Politics & Policy

Moshing for Labor

A “review” of IfIHadAHiFi’s pro-union punk insta-classic “Imperial Walker.”

In the realm of politicized rock ’n’ roll, IfIHadAHiFi has some big shoes to fill. Woodstock ended the Vietnam War. Live Aid eradicated hunger in Africa. Rage Against the Machine sprang Mumia from jail. And of course, Eminem, Bruce Springsteen, and whole swaths of the Billboard Top 40 got John Kerry elected president. So the bar for this Milwaukee-based noise-rock post-punk quintet — led by Mr. Alarm (who plays bass) and Dr. Awkward (whose moniker seems to refer to his efforts to drum and sing simultaneously) — has been set, and set high. Undaunted, they barge onto the scene in a high-volume blast of self-righteous fury with their new track, “Imperial Walker.”

These guys are pissed, and with good reason. Their governor is indeed acting like an Imperial Walker, the powerfully destructive but wildly inefficient four-legged tanks from Star Wars: He has declared war on the state’s public employees, who live on a scant $140 a day. These brave members of the proletariat are being coerced by the “duly elected” “majority party” “in control of both houses of the legislature and the governorship” to give up 5 percent of their incomes to help fund their pensions, and to pay 12 percent of their health-care premiums. The time for bold action — and screaming, and fuzzy riffs — is now.

IfIHadAHiFi delivers in spades, offering a trenchant critique of the Badger State’s impending fascist crackdown on compulsory collective bargaining. “Sell off the government with sleight of hand / Strip the rights away from the working clans,” Dr. Awkward yells — through grating guitars, scratchy vocal processing, and a sludgy sound that may or may not be the low E string of a bass, and straight into the face of oppression. 

“Imperial Walker” conveys not only the gravity of the situation, but also the logarithmic strength of the social-justice movement that is combating it. “Ten thousand, twenty thousand, sixty-five,” Awkward counts. “If you screw us, we will multiply.”

And while the grave threat of labor reform and the lofty ideals of working-class revolt inform most of the lyrical imagery on display here, Awkward depicts as well the gritty scene on the ground, confirming Bonaparte’s axiom that an army — a revolution — marches on its belly: “So Mr. Governor, you may wish us ill / As we take over your buildings fueled by pizza from Brazil.” There is throughout a kind of urgent economy, a no-frills social realism to the lyrics that mimics the compression of the group’s name itself. IfIHadAHiFi: No room for the space bar, no room for compromise.

“We’ll march all day,” Dawk Awk promises. “Play the drums all night.”

The production — provided free of charge by a civic-minded Wisconsin studio — is raw enough to shake the listener, and to fit into the band’s storied history of noise-fuzz anarcho-crusted recordings. But it’s also coherent enough to shape their message into one of focused rage: When Awkward crows, “Now we’re rebel soldiers marching in the snow,” one understands what he’s saying, literally. And when the song draws to a close with what might be called a guitar solo, the engineers relegate said guitar to the far reaches of the mix, where it can serve as a symbol of Wisconsin’s forgotten laborers.

Awkward leaves his audience with one last warning, a quote from former senator Russ Feingold: “This is what happens when you poke a Badger in the eye.” And in the true spirit of revolution, the band is donating all the money it makes from the track to Feingold’s Progressives United PAC — which was formed after the Supreme Court poked Senator Feingold in the eye in its Citizens United decision, and then Wisconsin voters poked him in the eye by ousting him in favor of an unprogressive plastics manufacturer.

“Imperial Walker” is punk rock at its finest, political activism of the highest salience.

— Robert VerBruggen is a National Review associate editor. His punk and metal reviews have appeared on antiMusic.com and in Outburn.

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