If you were going to grow a pop-punk voice in a lab, you couldn’t do much better than Chris Hannah, the man who has led Canadian institution Propagandhi since he and drummer/co-founder Jord Samolesky were teenagers in Winnipeg more than 30 years ago. Hannah’s voice is a near-perfect fusion between the adenoidal needle-whine style that NOFX’s Fat Mike perfected and the burly growl that I tend to associate with Alkaline Trio’s Matt Skiba. He can carry a melody and hit a big hook, and there’s enough ragged passion in his throat that his choruses can lift toward anthemic status whenever he wants. But he’s also a quick-witted, malleable vocalist, and he can cram storms of syllables into his lines without ever sounding like he’s forcing it — which is good, since that’s what he likes to do. Hannah was a big deal during the ’90s pop-punk boom, at least in part because he found ways to sound both more obnoxious and more committed than anyone around him. And his voice has weathered beautifully with age; on Victory Lap, Propagandhi’s seventh album, he sounds sharp and muscular. He’s got a hell of an instrument. And here’s a line that he uses that instrument to deliver on Victory Lap’s very first song: “When the free-market fundamentalist steps on a roadside bomb outside Kandahar bleeding to death / I swear to Ayn Rand I’ll ask if he needs an invisible hand.”
Propagandhi were always the most fervent, disciplined leftists in a scene that wasn’t always sure how to approach something as unfun as politics. In the ’80s, Hannah and Samolesky were teenage metalheads who were radicalized when they came in contact with Canadian DIY-hardcore legends Millions Of Dead Cops. Their music was streamlined and catchy enough that they ended up on Fat Wreck Chords when hundreds of thousands of American kids were buying Fat Wreck compilations at Warped Tour stops, but they always bristled against that scene, too. Their big breakout moment was the 1993 song “Ska Sucks,” an expertly rendered, catchy-as-hell ska-punk song that doubled as a polemic against expertly rendered, catchy-as-hell ska-punk songs. (Swear to god: The first time I heard it was as part of a between-bands ska DJ set in a side room at a NOFX show.) Their best-loved album, 1996’s Less Talk, More Rock, got its title from the band’s insistence on giving long-winded polemics between songs at their shows. They’ve been at this a long time, bringing levels of withering irony that only, say, the Dead Kennedys could outdo.
But this is no time for irony. The final track on Victory Lap, “Adventures In Zoochosis,” opens with a quiet, pretty guitar arpeggiation and a couple of samples. Over that music, music way more conventionally lovely than this band ever allows itself, we hear the voice of Donald Trump, chuckling that he can grab ‘em by the pussy and whipping up a shrieking crowd by telling them that we have to build a wall. It’s the sort of sound that can instantly make your stomach clench. There are jokes on Victory Lap — one track finds Hannah adapting a stereotypical-rocker voice to tell you that we’re about to have a rock ‘n’ roll party tonight — but there’s not really anything funny about it. Instead, this is a driven, feverish, splutteringly angry rock album about living in a world where the prevailing climate has become so anti-human, so apocalyptically bleak, that it’s all you can do to scream into a pillow sometimes.
Here’s Hannah on the discipline required to struggle through everyday life, trying to keep your mouth shut, in a slow-blooming dystopia: “Everything that you say can and will be used against you / And dumbass, until you get that through your head with a masonry drill / It’s all downhill from here.” Here’s Hannah, on the industrialized production of meat: “You ever see that stupid cow chasing the truck that drove off with her calf? / Stupid lower order, always good for a good laugh.” Here’s Hannah on slut-shaming and hurt feelings: “Oh, the ridiculous things in service of self-esteem / To be desired, some basic human need / And the moralistic glee that we all take in the public airing of fellow hapless human’s sins.” And here’s Hannah on out-of-control cops, high on the knowledge that they’ll never face any consequences for murdering a person of color: “Just don’t play with a toy gun or change lanes without signaling / Don’t comply, don’t resist / Cuz it don’t make no difference.”
Those lines, strident and intricate as they may be, really only hint at how dense and wordy this album can be. Sometimes, it almost feels like Propagandhi are pushing Bad Religion’s tendency to pack SAT words into adrenaline-charged anthems way beyond the point of parody. There’s one song on Victory Lap expressing awestruck reverence for Quang Duc, the Vietnamese monk who burned himself alive in Saigon in 1963 to protest oppression of Buddhists. There’s a song about a Winnipeg sewer crew finding the bones of ancient extinct bison, a song that uses that incident to consider a future where we’re all bones at the bottom of some other species’ shit canal. The song with the catchiest opening — “We came here to rock! / Single moms to the front! / Deadbeat dads to the back!” — devolves into an extended metaphor about a Molière play. As ever, Propagandhi are a band who practically demand that you read their lyric sheet with a dictionary and an open Wikipedia tab.
But all of this works, partly because the writing really is as crisp and layered and intense and sharp and partly because Hannah is probably the one singer in a million who can belt out these syntactically tortured sentiments and make them sound like they’re clawing their way out of his gut like the alien in Alien. The band itself is a huge part of it, too. In recent years, Propagandhi have been pushing themselves more and more toward the thrash metal that Hannah and Samolesky grew up on. They’ve still got plenty of pop-punk snot in them, but they play with a merciless intensity, never afraid to show off their genuinely stunning musicianship. Their songs are fast and loud and complicated, and they play them like they can somehow alter the course of human history if they can become the tightest band on earth. It’s been five years since Failed States, the band’s last album, and Victory Lap is their first with new guitarist Sulynn Hago, an absolute monster. But the chemistry is still ferocious. Together, they still sound like a machine.
If you keep Victory Lap on repeat for long enough — and I’ve been keeping it on repeat all day — it sounds like losing yourself in stress and fear and righteous rage. On “Adventures In Zoochosis,” the closing track with that Donald Trump sample, Hannah imagines himself telling his sons that he’s done for but that they’ve got to stay alive. Zoochosis is the term for the way animals in captivity will exhibit obsessive, repetitive behaviors, and Hannah sings about himself as one of those trapped animals. But he allows himself the tiniest shred of hope that we might one day see a better world: “You grab your little brother’s hand run like the wind / And if i’m not there, don’t look back / Just go.”