Graded on a Curve:
The Proletariat,
Soma Holiday

Although largely remembered for their relationship to the first generation of Boston hardcore, The Proletariat stood apart from the breakneck speed and youthful abandon of the era while offering a sound that was just as intense. Drawing frequent comparisons to Gang of Four, they avoided generic thrash through precise, politically-oriented urgency that proved attractive to both the budding HC scene and to an older punk-friendly generation. Enduring as a highlight of the ’80s underground, the band’s debut Soma Holiday has just received a welcome vinyl reissue through S-S Records.

To get an idea of how integral The Proletariat was to the early ’80s Massachusetts rock scene, consider that they played shows with Mission of Burma, SS Decontrol, The Lyres, The F.U.’s, Gang Green, Dangerous Birds, The Neats, The Freeze, Dredd Foole & the Din, DYS, Christmas, Deep Wound, and Volcano Suns. Additional gigs with non-Beantowners include the Dead Boys, Richard Hell & the Voidoids, Johnny Thunders, Minor Threat, Flipper, Black Flag, The Flesh Eaters, Bush Tetras, Bad Brains, Dead Kennedys, and GG Allin.

Akin to the synopsis opening this review, basically every summary detailing The Proletariat’s initial existence from 1980 to ’85 (they’ve reunited for gigs in November) links them to the period’s hardcore uprising. The connection isn’t overstated; after forming in Fall River, MA in 1980 and putting out the 7-song Distortion cassette on their own dime the following year, in 1982 they ended up on two key Boston hardcore compilations.

This is Boston, Not L.A. and its accompanying “Unsafe at Any Speed” 7-inch, both released by the Modern Method label, document the HC explosion of their city in a manner similar to Dischord’s Washington, DC overview Flex Your Head and Touch and Go’s “Process of Elimination” EP, The Proletariat’s comp inclusions lending stylistic breadth to a scenario often suspicious and occasionally downright disdainful of departures from the loud-fast norm.

So naturally those aforementioned synopses regularly expand upon how the band differed from what’s now thought of as the standard HC equation. Dissatisfied with ’70s arena rock, singer Richard Brown, bassist Peter Bevilacqua and guitarist Frank Michaels took inspiration from Buzzcocks, The Jam and Wire, and decided to start a band of their own.

There’s nothing especially unusual in that scenario, but after roping in high-schooler Tommy McKnight, they began to focus upon two key influences, specifically Gang of Four and Sex Pistols. Obviously the lyrical focus steered toward political rebelliousness, with early live shows reportedly spiked with Pistols’ covers; however, by the point of Soma Holiday they had largely internalized the impact of Rotten and crew, their sound more audibly shaped by Gang of Four and to a lesser extent Killing Joke, Public Image Ltd., and the Pop Group.

The Proletariat notably eschewed the sort of aural mayhem that made the Pop Group an oft-divisive entity. Instead, they reliably barreled ahead with a weighty slam dancing-appropriate rhythmic gallop accompanied with raw, frequently stinging amp shrapnel and Brit-accented vocal ranting. But blazing momentum wasn’t the rule, as Soma Holiday’s opener “Decorations” elects for a tempo maximizing its chunky guitar riff and thunderous bass.

The way Brown rolls the letter R does inevitably bring Mr. Rotten to mind, though the attack is established pretty quickly as more purposeful and less nihilist, a fact clarifying The Proletariat’s championing by the stern minds then helming Maximum Rocknroll. “Splendid Wars” picks up the pace and lands closer to trad punk, like a beefier Stiff Little Fingers perhaps, and for this writer, its words have always triggered thoughts of Allen Ginsberg. While “Famine” sports a prelude of studio fuckery, its best attributes are Michaels’ gnawing guitar line and McKnight’s non-rudimentary precision behind the kit.

It’s obvious these guys chalked up a lot of hours in the practice space, with the live sets further sharpening their collective strength. It’s also admirable that as the interest of the hardcore crowd increased they didn’t bail on their sound; “Embraced” does employ the large bass familiar to much ’80s punk, but it also returns to the tempo of “Decorations,” the better to emphasize the tactic of vocal repetition.

With this said, “Events/Repeat” surely inspired a few circle pits, but with a handle on songwriting that eluded all but the best of the HC groups. They were also sharp enough to infuse the fairly standard political punk of “Another Banner Raised” with ample rawness while simultaneously avoiding telegraphing the speed changes.

Soma Holiday gathers 18 songs totaling 40 minutes to shape a punk LP that’s easily worth the time spent, the band managing this feat without getting sidetracked by the need for diversity; rather than branching out and losing power and focus, “Hollow Victory” smartly encompasses and adjusts what came before.

This single-minded approach also applied to their shows. Disinterested in cultivating stage moves, they strove for sheer intensity in its place, this determination clearly playing a role in why the band is so fondly remembered. And if “Condition” and to a lesser extent side one’s closer “Avoidance” seem more cognizant of their HC surroundings, it important to note that neither song appeared on the Distortion tape.

Conversely, “Blind” and “Torn Curtain,” both featured on the cassette, are tangibly more English sounding, which is not a slight. The group does nicely maintain the art-punk edge throughout the second side, particularly on “Bread and Circus” and “Purge,” both highlights, and during “No Lesser of Evils,” which culminates the LP with a crescendo of emotion from Brown.

In 1998, hometown label Taang! rounded up everything The Proletariat recorded including the comp tracks, “Marketplace” 45, and second LP Indifference, and dished it out as the 2CD Voodoo Economics and Other American Tragedies. It’s a worthy pickup for listeners attuned to the era, but Soma Holiday details the band at their best and with no diminishment of quality.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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