You do not need me to tell you that we are drowning in a sea of post-punk-influenced acts nowadays. A seemingly endless tide of talk-singing four-pieces aiming to make Very Important Statements about The State of Things Today, or show off their highly-advanced technical chops at the expense of ‘songs’ and ‘hooks.’ And whilst it’s true that many of the post-punk forebearers these acts are indebted to took themselves very seriously, just as many were also having a whale of a time in their music getting a bit goofy or delivering their messages with an inviting cheekiness and wink of the eye. XTC, The Fall, even a lot of Clash songs invite the listener in less via deathly austere music delivered by slam poets at a university open mic night and more by high energy boppy tunes whose words are wryly delivered with charming fun.
Many bands of this scene treat ‘goofy’ and ‘fun’ as four-letters words. Not so, Chicago-based four-piece Stuck. Their sophomore LP, Freak Frequency, is proudly goofy and as dramatically overblown as a guitar-bass-drums-vox set-up can get. Album opener “The Punisher” introduces us to the hellscape of QAnon cultists who think it’s “so sick living in a fanfic” and end up “dying for a joke” as Greg Obis’ guitar rings out clanging atonal chords every two-beat like an alarm, later fighting with Sarah Clausen’s squealing saxophone for space.
If that reads somewhat indistinguishable from the bands I was just razzing on in the first paragraph, the delivery is what makes all the difference. The muted bass by David Algrem, and root guitar plucks from Obis, provides the song with a skip which induces involuntary pogoing by the track’s charging close. The interplay between guitar and sax twists what is very obviously our world – unsurprisingly, the January 6th insurrection is a heavy influence on the song – into something more like a Burton-esque funhouse mirror. Mainly, there are Obis’ full-chest semi-deranged vocals, empathetic and completely selling the emotion but with a playfulness that proves you can in fact communicate an eyeroll entirely through your voice. Pair all of these with a surprisingly intimate chorus, where the mixing suddenly envelops the space to make it sound like the band are talking right to you, with a number of sticky riffs and turns of phrase, and you have the quintessential introduction to Stuck.
That’s a mode of address which is all over Freak Frequency and makes it one of the most purely enjoyable post-/art-punk records I’ve heard in an age. “Time Out” brings a Parquet Courts level of energetic mischief to the topic of social media overstimulation; Tim Green practically sprinting with his drum kit and demanding the rest of the band keep up, leading to a chorus which almost trips over its own feet in the best way. “Planet Money” pulls the handbrake with a whiplash-inducing doomy stomp, centred around a recurring line “the system works” delivered with the exact right mix of sincere sneer and winking acknowledgement of its bluntness to sell its sentiment instead of coming off like genre self-parody. Closer “Do Not Reply,” one of 2022’s best singles, pairs the most straightforwardly anti-capitalist lyrics on the record – “we didn’t ask for much but now you’re so defensive/you got more than enough yet still you bare your teeth” – with its most addictive (and simple) riff, a pitched-down pre-chorus depicting the customer helpline from hell, and two lightning-quick tempo changes just sloppy enough to make them thrilling.
Obis’ vocals are perhaps the key factor in keeping that fun energy up throughout the album. Unsurprisingly, his worldview is bleak, cynical, and on the verge of crippling exhaustion. Bosses are interchangeable fools providing continuity of broken services (“Break the Arc”). Vocally anonymous nobodies lick boots to such a degree they make him feel like he’s the crazy one for thinking things aren’t ok (“Fools Idol”). Consumerist addiction attempts to numb the pain of late-capitalist existence yet is becoming ever hollower (“Lose Your Cool”). But the character he takes on in his vocal delivery, alternately a Kafkaesque protagonist right on the edge of a breakdown and a snotty end-of-world street preacher who traffics in contempt, is constantly captivating and leans into the goofy side of things. Rather than succumbing to bleak despair, there’s an enticing lightness that aims to play in the ball-pit as things go to shit around him and that feels a lot more honest and relatable to me.
Resultantly, it makes the times where Stuck play things a little straighter hit with greater effectiveness. “Break the Arc” may be somewhat naïve in its assertion that “history is a broken bone and we can set it right,” as if it’s really that easy to rip everything up and start again, but the bounciness of the rhythm section (who take lead here) combined with the group chorus around that line makes it sound doable. As much as “Punisher” is scathing about the delusional reality of QAnon supporters, there’s a break of empathy for the person lost to that cult (“your family, they tried/to pull you out alive”) which is disarming once it breaks through the cacophony. Penultimate standout “Scared,” meanwhile, has the most vulnerable admission on-record which, despite not being explicitly political like much of the rest of Freak Frequency, perfectly sums up trying to engage within this world with any semblance of earnestness or sincerity. “There’s nothing more brave than to love/And I’m scared.”
Freak Frequency sags a tad in the middle, with songs that are fine but don’t leave any major lasting impact even after the month I’ve sat with them for, and it’s not revolutionising this particular well for anyone thoroughly burnt out on the current wave of post-punk. But even still, it’s the most excited and the most connected I’ve been to a new post-punk release in a good while. Stuck, like their songs, are tight enough to lock in with control but also loose enough to create moments of great barely on-rails alchemy. Obis’ vocals and lyrics have an urgency and mischief that matches the moment well. And the hooks on this thing can becoming maddeningly addictive – it’s been seven months and I am worried that I’m just not going to stop listening to “Do Not Reply.”
When the world burns, you sometimes need to throw a party to blow off that steam. Stuck get it, and Freak Frequency is a worthy soundtrack.
Freak Frequency is out 26th May on Digital and Vinyl from Born Yesterday Records.
Words: Callie Petch