New York hardcore has produced its fair share of notorious characters, but few loom as large or contentious as John Joseph. As vocalist of the Cro-Mags for their groundbreaking 1986 debut album, The Age of Quarrel, Joseph contributed his part to a band that was changing the hardcore landscape and helping to usher in a new era for the genre. Though the years that followed have been rife with controversy, the material Joseph has released with his long-running, though sporadically-active band Bloodclot has been a higher point for the vocalist.
While Bloodclot has no official continuous membership (the band dates back to the early eighties and has featured members of Bad Brains, Biohazard, Merauder and Queens of the Stone Age, amongst others, throughout its existence), both albums attributed to the group — 2008’s Burn Babylon Burn and 2017’s Up In Arms — were solid stabs at an updated take on traditional hardcore, benefitting as much from their veteran lineups as they did from not veering too far from an established formula.
On Souls, Joseph has assembled another impressive lineup, this time with all NY musicians in honor of the late guitarist Todd Youth who had played a key role in Up In Arms. With Tom Capone (ex-Quicksand, Beyond) on guitar, Craig Setari (Sick of it All) on bass and Darren Morgenthaler (Maximum Penalty, ex-Madball) on drums, the pedigree of musicianship is certainly of quality, and is a strength of this incarnation of Bloodclot. Unfortunately, it’s one of only a few.
To be fair, the album suffers most of all from an overly slick, mechanical-sounding production. Nothing on it sounds real. All of the instruments are isolated and cold, quantized and snapped together on a grid, sucking all of the life and vigor out of what could be otherwise energetic songs. Capone’s impressive playing, particularly his solos, sound like a YouTube tutorial on ProTools punch-ins and overdubs. But the biggest victim here is Morgenthaler’s percussion, with an automated sounding snappy snare drum that reaches a certain level of annoyance after just a few minutes.
But plenty of albums have overcome questionable production value with great songs and performance. Souls comes up short here as well. As stated above, the musicianship is certainly of quality, but the songs are formulaic, derivative and sometimes just boring. At times Bloodclot call upon thrash-metal icons Slayer (“Souls” and “War Castles”), doing a solid, if not uninspired imitation. The same can be said of “Relentless,” which is part Bad Brains/part Motörhead. The nods to such classics wouldn’t be so bad if it didn’t sound so deliberate and forced
“Unhinged” and “Save The Robots” play closer to the heavier hardcore sound Joseph and company developed on the previous releases and serve as the record’s high points. The low point comes on “Infectious,” a track that sounds like it would have been vying for modern rock radio airtime in the late nineties. With its slower, more mid-tempo beat, annoying refrain and four-and-a-half-minute runtime (by far the longest on Souls), the song is a slog for listeners.
Joseph himself does a serviceable job on the record with his vocals, even if it suffers the same production fate as the instruments. He mimics Tom Araya when called for and sings oddly like Jello Biafra from time to time, but mostly just shouts along on basic, predictable cadences. Lyrically he gets his points across (war is bad, mainstream media is bad, etc…), even if he sticks to elementary rhyme schemes like “Battle lines are drawn / Turn and face the new dawn” and “Believing lies / Destroy themselves / Skull and bones / Come off the shelves.”
The album closes on a promising cover of Bad Brains’ classic “How Low Can a Punk Get?” which hits all the right notes, but fails to deliver the energy of the song. It’s actually the perfect summation of Souls — all of the elements are there for the band to produce something engaging, but they fail to put it all together.
Bottomline: Souls will have you reaching for your Slayer and Bad Brains records before you’ve reached its end. I’m sure this project was fun and rewarding for all those involved, but as a product for listeners to give their time, attention and even money to, it just misses the mark.