink in shame.” If there is a synecdoche for what Lilith does best, it is “Patronus,” a song whose minute-long tempest feels effortlessly captivating, whose decrees of resistance and unwillingness to entertain the inequities of sexist violence are utterly direct, honed to an undeniable absolute.
“On the Precipice of Emptiness” reflects its title, a song committed to an exploration of nihilist devastation, (indeed, M. goes so far as to shout “Mark of nihil, the manic struggle”). The song’s early going lumbers along in woozy sludge (a male voice punctuating the stomp with an exaggerated “UGH” will have to be forgiven, unless there’s irony in that grunt) but “On the Precipice…” soon blooms into hyperdriven, accelerating hardcore, two of the band’s male members trading lines until the song slows back down into a swirling, impressionist valley, guitars stretching and waving across a spoken-word outro of existentialist poetry. There are echoes of Rites of Spring in the song’s near-immolating devotion to self-exploration and the plumbing of traumatized depths, an expansive interlude wherein the band explores personal politics with the same gutting precision with which Lilith lacerates structural inequality and assiduous ignorance.
Bloom reaches its absolute peak in the jagged, churning thorns of “Fuck Yr Brotherhood.” Revisiting the feminist critique of “Patronus” and literalizing its significance for a contemporary punk scene disconcertingly out of sync with the progressive politics that make it valuable, Sarah M. once again offers an emancipatory manifesto with devastating economy: “Compliance won’t be my only option. I won’t stand in the back out of your way. Your discouragement won’t cause me to stray. Do we really need another club that’s all about you? Fuck your brotherhood. This is our scene, too.” In the context of the very real issue punk and hardcore scenes are having with maintaining safe spaces for disenfranchised and under-represented communities and identities, the economic directness of M.’s ethics – that one should recognize, and work at fixing, their problematic beliefs and actions – feel wholly refreshing, like a thorny equation in the hands of a brilliant teacher. Indeed, M. brilliantly anticipates and responds to the sexist defense of “punk = violence, get used to it” with a refusal to play by oppressive rules: “I won’t stand in the back out of your way.” In other words, who says you get to define what punk is? Who deemed aggressive males the decider for the shape of punk’s spaces?
Bloom ends with the harrowing narrative of “Roman Candle,” a song that details the lived reality of abuse and its aftermath over the band’s most soft-focus tangle, its most carefully calibrated post-hardcore landscape. Sarah M. shouts “I still can’t look at the scars” with increasing sharpness, her voice fraying and bursting in kinetic brightness like the titular firework, burning in devastating light. The song is a poignant, overwhelming end to a wholly exceptional record. Bloom is an EP of staggering beauty, of righteous fury, of roiling energy. It is a way forward; a brief, compelling masterpiece.