Friday, May 13, 2016

Duff Review: Sonic Boom Six "The F-Bomb"

Phoenix City Records/Cherry Red Records

(Review by Steve Shafer)

In these strange, terrible days when the forces of ignorance and fear are on the rise in so many supposedly civilized nations and baldfaced xenophobia, Islamophobia, racism, and sexism are increasingly (re-)mainstreamed, it's quite fantastic to behold Sonic Boom Six's singer Laila K. (a British woman of Pakistani descent) wearing a traditional Muslim niqab and staring out at you (with a glint in her eyes) from the cover of their fifth album, The F-Bomb.

The imagery, of course, is meant to provoke and challenge any overt or hidden biases you may hold regarding women, Muslims, ethnicity, or otherness. But, like the brilliant, joyful songs contained within, it's also about being fully empowered and unequivocally expressing support for gender equality, finding empathy for our fellow human beings (no matter how they're packaged), and fully embracing the wonderful diversity of people. The trick that the Sonic Boom Six so artfully pull off is that they address these issues without being preachy or resorting to polemics. These aren't dour songs of liberal indoctrination. The band aims to change hearts and minds with progressive social messages delivered in fantastic, hook-filled music that will make everyone want to dance (though one should be asking the question why advocating for true equality for everyone--no matter what their color, religion, gender, orientation, disability, or background--is solely seen as a liberal/left-wing cause). It's the tried-and-true 2 Tone formula that helped promote racial unity (along with other bands aligned with Rock Against Racism) during a time of great social and economic turmoil in England, when racist and fascist ideologues and groups like the National Front (which was making a play for real political power) were fomenting racial violence with incendiary language blaming all of the country's ills on non-white Britons and recent immigrants.

All of this is to say that for people who like their music to have a message, as I do, this extraordinary record is the mother-lode. In fact, Sonic Boom Six's The F-Bomb may just be the best ska album of the year.

The F-Bomb--I suppose it's up to the listener to decide if the F stands for female or feminist, though the implication is that these words are associated with an obscenity--roars out of the starting gate with the powerful and insistent "No Man, No Right," a gleefully unapologetic women's rights manifesto set to a brisk ska beat:

"No man, no right
To tell me what I should wear
Or what I put inside my body
While pretending to care
They've no right
And we can live our life with way we like
No man, no right

No man, no right
To put himself in my head
Judge the company I keep
Or what I do in my bed
They've no right
And we can live our life the way that we like
No man, no right

No man, no right
To define a sexuality
By a tattoo on the base of a back
No man, no right
They blame the victim, 'cause she chose that skirt
Not the animal who chose to attack

No man, no right
To decide it is a liberty
If I choose to take my own control
No man, no right
'Cause this is my body and I have my choice
And I pop it out and swallow it whole.

No man, no right
No man, no right to
Call the woman bitch 'cause she don’t want you boy

No man no right
No man no right to
What a foolish thing to do"

The final strains of "Rule, Britannia!" (one of Britain's unofficial anthems, closely associated with the Victorian era, when England's Empire consisted of great, colonized swaths of Africa and Southern Asia, which placed about a fifth of the planet's land mass and a quarter of the world's population under her rule) introduce "From The Fire to The Frying Pan" (check out the video here!), the tale of a young, disaffected, white Briton who comes under the influence of those who want to radicalize him to hate perceived foreigners like Laila K., who supposedly want to take over the country.

""See them coming over here to take what's yours"
Johnny nodded, but he wasn't really sure
"Won't be happy till we're living by their laws
--every time we give an inch they just want more!"

Johnny just take it easy, easy
Take a step back and see me, here I stand
Out of the fire to the frying pan
Well, if you want to hate me, here I am

He just a boy in an angry mob
Might throw a punch, but he ain't no yob
Proud of defending his own country
Blissfully blind of his history

"See them coming over here to take what's yours"
Johnny found a cause worth fighting for
"Some of them are gonna start a holy war
--how to tell the ones apart, I'm still not sure."

The irony, of course, is that a) she's as British as he is, and b) he's completely ignorant of England's imperialistic past, which forcibly brought many non-white people (living in their own countries, mind you) into the British Empire (many of whom emigrated to the "mother" country after WWII and helped rebuild its economy and enrich its culture). And then there's the personal connection between Johnny and the singer--she represents "those people," the object of their hate (refer to the album cover). But he knows her and should be aware that she doesn't represent what the nationalistic racists accuse the people who happen to look like her of wanting/plotting/being. It's the personal connections to people in the "other" group that always disprove the ridiculous racial stereotypes--they're firsthand evidence of how the supposedly true stereotype is false and a great example of why we all need to live in diverse communities. The song ends on an ominous note, though, quoting The Specials' "Why?" ("With a Nazi salute and a steel-capped boot/You follow like sheep inna wolf clothes"). Lynval Golding, of course, wrote this song after being severely beaten in a brutal racially-motivated attack in 1980 (his "offense" was walking down the street with two white women).

Sonic Boom Six
The ska/dubstep cut "Do What You Wanna Do" nicks the opening horn and bass lines from Dexys Midnight Runners' "Geno" (and towards the end there's a bit of The Specials' "Nite Klub" mixed in!) for a song about not conforming to societal norms or giving into other people's expectations of you (particularly, if you're a woman):

"Lead your life your way
After the middle of the night
Is a brand new day
Don't wait around, lady
Hesitate or stall
'Cause if you don't get on it now
Then you won't at all

Do what you want to
Not what they told you to

Your history is behind you
The sun is rising on a brand new day
Don't let their limits define you
It's doesn't matter what the neighbors say"

While this song is pitched to women specifically, it's sure to give encouragement to all the self-doubters who hear it, no matter what their gender.

With its references/allusions to the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi ("An eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind."), Martin Luther King, Jr. ("Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”), Jesus ("But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you;"), even The Beatles (do I really need to provide the reference here?), "L.O.V.E" is an incredible ska-pop clarion call for using this still radical emotion/expression/philosophy to counter all the hate and violence in the world.

"All the boys on the left
Want to shoot down
All the boys on the right
at their own town
There's a bomb going off in the background
Everybody's suffering

Angeline puts her faith in religion
Sits alone as she cries in the kitchen
At the scenes on her own television
Everybody's struggling

I don't know just what we need to do
All I have are just the words I sing to you
Please excuse my simple point of view
But if I stand for love
Will you stand there, too?

We've got to stand for something
It's all or nothing
If I stand for love
Will you stand there, too?
Because the way we're living
Is just not working
If we stand for love
Maybe they will, too

There's a war going on and we don't mind
There's a death on the screen and we rewind
Take an eye for an eye and we're all blind
Everybody's murdering

Now the town it'll drown in the bloodshed
or the god with a gun to his own head
Take a life for a life and we're all dead
It's time for something new

We've got to stand for something
It's all or nothing
If I stand for love
Will you stand there, too?
But the road we're taking
We just can't make it
And my heart is breaking...

'Cause if there's a chance to make
This for the human race
It's only love that can make amends
Now, that's why I'm standing for you
You've got to stand for something, my friend


The song doesn't pretend to present specific solutions, but it's on the money for where we need to be in order to find ways to stop inflicting all of this pain and death on each other. (A little off the topic side note: I love the computer-y sound effects in the song, including one that seems like it's sampled from one of the blasters in "Star Wars.")

"Joanna"--a vibrant track that sounds like it could have been written by The Equators or The Beat--may be the first ska song about the experience of knowing someone who is transgendered. And it's a really great one.

"Joanna, I know it shouldn't matter
In this day and age
That you slipped into a dress
And you stepped out your cage
How can we deny her
When you're shining like a diamond
With a guitar, singing on the stage?

Oh, irony, irony
I get on my knees, ashamed
I thought everything was over
'Cause you changed your name
And then I saw a photograph
It still was you, but looking like you wanted to
I'll never see the world the same

Joanna, I don't care what the people say
'Cause we need you to guide the way
Shine you light for the world today
And we can follow your lead, I say

Joanna, light the way and we can take it together
Waiting for the day when all the world will see
That you never should have had to hide
All the beauty that you have inside
How could anybody miss it?
Joanna, you shine so bright

Growing up is never easy, but it had to be
So confusing when you're losing your identity
Your gender is a riddle when you're swimming in the middle
Of a world that sees in binary

Only she led a life of desperation and torn
Between the life you envision and the way you're born
I really hope that you can have the patience to illuminate the way
It's always darkest just before the dawn"

This song makes the case that the best way to overcome one's fears/prejudices/misconceptions is through our connections to people who are different that you are. And, again, that's why it's so vital that we live, go to school, work, and socialize in diverse communities, so we come into regular, close contact with all sorts of people and have a greater understanding, acceptance, and love of other people's differences. (Racism and discrimination are learned behaviors; if kids are growing up amidst tolerance and diversity, it's likely that they won't turn out to be racist, homophobic, fearful adults.)

Other tracks on the album are concerned with boasting about making incredible dance music ("Drop The Bass (And Pick It Up)," which quotes The Skatalites' opening riff of their cover of "Guns of Navarone"); a sweet reggae-pop break-up ballad ("Train Leaves Tomorrow"--with guest vocals by Coolie Ranx!); ensuring that you take care of/respect yourself so other people can't abuse you ("Worship Yourself": "Don't doubt, worship yourself/Don't let him bring you down/Get out, break up, and stand your ground"); and trying to be aware of how the standards of seemingly effortless beauty that we're bombarded with via all of our screens are manufactured and fake, with no connection to reality ("All The Same To Me": "Do I look as thin as they do?/Is it too good to be true?").

"Echoes In The Dark," the final track on the album, is both harrowing and inspiring. It's about a woman who was sexually abused when she was barely in her teens, but who has the resilience to survive and eventually reclaim her life: "You, without a care in the world/Took everything and left me broken/Then did your best to avoid the little girl you destroyed/Was it all a dream?/A memory of that scene/A girl of age fourteen/A shadow in the park/And as I strengthen here/Through every passing year/The fears disappear/Like echoes in the dark...Was it all a dream?/Waking up from an endless night/With the shadows fading in the light/Was it all a dream?"

The Sonic Boom Six's The F-Bomb is brimming with immensely relevant, optimistic, and hopefully useful ska/dubstep/pop songs that are meant to inspire us to think about our own behavior and attitudes towards each other--and alter them for the better. They recognize that individual change ultimately can bring about societal change--and they want to be part of the catalyst that advances this type of progress that we all so desperately need.

These songs should be broadcast far and wide...

+ + + +


Unknown said...

Give a listen to a band called The Vulnerable. They're a skacore band from Michigan, typically just a bit more aggressive than Operation Ivy, and a majority of the band (including their frontperson) are transgender or gender-nonconforming. They just put out their second release, and it's almost entirely about gender identity issues.

I've been looking forward to this SB6 record, and it looks like it won't let me down. Good to know!


Steve from Moon said...


Thanks so much for the tip. I'll check out The Vulnerable (and will probably update the review to note them).



Unknown said...

My pleasure! They're pretty new (and small) and I don't think I would've heard of them if the drummer of my band wasn't also in that band for a bit.