Review: Modern Life Is WarTribulation Worksongs

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When Fever Hunting dropped in 2013, it was reviewed like a monumental comeback record—it was Modern Life Is War returning from a 7-year full-length sabbatical, it was a band freshly bolstered by a muscular new direction. It was also, unbeknownst to us, their last full-length record.

Witness and My Love, My Way were generation defining hardcore records; the sound of that contemporaneous volcanic-eruption Deathwish beat tempered with tightness and melodic flair. Though often compared to bands like Ruiner, Killing The Dream and Blacklisted, Modern Life Is War played with tempo and tight syncopation in a way that separated them from the 2000s hardcore landscape, closer in spirit to Wire or The Nation Of Ulysses than it was to 108 or Judge. Fever Hunting’s return and expansion on this sound left questions regarding the band’s immediate future, questions that obviously weren’t answered. Tribulation Worksongs still isn’t that answer, but is an interesting release for a number of reasons.

An expanded collection of the Tribulation Worksongs session from 2018, first released originally across three EPs—a pair in 2018 and the final entry in 2021—and hand-stamped with Jeff Eaton‘s typeface, now collected in its entirety. The tracklisting on the expanded compilation is reworked and is now underlined with an additional re-imagining courtesy of Rough Francis Urian Hackney.

Beginning with the opener of both the original Tribulation Worksongs EP and the new compilation, “Feels Like End Times” is a sharp turn in direction, most reminiscent instrumentally of the trajectory Ceremony took with their later albums, particularly a track like Zoo’s “Hysteria”. It doesn’t immediately seem a million miles away from some of Fever Hunting’s instrumentals, but to me it’s much more direct and less distinct. The broken chord angularity of their previous material is streamlined. That it was originally paired with b-side “Lonesome Valley Ammunitions” is interesting: a much more abrasive track, its swelling instrumental teases a violent explosion, and plays with this sense of unresolved tension throughout its runtime. A lot of Tribulation Worksongs feel like it doesn’t get out of first gear, but “Lonesome Valley Ammunition” is one of the moments that embraces this elements in its songwriting.

“Revival Fires” is more familiar ground: a linear melodic progression bolstered by tasteful harmonic accents and leadwork. Centered around a persistent, simple drumbeat, it’s a track that has this grounded, thick feeling to it without being overtly heavy or abrasive. It also showcases the still-present knack Modern Life Is War has for building their tracks around these blistering crescendos. Its original b-side, “Indianapolis Talking Blues”, is a seemingly left-field choice that plays incredibly well. Hardcore has a long history of recitation, from on-stage dictation and political espousal to album interludes and instrumental breaks. Its title also draws a lineage between hardcore and blues, and by extension the lineage of blues through to hip hop; fuck, Eaton’s vocal delivery is even more than a little reminiscent of Sage FrancisMakeshift Patriot, but that might be the mind of someone who listened to too much Anticon as a teenager.

“Survival” is another unorthodox choice for a band like Modern Life Is War. A track that begins with a lot of swing to it, a track with a lot of broad appeal, or at least a lot more than is usual for Modern Life Is War. If not for the more discordant second-half, “Survival” is honestly radio-rock ready, which is why I like it so much. It’s a double rug-pull, first surprising you with a swaggering beginning, only to fake-out with a return to more brooding, heavier sounds as it finishes. It’s hard not to appreciate, even if only showcasing Modern Life Is War’s versatility. For the final original b-side, “I Wanna Be Your Dog” is solid in isolation, but a straight cover of a track like that is always going to seem a little neutered. Despite the heavier delivery, more strained vocals and harder edge, it’s difficult to emulate the rawness of a track like “I Wanna Be Your Dog”, a track defined as much by its context as it is by its sound.

Finishing the collection is the new track “End Time Dub (Urian Hackney At The Controls)”, a reworking of the opener that is an improvement in almost every way for me. By emphasizing the rhythm section, Urian helps the enveloping harshness of the vocals completely overtake the high-end; when the guitars return, they collide into the mix with incredible force. It’s an outwardly minor difference that completely changes the effect of the song.

Tribulation Worksongs was an interesting sidestep for Modern Life Is War, a set of tracks that saw them both experiment and spin their wheels in equal measure. More than anything it whets the appetite for another full-length that combines these disparate sounds into something more cohesive. For diehards, Tribulation Worksongs is obviously essential listening, but thankfully there’s enough here—and enough variety—for any hardcore fan.

3/5 Flaming Toilets ov Hell

Tribulation Worksongs is out now on Deathwish Inc and Bandcamp.

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