Mindful of the message and the medium, politically-aware US punks Anti-Flag have recorded some of the most potent protest songs of the past 25 years. However, instead of touring an overdue reissue of one of their classic catalogue records, the Pennsylvanian quartet are celebrating their silver jubilee by pulling the pin on 20/20 Vision: their 12th studio album and quite possibly their most incendiary set to date.
Released through Spinefarm Records on 17 January 2020, 20/20 Vision continues in the same vein as 2017’s American Fall. It’s angry and aware, and yet – as songs such as ‘Unbreakable’, the rousing title track and the Stiff Little Fingers-esque ‘It Went Off Like A Bomb’ reveal – it’s also eminently accessible.
“We need to change the world we’re living in”
As bassist/vocalist Chris Barker (aka Chris #2) tells uDiscover Music, the sound of the new record has been shaped by the band’s willingness to collaborate. This led to the album sessions being helmed by both American Fall’s Benji Madden and a new producer, Matt Good, also of Floridian alt.rockers From First To Last.
“Matt was perfect for us as he’s well-versed in American politics, but he also put the emphasis on how we enunciated the lyrics, which really helped shape the record,” Barker says.
“But more than anything, we went with Matt because he makes modern-sounding records. We didn’t think it would be appropriate to make a record entitled 20/20 Vision – a record which specifically addresses the changing of a decade and the idea we need to change the world we’re living in – yet have it sounding like a punk record from 1977!”
“People murder other people based on lies”
As champions of causes such as workers’ rights, the LBGTQ+ community and Greenpeace, Anti-Flag have always believed in positivity and the need for sweeping social change. However, the band have rarely taken such a direct stance as they do with 20/20 Vision. The album’s opening track, ‘Hate Conquers All’, samples Donald Trump speaking at a rally where the US president allegedly advocated punishing people who dare to protest in public.
“That speech dates back to 2016, during the presidential campaign,” Barker says. “Since then plenty of people have emerged who are taking that kind of rhetoric very seriously indeed.
“It’s led to horrendous incidents in Christchurch in New Zealand, in El Paso in Texas and our hometown of Pittsburgh, where we had the largest anti-Semitic attack in US history at the Tree Of Life synagogue,” he elaborates. “In all those cases, people have taken guns into public spaces and murdered other people based on bigoted lies and the sort of fascist rhetoric that our current president and others like him are spouting.”
“It seems like bigotry and hate are winning”
As is often the case with Anti-Flag, though, the political is mixed with the personal on 20/20 Vision. Indeed, tracks such as ‘Don’t Let The Bastards Get You Down’ and the defiant ‘Unbreakable’ – which was influenced by guitarist/vocalist Justin Sane losing his mother to cancer – have a universal appeal.
“‘Unbreakable’ is absolutely about triumphing over adversity,” Barker states. “It’s certainly personal for Justin and also for Pat [Thetic, drummer], who’s recently become a father, so those guys have both recently had life-changing experiences.
“The song has wider connotations, though,” he adds. “Whether we’re talking about the suicide rate for LGBTQ+ people rising alarmingly or the increase in race-related hate crimes, it seems like bigotry and hate is winning right now. In the face of all that, ‘Unbreakable’ raises the question of how we take all this pain, move forward from it and make things better. That’s 20/20 Vision’s overarching theme, really.”
“I want to show our solidarity with anyone who’s been marginalised”
Released as a single, the irrepressibly catchy ‘Unbreakable’ was promoted by a memorable DIY promo video that saw Anti-Flag collaborate with a group of African teenagers, The Critics Company. Based in Kaduna, Nigeria, the collective has earned an impressive reputation for making the most remarkable short films from the poorest technological resources.
“They were making these amazing sci-fi movies with the coolest CGI effects I’d ever seen,” Barker enthuses, “which was all the more remarkable because all they had at their disposal was a broken cell phone with the screen all battered to hell, a microphone taped to the camera and a green sheet hung up for background.
“Seeing their work reminded me what it felt like to start a band when you have nothing but intention,” he continues.
“Obviously, their struggle is unique to them and I would never say that four white males from Pittsburgh could possibly understand or identify with what it’s like to be teenagers in Nigeria. But I do know that when we started Anti-Flag, we had exactly that same microphone held together with exactly the same amount of tape. We do extremely identify with the feeling of having something in your heart and trying to use literally any tool you can find in the shed to get your message out there.”
“We want to leave things better than we found them”
As their recent run of Spinefarm albums proves, Anti-Flag are using these tools wisely. In fact, they are one of few contemporary groups who continue to tear down the barriers between pop and politics. Is it really such a stretch to suggest these fiery Pennsylvanian punks should be bracketed with pioneering figures such as Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Phil Ochs and Billy Bragg?
“Well, those guys are all heroes of ours, so all I can say is I’m flattered and that we are greatly inspired by them all,” Barker replies.
“We wouldn’t be where we are now without that lineage of protest music and we strongly empathise with that same idea of wanting to leave things better than we found them,” he furthers.
“In the world we inhabit, protest and direct action gets the goods, so I want Anti-Flag to find the biggest stage and the loudest microphone we can find, so we can show our solidarity with anyone who’s been marginalised by society. That’s still our primary objective.”
20/20 Vision can be bought here.
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