Review: The Soviet Machines – S/T

Enlisting Jack Endino turned out to be a damn good decision for the Soviet Machines. The noted Seattle-based producer/grunge “godfather” lends a caught-lightning-in-a-bottle vitality to the Minneapolis trio’s full-length debut, recording the drums with a little space around them but staying tight on the crunch and fuzz of the guitar by frontman Jack Swagger. (The name fits. We’ll get to that later.) These sonic details are, obviously, appropriate and maybe even a little bit on-the-nose for someone who cut his milk teeth in the public eye recording LPs by Nirvana and Soundgarden and the Sub Pop lot. But he also gives the Soviet Machines a down-to-earth rocky-rolliness and even authenticity the group’s previous outings lacked.

The self-titled LP, available now via DC-Jam Records, might only run seven songs – and, yeah, it can be a little heavy on the rock formulas and rock strutting – but this is a band that’s looking to latch on to the roof-raising dynamism of Jack White and take it a second or two further down the road. And, for the most part, the trio does a pretty admirable job at engaging the infantry. The addictive opener, “Get Your Kicks,” is a classic fist-pumper that follows in the footsteps of big garage-rock anthems like MC5’s “Kick Out the Jams.” But the band clearly has its guiding light, its North Star. Swagger, appropriate to his nom de guerre, is a spotlight-stealer and seems to really relish his duties, adding a certain juicy kind of punch to lines about murder, say, or snakeskin boots. And, for the most part, he handles the role well, with a noteworthy self-assurance and even, dare we say, hubris that makes some of the material feel bigger than its power chords initially might suggest.

Then there are the details, the little finishing touches, and this record has more than its fair share of them. On the opener, it is the well-placed backing vocals. On “You Should Kill Me,” “Two Shots (To the Back of the Head)” and the excellent, earworm-fixated “All We Are,” it’s a squirmy little guitar lead that sounds like its reverb is recorded underwater. The band closes with a bit of a power ballad, the slightly over-enunciated “Bittersweet Angel,” but even there the interjection of palm-muted guitars on a climaxing bridge or the backing coos of drummer Marcus Jones and bassist Rich Salsbury are difficult things at which to throw shade.

Those looking for classic verse-chorus-verse rock need not look further, though the band evokes a range of forebears, from the land speed of Hüsker Dü to the griminess of Social Distortion. Some of these songs, especially barnburners like “You Should Kill Me,” are a million miles removed from the clean lines of earlier Soviet Machines offerings – say, the vigorously played but still a bit clinical-cold “Citizen Zero” or the dated pop-punkisms of “Kill Your Radio.” And that’s a good thing. The Soviet Machines’ first LP proper took them down a 10- to 15-year-long road and they arrived at this end a lot wiser about the best way to craft a hook and land a punch. There may not be anything necessarily revealing in a Marxist reading of the work. But, call it Trotsky Rock; it hits like an ax to the head. — Justin Vellucci, Spectrum Culture, Jan. 19, 2021

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About the author

Justin Vellucci is a staff writer for PopMatters, Spectrum Culture, and MusicTAP, a contributor to Pittsburgh Current, and a former staffer for Popdose, Punk Planet and Delusions of Adequacy. His music writing has appeared in national magazines such as American Songwriter, alt-pubs like The Brooklyn Rail, Pittsburgh CityPaper and San Diego CityBeat, blogs Swordfish, Punksburgh and Linoleum, and the Gannett magazine Jetty. He lives in Pittsburgh.

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