What makes punk so unique, such that all sorts of people claim themselves as the “punk rock” of whatever they’re doing? Punk is often seen as having more integrity than other forms of music, but that’s not the whole story. As Iain Ellis noted in a smart essay last year in PopMatters, “more than any other music genre before it or since, punk is—first and foremost—a performing art.”
Live punk, with its mosh pits and pogoing, is pure performance. Everyone knows their roles without being told, from the singers to the people throwing elbows in the pit. All this dancing and music sounds a bit like musical theater, which is probably how an overwrought mess like Green Day’s punk opera American Idiot gets made.
The problem with American Idiot was that it was too direct, trying to translate the aesthetics of punk into the genre of musical theater. Instead, musicians looking for chaos should embrace the sheer uncanny terror of musicals. Cole Haden of the band Model/Actriz gets it. One of the biggest influences on his band’s remarkable debut album, Dogsbody, is the musical Cats.
“I ascribe to the ideology that Cats has infiltrated everything that I’ve ever made,” Haden told Interview back in 2021. “It’s 25 people making direct eye contact with the camera, breaking the fourth wall, super slow, dissonant orchestration over a liturgical reading of “The Naming of Cats.” It filled me with sexual vigor and terror. I’m always chasing that.”
He caught it on Dogsbody. The album feels like one of the sharper alt-rock-electronic-punk albums from the early part of the century, like Sound of Silver-era LCD Soundsystem, mixed with the brutality of what’s poetically referred to by some music writers as “pigfuck.” It’s an album that sounds like being in the middle of a hurricane, or at least a particularly rowdy mosh pit.
Model/Actriz describes Dogsbody as “a coming-of-age album set between the hours of dusk and dawn” and the listener can really feel it, starting right out of the gate with opener “Donkey Show.”
“Every day the sun moves slowly over me,” Haden sings over noise moving in and out like a film wipe, “Across my face, across my hands / Under my nails glowing like porcelain.” He’s got a touch for detail that only gets darker as the song goes on. By the end of the song, he’s screaming about going “all night, all night, all night, all night,” just “me and my wretched device.” Whatever’s going on in his phone, it’s wild.
Freed from the sun’s watchful glare, the album’s protagonist goes deeper and deeper into full hedonism on the second track, “Mosquito.” “I want this life,” he tells himself over and over again before walking down mirrored halls “with a body count, higher than a mosquito!” “Mosquito” is a song where blood and sweat and lust all get mixed up with each over a pulsing beat. It’s a hot song.
Dogsbody, which takes its name from Ulysses, is a hot album. Sex and love are predominant on tracks like “Amaranth,” which makes the most of its phallic flower metaphor. The confusion and excitement of a possibly toxic relationship is like “following an afterglow to following parades of ashes to following red embers leading to flames to flames to flames.” Haden’s lyrics cut to the feeling, pull order out of chaos just enough for it all to make sense and then jumps right back in.
When he finally takes a break, on the quiet “Sleepless,” which pulses like a heartbeat, he pulls you right in with a romantic’s attention to detail: “Drawing our net across the bottom of the lake / Pulling the bodies out, dragged to the pavement / And the fabric of the night unfolds / Like a camera where thе view explodes / And our mouths spill, full of mеtal.” This is a quieter song, but no less haunting.
Dogsbody is as bold as any classic punk album, offering a sound that’s as punishing as it is addictive. Made with a clear sense of purpose, it’s one of this year’s most promising debuts. It may sound a little harsh at first, but let it wash over you. There’s no better way to drown.
David Meir Grossman is a writer living in Brooklyn. His Twitter feed is @davidgross_man.