Review: Nonagon – “They Birds”

Most bands release debut LPs in their infancy. Well, not Nonagon.

The Chicago trio, formed around 2004, initially struck their defiant poses on a series of EPs and singles as a post-hardcore outfit schooled in sounding like a caged beast unleashed on the streets. On the 12 songs of its debut full-length, They Birds, which Controlled Burn Records will release on 12-inch vinyl and your favorite streaming platform on 3 March, Nonagon still sounds angry as hell; the barbed-wire guitars slash at listeners’ ears, the frenetic rhythm section packs a wallop. But the new LP also flashes hints of true-hearted melodicism that the band says is the product of not spazzing out or overcomplicating the songwriting process, instead letting songs breathe and percolate a bit.

They Birds oozes Second City. The band, though no stranger to the Washington, D.C. sounds of Dischord Records, sounds more at home among the city’s rich Touch and Go Records roster. Though past releases sound, in retrospect, a little more pressure-cooked, a little more animalistic, the new LP still traffics in punk of the raging and raw-nerved variety. And these guys didn’t stray very far to stick the landing on the details: the LP was recorded at Steve Albini’s infamous Electrical Audio and mastered by Shellac’s Bob Weston.

But enough of the liner notes and the context – how does the damned thing sound? In three words: catchy as hell. Opener “Tuck The Long Tail Under,” which the band previously released as a single, is bizarrely optimistic-sounding, though frontman John Hastie’s speak/roar delivery keeps it from feeling overly flaccid. The song, which is certainly hummable from memory after a first listen, flashes a particular allegiance to the iconic Husker Du and LPs like Zen Arcade. Hastie admits there’s also a touch of Naked Raygun mixed into the proceedings; listen closely and you, too, will hear it.

This thing has jaws that will snap, though, if you put your fingers too close to Nonagon’s metaphoric mouth. “Slow Boil,” a song by these 40- and 50-somethings about the frustration of not aging gracefully, features a wiry guitar lead, barked vocals and propulsive drums, all elements pointing to the post-hardcore legacy of Fugazi. The incredible “Hack” starts with a hypnotic little guitar lead and features a chunky choral refrain with great interplay between Hastie’s bitter-pill power chords and drummer Tony Aimone’s ride cymbal. On “Swing Goat,” bassist Robert Wm. Gomez’ highly rhythmic string work hints at another Wm. from Chicago, that being bassist David Wm. Sims of The Jesus Lizard.

Elsewhere, the band kicks out a few surprises. “Bells,” which closes the record, features a distorted guitar lead that will drench you, not to mention a pace that, time-wise, is half as crazed as anything off 2008’s No Sun, which documented the group’s first five years of existence. The chorus, where the guitars are positively bright and shimmering, almost borders on the elegiac. “Jeff(s),” with its juicy little stops and starts, and angular and interwoven bass and guitar, even flirts with math rock of the Don Caballero variety. And, again, you can hear the Naked Raygun influence on the poppy harmony vocals that pepper the song’s choruses.

I could write volumes about each track. Hastie shines on the incredible “The Family Meal,” where circular guitars get all knotted up and the frontman moans over certain measures to the point where the line between man and instrument, if there was any, is pretty damned thin. It’s an enticing little conceit and a great detail that delivers the goods. On “June of 14,” Hastie again leads the way with blossoming bellows of feedback that just might be extended over rollicking refrains by an eBow. But the one-off strums of electric guitar that lead into the bridge would do Bob Mould proud. Yeah, most bands release their debut LPs when they’re young and hungry and looking to imprint their finger’s signatures into the musical cement. Well, then, how’s this for a pull-quote? They Birds is a debut LP nearly 20 years in the making – and it’s every bit worth the wait. — Justin Vellucci, PopMatters, March 9, 2021


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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