If it ain’t broke…
In the mid-90s, pop-punk rose to prominence after the death of grunge left a vacuum in the world of guitar music. 1994, in particular, was a flagship year for pop-punk, seeing a deluge of classic albums: Stranger Than Fiction, Smash, Punk in Drublic and Dookie are all commonly cited. One of the less-discussed but equally influential albums is Lagwagon’s sophomore effort, Trashed. Despite the fact that they never found the same widespread success as some of their contemporaries, they didn’t let that stop them. They’ve been going strong for 30 years at this point, and with their newest (and ninth) studio album, Railer, they certainly don’t show any signs of slowing down. Over the course of their storied career, they’ve really refined their aesthetic. Lagwagon clearly knows their audience, and they know the importance of branding because Railer sounds exactly how one would expect based on the album cover alone. There are no surprises here, its more or less straight-up skate punk at breakneck speeds.
Vocalist Joey Cape brings his A-game to this record; he’s very adept at matching the intensity of the music without taking attention away from the rest of the band. He also displays his various degrees of versatility, channeling his inner Bruce Dickenson on the track “Dangerous Animals,” and often incorporating vocal melodies that have more in common with third-wave emo bands than traditional skate punk. Instrumentally, these guys are no slouches. Even during pop punk’s heyday, Lagwagon stood apart from their peers based on musical prowess alone, and they’ve only improved with age. The drums on this record are unrelenting, they’re truly the driving force behind this whole record. Just take a listen to the opening fills on track six, “Bubble;” they’re hookier than the song’s chorus. Guitar rhythms on this album are fairly typical in terms of tone and progressions, but the leads are incredible. They really pull out all the stops, jumping straight into some intense tapping on the opening track, “Stealing Light.” The guitars steal the show again on track two, “Surviving California,” which features some killer wah’d out shredding, which not the type of thing you’d expect to encounter here.
Unfortunately, Railer suffers from many of the same pitfalls that other pop-punk acts fall into. Every song is built around the same structures; they’re either thrashers right out the gate, or they start off in with a moody introspective acoustic guitar or piano before jumping into 4th gear with very little, if any, transition. Very rarely does the tempo dip below 150bpm. The drums, regardless of how impressive they are, rarely stray from the standard B.F.T.F. beat. It seems that this album was written with a mood or setting in mind (that mood being rad and the setting being skatepark), and it may work really well in that specific context, but it leads to a really redundant and tedious listening experience otherwise. It’s not a good sign when an album with a runtime of 36 minutes starts to feel unnecessarily long.
The last couple of years have seen a revived interest in pop-punk. Two of pop-punk’s most iconic bands, Blink 182 and Green Day, have both released new albums this year, and pop-punk influences have been popping up in other genres over the past couple of years, particularly in the hip-hop world. Blink-182’s Travis Barker has even played drums on Lil Nas X’s debut EP, as well as Vic Mensa’s godawful “93punx” project. At this point, it seems as though pop-punk is poised to survive into the 2020s, but how much further really depends on how bands in the genre are willing to change with the times. But, even with the addition of more modern influences and production, this album still sounds somewhat dated. If pop-punk is to go on, these bands need to stop playing catch-up and start looking forward. All that being said, Railer is a solid slice of cut-and-dry pop-punk. Lagwagon fans will undoubtedly be pleased with it, and anybody who gravitates toward the Fat Wreck Chords flavor of pop-punk will as well. But outside of the immediate fanbase, its appeal won’t carry it far.