When I first heard Broken Prayer’s demo, I was impressed. The instruments on the recording were all played by the band’s driving force, Scott Plant, formerly of such quality bands as Civic Progress and Manipulation. So, I wasn’t surprised when the demo was great, but the way it mixed straight forward hardcore punk with dancey keyboards, post-punk moodiness, and dark humor was pleasantly unexpected. The band that was eventually assembled played the songs flawlessly live and Broken Prayer quickly became one of the finest punk bands Chicago had to offer.
Fast forward a year or so and work on a full length album began. I’m lucky enough to have a band mate that’s in Broken Prayer, so I was treated to some early listens to the recording session. Even with these preliminary listens, I was not ready for the beast that would be leashed upon the unsuspecting world. The first thing that you notice about this LP is the unsettling, surreal artwork. It’s like something that would be carved onto the cell wall of a deranged criminal after a long stay in solitary. Part Nick Blinko and part high school notebook doodles, it fits the music perfectly.
The album opens with a raging hardcore punk ripper called National Cum. One of Broken Prayer’s finest talents is their ability to lay keyboard over or underneath the typical rock band setup of guitar, bass, and drums. Most hardcore punk bands would not even think about using keyboard in a song like this, let alone be able to do so successfully, but Broken Prayer manage to use the keys as anything from a lead instrument to a noise machine capable of creating a bedrock layer of sound. National Cum largely implements the latter strategy and it pulls everything together perfectly. A similar approach is taken with the next track I Smile For A Living. The song’s lyrics paint a desperate picture of modern day servitude that is disturbing yet relatable. The blasting hardcore assault continues with Army Strong, as the lyrics begin to take on a biting sarcasm. This song, which deals a young girl’s horrific experience of abuse, ends with a line presumably aimed at her attackers, “Are you strong? Army strong. Strong like a dog? Good for you.”
Wow! is the first song where the record begins to deviate into weirder territory. This sardonic attack on modern society sees Broken Prayer getting noisier and weirder, with the main riff being composed of dissonant, distorted chords over odd sound effects. The next song What Did You Expect? picks the punk back up in an intense self-reflective personal song that constantly builds and recedes, only to relax a bit for the close of side A with You Were Right. This side ender features the band’s first serious foray into post-punk influenced, more keyboard driven material as Scott’s vocals change from fierce shouts to a semi-monotone croon not unlike Magnetic Fields. The lyrics, though, are less relaxed, with the chorus “I’m gonna kill you” followed by heart wrenching lines like “I cried in the kitchen where I once made her breakfast.”
Father Figure opens up side B, noisily blasting through a throttling hardcore song that ends with a powerful, heaving explosion. Trash for Trash keeps up the pace with a hardcore punk attack on the culture of constant disposal that even includes a line from Doc Dart, the king of weirdo punk sarcasm himself. A keyboard focused noise attack, Proud,follows. “Are you proud? Proud of yourself? Proud of your country? Good for you,” is the album’s pinnacle of sarcastic aggression and leads flawlessly into the subject matter of the next tune, Had to Laugh. The subtitle of the song is Daydream of Phyllis Schlafly’s Slow Death and the words detail the glee Scott felt at the death of the far-right leaning, equality-hating politician with lines like “I feel no sympathy or guilt when you treat the world like a landfill.”
The record closes out with an excellent one-two combo. First off a stomping, yet dancey number, Settle For Less, a self-effacing anthem, blares into existence and doesn’t let up. This short song leads in to one more quick one, the record’s last, 10,000 Species a Year. This is one of the most straight forward songs on the record, utilizing a super catchy riff and unbridled aggression in both the music and the lyrics. It paints a picture of a lifeless Earth, “a dark and silent planet,” caused by human action and indifference. Scott posits to the listener, “Is this not fast enough?” and follows with the illustrative “10,000 species a year,” in a menacing howl, punctuating the end of the album with a stark exclamation.
Broken Prayer has managed to craft a full length not only packed with excellent songs, but that is well sequenced and structured. It flows perfectly from song to song, ratcheting up the tension and releasing it at just the right times. This is a true album in the sense that it works best when listened to as a whole, in order, as one work of art. This is far and away one of the finest punk albums of 2013.