Graded on a Curve:
Sonny Vincent & Spite,

For fans of gutsy ‘70s-style punk Sonny Vincent’s name should trigger immediate buzzers of recognition, but after more than four decades of activity he hasn’t really attained the level of notoriety he deserves. His most well-known band is Testors, though the release of Spiteful just might change that. Featuring assistance from such punk heavyweights as Damned drummer Rat Scabies, original Sex Pistols bassist Glen Matlock, and reed-chewing Stooge Steve Mackay, Sonny Vincent & Spite defy the odds and deliver unto the waning months of 2014 an LP of raw, energetic, and stylistically varied punk rock.

Part of Spiteful’s appeal derives from how it manages to overcome a handful of reliable obstacles on the way to its well-earned achievement. For starters, there’s the matter of format; while punk absolutely has its share of masterful long players, the style’s always been about great songs and therefore has historically excelled at the short form.

The second potential issue concerns experience; bluntly, the vast majority of punkers don’t age like Chardonnay, they sour into a rotten and malodorous strain of vinegar, and Sonny Vincent is no spring chicken. Indeed, he’s legit first generation NYC punk royalty, with his involvement in the bloozy hard rocking proto-punk of Fury dating back to 1972; their slim output was belatedly issued on 45 in 2012 by the HoZac label.

I don’t want to succumb to ageism, however. While this writer was all of one year old at the time Fury cut those sides, these days your correspondent is more than halfway to certifiable codgerdom. Besides, there are certainly exceptions to this circumstance, and when older punks manage to stay on top of their game they can bring a truly unique perspective. Vincent is one of them, the endearing defiance of his vision having become gradually more distinctive as time has passed, a scenario amplified by the increased rarity of quality punk in general.

And together with his adaptability to different roles (alongside his clearly defined leadership of Testors and Spite, he’s played in numerous outfits with amongst others Bob Stinson, Cheetah Chrome, and Scott Asheton and backed up ex-Velvet Underground drummer Maureen Tucker on a spate of her ‘90s solo stuff), a large element in Vincent’s continued relevance is that he never derailed his momentum and squandered the loyalty of his fanbase by jumping onto bandwagons as his limited fame reduced the possibilities for tapping into the nostalgia mainline.

All this said, he did revive Testors, and in relationship to Spite, scads of humans do recognize the handles Rat Scabies, Glen Matlock, and Steve Mackay. And so the third obstacle Spiteful hurdles over is the bugaboo of substituting guest stars for creative substance; according to Vincent at least a portion of the album’s strength relates to Scabies not even being his second choice for a project that was initially just an opportunity to record in Belgium on vintage equipment.

In short, the whole thing sorta came to fruition incrementally, Matlock and Mackay entering the situation after Scabies’ exit, though the multistep method of construction is far from apparent in the results. The instrumentally dense “Dog on the Subway” opens Spiteful with a convulsive guitar line soaked in a bucket of golden scuzz as Mackay blows out the pure Stoogeoid skronk for which he’s best known.

Along the way Rat’s skin battering transcends the rudimentary whilst eschewing the too busy, and Matlock anchors the assault with the necessary combination of heft and velocity; Vincent rants atop it all like a pissed-off misanthrope from the old, dangerous Noo Yawk. It’s a scorching beginning followed by a speedier and more succinct riff-chugger, “Disinterested” also loaded with barbed strings and raucous kit bashing.

Mackay arises later to lend just the right amount Sonics-esque hijacked R&B wailing, a component matched by the unforced soulfulness of Vincent’s sing-shout. It’s a sound underscored through his promotional nomenclature, specifically “punkrocknroll” as part of the link to the man’s website. The angle is further reinforced by Spiteful’s cover pic of a tough dame inhaling a big drag of carcinogens as she radiates the aura of a ‘50s pulp paperback luridly outlining a tale of juvenile delinquent anger and turpitude.

It’s all in accord with Vincent’s musical approach, as his punk bona fides keep him at a safe distance from any steaming piles of retro. And also on display is diversity, as the ‘60s-sourced melodicism of “Now That I Have You” lands between a boulder-sized power pop Nugget and a ’77-ish hard place while “Bad Superstition” provides a full-on charger sporting a vaguely swampy vibe nicely enhanced by twisted lyrical mojo, its atmosphere extending into the bent roots-defiling of “Sidewalk Cracks.”

Vincent’s aesthetic remains confidently in tune with folks searching for prime punk racket of a first-wave variety, but he’s also off-center enough in his love of classique sources to easily stoke devotees of The Cramps, The Gun Club, Flesheaters, and ol’ Nick Cave. “Silver” is a fine example, its corrosive rockabilly damage additionally disheveled by Mackay’s relentless quest for the locale (mayhaps a Shack Out on 101?) where Rob Lind jams with Archie Sheep deep into the eternal night.

From there, “Beg for Love” reconnects with the catchiness of “Now That I Have You,” and “Macon” name-checks White Light/White Heat as words detailing a loose narrative reminiscent of a shoestring-budgeted ‘50s film noir mingle with a spirited, spastic instrumental throttle. And in a left-field maneuver, Vincent’s oscillating sci-fi textures in the brief “Shameless Face” mine a shaft more than a little suggestive of Chrome.

It contrasts well with the straightforward guitar-pop of “Not the Same,” a track offering some of Rat’s best drumming as the torrid gallop of “Wait” brandishes especially tasty flailing. Observable throughout is Vincent’s sensitivity, with both “Wait” and “Borders” lacking Mackay’s input. The horn could’ve been quickly grafted onto each, but in fact neither song needed the additive, and when the lung purge resurfaces at the start of “Thief of Words,” its momentary absence maximizes the effectiveness of the return.

The disc has room for a final unexpected twist, closing on the dark pessimistic folk-rock of the superb “Clouds.” And if the LP eventually settles into a groove more admirable than mind-blowing, the economy of songwriting, casual vigor of execution, attention to the mix, and the overall presentation do raise the level substantially. None of the 14 selections impact the ear as a journey through the motions, and the contributors consistently add to the sum rather than drag down the balance. In expressing the potency of Sonny Vincent’s ceaseless din, Spiteful is an unqualified success.


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  • Thornmerchant

    It’s Archie Shepp, not Sheep.


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