X Wave is a group that may renew your faith in the simple household rock ‘n’ roll band. Originally released several years ago (the Breakdance the Dawn catalogue number for this is 49 and they’re currently up to 155, so you can figure it out), Cities on Flame recently received an LP reissue on Big Chief Records alongside Girls Girls Girls’ Borsch, which is also a Breakdance the Dawn original. Like GGG, X Wave features Matt Earle with friends. Unlike the GGG LP, this is heavy.
To wonder whether the five tracks that comprise Cities on Flame were conventionally written or improvised feels like splitting hairs: what matters here is simply that it is. If you hold that rock music has (d)evolved into a sophisticated way to sell Levis, the sound of X Wave is a malicious dismantling of those corrupted principles. This sounds like the death rattle before rock’s undignified end: gouty, rhinoplasted, hollowed. There’s no notion of “craft” here, no deftness of touch, just a linear direction in which they trample. Conversely, it doesn’t wear its rudeness or sloppiness as a badge of honour, because this is truly workmanlike! It feels like these guys just get out of bed and do exactly this. Progress is a joke. Innovation is smartphones.
That’s the weird thing about Cities on Flame though: a track like ‘Wasted’ could slot neatly among heaps of contemporary local punk bands, but the anguish feels oddly remote: the nasal screams here just materialise suddenly, like errant commas in an endless sentence. It calls to mind hearing a scream at night from the comfort of your home, wondering for a moment whether to do something, and then going back to sleep. These are the things we expect. Likewise, X Wave delivers as a matter of course several shocking “things we expect” in rock music, but they’re delivered with a kind of brute, overzealous formalism. Which is to say, they’re done in the heaviest fucking way possible.
The closing track, entitled ‘Why I Love You’, is a quiet, almost bluesy murmur that gently subsides for longer than the other four tracks combined. Here, the percussion drops in and out, prickly one moment, droning the next. The city is razed and the scavengers are armed. Satiated, the group emit a barely audible hum for several minutes, until an almost choral drone rises from the debris. Militaristic toms enter the fold, and then it’s official. Something has died and it definitely isn’t gonna rise. For an album that takes in so many styles – reprobate punk, loose garage, noise – its these final moments that render those earlier excursions grandiose and consequential. Rock music is so beautiful when it’s dead.