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Wednesday, Nov 23, 2011

For San Diego’s Retox, it’s an ugly world

Three One G-affiliated hardcore punks thrash out over a knot of frustration

By Peter Holslin
- Photo by Ian Campbell

Justin Pearson, a San Diego hardcore veteran who runs Three One G Records, has been in plenty of extreme bands during the past two decades. He’s screamed his ass off over The Crimson Curse’s high-octane Goth-rock and Swing Kids’ jazz-infused hardcore punk. He’s churned out gnarled bass parts as a member of sci-fi grindcore greats The Locust and the dentistry-themed super-group Holy Molar. Lately, he’s even served up bone-jarring electronic dance music with All Leather.

But never before has he been quite so brutal as with Retox, his latest band. Taking inspiration from a list of grievances—financial crises, inept politicians, environmental degradation, backwards-thinking social politics, music and art that panders to the lowest common denominator—the band regurgitates all of its frustrations in a blast of bloodcurdling screams, jackhammer rhythms and riffs as cutting as rusty razor blades.

To Pearson, Retox’s singer, it’s all a natural byproduct of an increasingly toxic mood that seems to pervade society.

“We were sort of subconsciously pushed to do what we do. To us, it falls in line with something as simple as the Occupy movement,” he says in an email interview while on tour in Europe, referring to the global Occupy Wall Street protests. “The world is retoxing, and that is what prompts people to react.”

This isn’t the first time Pearson and his bandmates have been so scathing. Guitarist Michael Crain used to play in the noise-punk cult favorite The Festival of Dead Deer, a short-lived ’90s band that he describes as an “angry escape from a miserable life.” Bassist Thor Dickey is about to release a new solo album of dark altcountry—“doom country,” his friends call it. Meanwhile, Brian Evans is an animal of a hardcore drummer who came recommended by The Locust’s Gabe Serbian, Retox’s original drummer, who had to step out due to other band commitments.

But even the most hardened Three One G fan might be a little shaken by Retox’s debut full-length, Ugly Animals, which was jointly released in August with Ipecac Recordings. The album doesn’t have The Locust’s progressive refinement or All Leather’s provocative toilet humor. This is raw, unadulterated hardcore.

Eleven tracks in all, Ugly Animals opens suddenly and brutally, with the pummeling riff of “The World is Ending, and It’s About Time.” It closes just under 13 minutes later with “Piss Elegant,” a dizzying, apocalyptic anthem that ends with Pearson screaming, “The beat goes on!” Retox recorded the album in less than a week, working with the L.A.-based producer Manny Nieto, and the spare production helps create a dark, dragged-through-the-gutter feel. The mix is dry and compressed, the volume levels seemingly peaking into the red. There’s hardly any room to breathe, except for when Crain occasionally lets loose a burst of guitar feedback.

“This is how we feel and where our hearts are at,” Crain says in an email. “It’s what is happening around us.”

Retox formed a year ago when Pearson and Serbian teamed up with Dickey and Crain to do something simpler and cruder than usual. In the months since, they’ve accomplished that goal. After releasing a hastily recorded debut EP last December for free online, they inked a deal with Ipecac and went on tour with German digital hardcore rabble-rousers Atari Teenage Riot. This month, they toured Europe and North America with Japanese spazzcore greats Melt-Banana.

The band offers a necessary jolt to the disconcertingly chill, hopelessly nostalgic mood that’s infected indie music lately. With their mellow vibes and nostalgic themes, buzz-bands like Washed Out come across as escapist in the face of economic stagnation, joblessness and mass protests. The Georgia group’s performance at 4th & B last month offered a stark contrast: While they got a dance party going with their dreamy synthpop, at Civic Center only a block away, Occupy San Diego protestors were rallying about economic and social inequality.

Retox isn’t preachy or polemic like so many hardcore bands. Pearson says it’s hard to sum up his feelings on Occupy Wall Street, but he can’t help but be touched by its revolutionary fervor.

“Being on tour for the last two months, I realize firsthand that it’s worldwide. I have seen it everywhere,” he says. “I did see some graffiti which I think summed things up for the most part. It read, ‘Stage one of the revolution.’ Reading that gave me chills.”

Dickey agrees. “It almost happened in the ’70s in the U.S. with the Weather Underground, Black Panthers, etc.,” he says in an email, adding that he recently donated food to Occupy Oakland. “This is stage one of a revolution, and I just hope that it gets followed through to the end this time.”

They aren’t about to start cheerleading for the movement, it seems, but they can relate to protestors’ frustrations.

“People are fed up,” Pearson says. “And the ones who are not are just lazy or have too much power.”

Retox plays with Melt-Banana and XBXRX at Soda Bar on Saturday, Nov. 26.

Email or follow him on Twitter at @peterholslin.