Fictitious Afterlives

Chosen Path by Die Young / Above Fear by By The Grace Of God / New River by Franz Nicolay (clockwise)

As I was writing last week’s Dark Myths, Venomous Realities, which explored Alex CF’s (Fall of Efrafa, Carnist, Morrow, and Wreathe) The Book of Venym: An Egalitarian Demonology, on which Wreathe’s forthcoming debut LP is based, I got to thinking of other hardcore and punk band members who have gone on to publish fictional works.

There is always a flow of memoirs and biographies that are at least hardcore punk adjacent, but the majority that I have delved into have been somewhat sterile affairs.  Tour diaries have proven rather more fertile.  Broken Summers (2004) by Henry Rollins details both his campaigning on behalf of the Memphis Three and a Rollins Band world tour between 2001 and 2003.  Despite having read it nearly twenty years ago, it remains a book still surprisingly firmly etched in my mind.  Not so much the specific details, but rather the atmosphere it evoked – a sheer relentlessness that felt an authentic, unvarnished insight into Rollins’ persona.

Forays into fiction, however, are rather rarer.  But three other examples did come to mind, each quite different to the other, and Alex CF’s work.  The first is by Franz Nicolay.  Nicolay played in the rather splendid World Inferno/Friendship Society, and then The Hold Steady, before heading out as a solo artist.  He now has a fine series of exuberant, wryly observed folk-punk albums under his belt, most recently New River.  As it happens, he also wrote perhaps my favourite tour diary, The Humourless Ladies of Border Control (2016), which I touched on in Trains, Ferries, and Water Fountains.  It is a thoroughly engaging exploration of touring Central and Eastern Europe, and his insights from Ukraine are now even more affecting.

After this, he published his first novel, Someone Should Pay For Your Pain (2021), which explores the life of a touring musician, from the days of being in a local scene punk band to becoming a solo artist. A brief flirtation with breakthrough success evaporates before the protagonist locks into a relentless touring schedule of seemingly ever-diminishing returns.  Of course, Nicolay knows aspects of this journey very well, but he also has the skill as a writer to bring it vigorously to life. The novel deftly renders the solitude of life on the road, poignantly insightful, but also laced with a delightfully dark humour.

The second novel is Cane Field (2019) by Daniel Austin.  Musically, Austin (then Daniel Albaugh) is best known as the front person for the politically charged metallic hardcore band, Die Young, who to me have always represented the sonic embodiment of the feral offspring of Catharsis and Trial. They were initially active from 2002 to 2009, including the release of the fiercely visceral 2007 full-length, Graven Images, before reforming in 2013, with the ensuing releases, such as Chosen Path and No Illusions, no less ferocious.  Renowned for their utterly relentless touring schedule during their first phase, the band is still active, but understandably rather less intensively so.

Austin has also published three poetry anthologies, but Cane Field is his only novel to date, and it tells the story of young man from the suburbs of Houston trying to get to grips with the world and the disappointments of his youth.  Not unusually for a debut novel, you again sense a strong autobiographical inspiration that also draws on Austin’s many years on the road with Die Young.  While I must admit that it didn’t entirely capture me, it is clearly a thoroughly sincere and heartfelt work, and one that convincingly depicts the emotional upheaval and uncertainties of entering adulthood.

The final of our novels is The City, Awake (2016) by Duncan Barlow, the third of four he has published.  Barlow is guitarist with By The Grace Of God (BTGOG), and prior to that Endpoint and Guilt, as well as a university lecturer in English.  BTGOG, who coincidentally also popped up in Trains, Ferries and Water Fountains, are a politically strident band hailing from Louisville, who have honed a blistering blend of surging melodic hardcore and socially thought-provoking lyrical concerns.  They released two searing LPs – Perspective and Three Steps To A Better Democracy – and the For The Love of Indie Rock EP between 1996 and 1999, before returning with 2018’s bristling Above Fear 12-inch.

The City, Awake is essentially a noir thriller reimagined through the prism of five lookalikes, who each wake up in their respective hotel rooms with no memory, and a cryptic note in their pocket.  We follow their responses to their predicament, which both mirror and interlink with each other.  In the wrong hands, there is much that could go wrong with an experimental structure of this type.  Barlow, however, manages it so adroitly that those pitfalls become its strength, and a thoroughly satisfying rhythm emerges as the layers of plot are revealed.  His pared, punchy yet lyrical prose also works effectively to conjure a darkly dystopian setting.

By definition, hardcore and punk music demands lyrically that often quite complex themes be distilled to their very essence, capable of being clearly expressed in two-to-three-minute blasts of intensity.  Not simplified, but certainly honed to their leanest form, yet in a way that effectively primes engagement with the ideas being explored.  Writing no doubt allows such ideas and themes to be examined in a more expansive and incremental form, which poses its own distinctive opportunities and challenges.  And, in each case, it is intriguing to see musicians who have brought significant pleasure begin to deploy their creative energies through an alternative medium.

Cane Field by Daniel Austin / Someone Should Pay For Your Pain by Franz Nicolay / The City, Awake by Duncan Barlow (left to right)