April 26, 2001

Burning Hot Punk

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From the very kick-off of Identikit, the sophomore album from Washington, D.C.’s Burning Airlines, you get a very clear idea of what this band is about. “Outside the Aviary” rips out of the gate with rumbling guitars, fiercely melodic vocals, and a stomping beat. The song charges by in less than 2 minutes, getting across everything it needs to say as quickly and directly as possible. It seems that this band is not going to attempt seduction with subtlety; they rejoice in the sheer abrasiveness of riffs, chords, and progressions.

But wait; the next song, “Morricone Dancehall,” starts off with a loose, rapid-fire barrage of lyrical wordplay backed by a tight groove, before shifting through a dazzling series of tempo and stylistic changes for the rest of the song. This is when you realize that perhaps your initial judgment was a little off.

That’s the way it is with this entire album. Burning Airlines layer their subtleties underneath the seeming simplicity of hardcore punk, defying preconceptions. Not that this should be a surprise. After all, guitarist, singer, and songwriter J. Robbins first earned respect as the frontman for seminal hardcore quartet Jawbox before forming his new band.

Like the aforementioned “Morricone Dancehall,” and like most of Robbins’ work in Jawbox, the songs on Identikit veer away from simple punk rhythms and three-chord guitar lines. Robbins weaves intricate patterns of guitar harmonics, using his studio wizardry (he’s also an accomplished producer, both for his own bands and for others) to overdub effects and multiple guitar parts. Meanwhile, versatile skinsman Pete Moffett never once falls into a simple 4/4 beat, instead jamming on a variety of polyrhythms.

“A Song With No Words” starts with melodic guitars and an understated bass groove (courtesy of new member Mike Harbin), before a lush, James Taylor-style bridge unexpectedly soothes with whispered harmonies. “The Surgeon’s House” uses moody, atmospheric guitars and lightly brushed percussion to weave a slow, claustrophobic tune. The vague, melancholy lyrics add meaning to the downbeat instrumentation.

The album falters slightly at the end with a pair of acoustic tunes, but that’s a minor complaint considering how impressive the rest of this disc is.

Burning Airlines show signs of becoming as good as their predecessors in Jawbox. Identikit is a large advance from 1999’s Mission: Control!, which was in itself an excellent effort. If this band keeps honing its already sharp, unique sound, they could be the first great band of the new millennium.

Archived article by Ed Howard