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The Boston Phoenix Hey Punks!

The Explosion are for real

By Carly Carioli

APRIL 10, 2000:  The band on the CD cover could be from anywhere and anywhen in the past 25 years -- a photocopy of a photocopy maybe, from a picture taken in dim light, the flash too close, a washout, dead boys with bright eyes. "You're one of us tonight, all right," crows the singer. "You'll be one of us for the rest of your life." It is the dawn of a new era, the 21st century cracks its door and still there is punk, still it thrives, its heart beats true, in these kids glaring back at you. One of them has extended his arm in front of the other four, as if to halt them for just a second, strictly as a courtesy to the camera and to us, a quick glimpse for posterity before they continue on, unstoppable. They call themselves the Explosion.

A photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy -- this summer the Explosion will release their first proper album, Flash Flash Flash, on Jade Tree, a label that has its roots in hardcore but has evolved, as its audience, its owners, and its bands have evolved, to encompass the broad spectrum that's flowered in the black burnt ash of punk's negation -- from the sophisticated, almost classic pop of the Promise Ring to the asymmetrical avant-minded instrumental explorations of Turing Machine. The branches of punk's family tree have grown tangled, have doubled back upon themselves and developed their own root systems, have sprouted and died and decomposed and enriched the soil: there are niche markets, fine gradations of form and taste, entire catalogues given over to subgenres based on the tiniest stylistic tic and quirk. And then there are the Explosion and a few others (the Strike, on Victory Records, and Radio 4, on Gern Blandsten), exceptions who sound so clear-minded, so purposeful and unencumbered, that their music is like an answer, one so simple and obvious, it seems silly that the matter was ever in doubt.

Last week Jade Tree re-released, on CD, a demo the Explosion recorded at this time last year, when they had been together for about six months. Their friend Jesse, who sings for a band called Right Brigade, had pressed 250 copies on cassette, and they had toured the East Coast and had sold almost all of them. Tapes travel, pass from hand to hand like a secret -- or else they're erased and written over, they crack and unspool, melt on the dashboard, the sound warped and soured in the sun. One of Explosion's demo tapes found its way into the hands of the roadie for Kid Dynamite; then it passed to Tim Owen and Darren Walters, whose tastes have made Jade Tree as emblematic of the millennial indie zeitgeist as Matador was of the '90s, or Sub Pop of the late '80s. The tape met both of Jade Tree's standards for signing bands: the music was superb, and Owen and Walters could trace a path to the band through mutual acquaintances. "It's important for us to work with people we know and put out music we like," says Owen. "I had met [bassist] Damian [Genuardi] because of his old band, In My Eyes. We're into everything, but punk rock is our background. It's where we come from. And seeing how punk and hardcore have become stagnant these days, once we heard the Explosion we got very excited."

It's the Sunday before last, and Owen and Walters and the five members of the Explosion are sitting in Burrito Max in Kenmore Square. The Explosion are using the occasion of an all-ages afternoon show -- with their friends the Vigilantes, local heroes the Ducky Boys, and a few other bands -- to celebrate the CD's release. They have a gig scheduled for the following week with Discount and the Dillinger Four. Two nights before, they played at a club in Cambridge with the Hot Snakes, a side project of some people from Rocket from the Crypt and Delta 72; a week or so before that they'd done a few dates with the Promise Ring; and around the same time they'd made their New York City debut at CBGB's on a night when all the other bands, Turing Machine among them, were devotees of post-punk's artier wing.

All of these represent divergent factions in the punk diaspora, but the Explosion are emerging as a new common denominator. Wherever they go, they seem to rekindle the memories of those who see them -- trigger some distant collective recollection, vibrate with a resonance. It's déjà vu slapback-style, a sensory response doubled upon itself. The members of the Explosion (ranging in age from guitarist Sam Cave, at 19 already a veteran of Boston's the Trouble, to drummer Dan Colby, the eldest at 25) grew up with punk as a given, a destination born of having no particular place to go. They recognize punk's essential dilemma -- how to carry on the spirit of this place without becoming a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy -- and they make a sound that is at once self-reflexive and directly immediate. "We look to the past and ask for nothing more/There's no revolution any more," sings Matt Hock, surveying his surroundings on "No Revolution," the opening track to Flash Flash Flash. But as on the Stooges' "No Fun," this is a situation the singer will not stand for; by song's end he's addressing jaded kids staked out "on the edge of tomorrow" and delivering a call to arms: "Let's light a match to these dynamite dreams . . . "

So we're sitting at this table. Hock, his lanky boyish sneer framed by a rough shock of bleached blond hair, like Choke from Slapshot reincarnated as Jon Cryer in Hiding Out. The babyfaced Cave. Colby, squinting amiably from beneath the kind of dark simian brow that Mods would kill for. The petulant Genuardi and guitarist Dave Walsh like photo negatives of each other, impossibly skinny in the way only punks can pull off skinny, the former with hair dyed black, the latter's singed white.

There is very little explaining to do. They are a punk band, and a very good one. We could get bogged down in specifics, exactly which kind of punk they play -- Hock sports a lone Clash pin on his jacket, which is at least as good an indicator as their bio, a parade of subgenres: "spunky straightforward '77-style jams that combine elements of street punk and oi! with the attack and tenacity of hardcore" -- but their appeal is less a combination of genre styles than a jettisoning of them. It's reminiscent of a time before punk and hardcore became separate entities, when hardcore was limber and snotty and could be catchy and funny, and oi! hadn't yet excised all traces of its roots in black rock and roll.

From the demo you would position them as allies to Genuardi's old band, In My Eyes (the EP was produced by In My Eyes guitarist Anthony Pappalardo), whose debut album on Revelation Records recalls the This Is Boston, Not L.A. era in fine detail. But the last two songs catch them on the verge of becoming -- a kinetic moment before detonation, when they're about to unleash a new energy, the moment that punk seeks to capture, that it must preserve if it's to fulfill its mission, an instant of perpetual release repeated ad infinitum, exploding and exploding and exploding. The Buzzcock-like "Channels" does that: in timeless rock-and-roll fashion, it asks the big questions -- "What are we gonna do now?/Where do we go from here?" -- and it confronts the photocopy-of-a-photocopy-of-a-photocopied-ness of punk rock, diffuses it with rootlessness: "Something tells me I've been here before/You ask me to stay but I'm out the door."

Also, it's got a killer melody.

Recorded by the accomplished producer Brian McTernan (Six Going On Seven, Texas Is the Reason, Snapcase, many others), Flash Flash Flash extends that moment of becoming to full-album length. The publicist and punk critic Jessica Hopper -- who, though biased, has the luxury of working only with bands she digs -- has been signing off her e-mails with the phrase "stage-diving off the desks to the new Explosion album," and if I could excavate down to my desktop, I'd be doing the same. The album sounds like a restoration: hues deepened, features thrown into focus, edges sharpened, a classic revealed as much as created. "The songs are so good, it's like they could be in a commercial," Hopper says, using perhaps the only dirty word left in punk's lexicon.

We're still at Burrito Max and I haven't yet heard Flash Flash Flash. So even though the query will be moot in about an hour, since the disc represents an album-length answer to the question I'm about to pose, I ask 'em, y'know, why punk? Why now? How is this relevant? "Because in every freshman class of high-school kids," says Hock, "no matter when it is, no matter when it was, there are still football players -- not that football players are bad -- and there are still geek kids who don't fit in with the popular kids and get beat up a lot. And they find their outrage, they find a place to call home. That will never end."

"Punk rock doesn't have to exist for any reason other than that there's people who want to make it," says Damian. "It's just like art. People are always going to be painting pictures, and people are always gonna be making music, any way they want to."

The Explosion are also pragmatic -- "High on hopes/Down on my luck," as they have it on "Channels." On the EP's "Hero," they're committed to the ideal of punk as a surrogate home for wayward freaks and geeks, but they're not blind to its potential as a dead end ("You weren't the first here, and boy you won't be the last/Give it a couple of years, you'll be a hero from the past"). But for the time being, they are heroes, they are free and young in this place called punk, there are floors to sleep on, anything could happen. "We probably have friends and family out there we haven't even met yet," says Cave. "That's the coolest thing."

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