Postmodernism never fails to surprise me. How else can a band like Street Sects be explained? The duo of Leo Ashline and Shaun Ringsmuth make music that gets under the skin like a splinter. It pierces, pricks, irritates and eventually gives way to a kind of wounded acceptance. This is all apparent on their new release, The Kicking Mule.
The band’s combination of ostensibly disparate influences (their press release name checks Roxy Music, Brian Eno, Berlin-era Bowie and NIN) should not work together as well as they do. Taking more than a few pages from the dissonance of early industrial music, Street Sects create serrated songs that offer more of a stuttering heartbeat than a smoothly flowing melody. At least that’s how it seems at first.
Although they use samples throughout The Kicking Mule, Street Sects does not sound anything like the halcyon days of bands like Throbbing Gristle, Cabaret Voltaire or Ministry, despite being clearly inspired by those heavy hitters. It’s more like the band is making music while a TV is on in the background, on a channel that only plays old movies. (Probably a tube TV, and definitely a non-cable channel.) This isn’t to say that their samples are just background noise; it’s obvious that they are carefully curated. However, there is a kind of accidental brilliance in the way they add to the mood rather than directing it.
With electronic drums that sound like the wet slap of a leather blackjack on skin, and Ashline’s sharp, sneering vocals, it can be hard to get a handle on Street Sects at first. It seems like just jagged noise and affectation. Stick with it, though, and the payoff is grand. There are melodies in between the spaces of these songs, and lyrics that sound like a modern interpretation of the sleazy noir stylings of pulp writer Jim Thompson.
The song titles read like chapters in a novel: specific but inscrutable. “269 Soulmates,” “Suicide by Cop,” “Chasing the Vig,” “The Drifter.” These are characters who aren’t just flawed, they’re severely fucked up. And the lyrics! It’s both comforting and painful to find oneself relating to lines like: “Everyone you love / Lets you down / Stop reaching out / Lie back down / Don’t get up” (from “In for a World of Hurt”). Ashline spits out his lyrics like poison, and often unleashes throat-shedding screams, so when he throws in a vibrato, the effect is like an apology after a fight. Soothing, but waiting for the next blow to land.
“Everyone’s at Home Eventually” is stark, confessional and stunning in its straightforwardness. Subtle chord changes and hammering drumbeats coalesce to create something that’s relentless and raw. The chorus is full of heartbreak, even more so when learning that Street Sects didn’t even form until after Ashline kicked a 13-year addiction six years ago: “Fell down / For fifteen years / I know I wasted half my life drunk on doubt and now I’ll do without.”
The songs on The Kicking Mule end with a bang, not a whimper, and perhaps none are more seductively nihilistic than “The Drifter.” The narrator’s lack of regrets (“I would do it all over again”) are counterbalanced with a kind of lust for his own demise: “You can bury me alive / I’ll bring the shovel.”
Street Sects is the kind of band that a lot of people would call “problematic,” but they’re a much-needed smack in the face in a world that seems less compassionate with each passing day. The Kicking Mule indicates that it’s time to get tough and fight back.
The Kicking Mule was released by The Flenser on October 26, 2018.
Leslie Hatton (@popshifter) is a Fannibal, an animal lover, a music maven and a horror movie junkie. She created and managed Popshifter from 2007 – 2017, and also contributes to Biff Bam Pop, Diabolique Magazine, Everything Is Scary, Modern Horrors, Rue Morgue and more.