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Somos - Prison on a Hill Music Album Reviews

Somos - Prison on a Hill Music Album Reviews
The Boston rockers’ third album wears its radicalism with confidence, and the untimely death of the band’s guitarist lends their late-capitalist protest unfortunate urgency.

“From here on out we are Antifa-core,” Somos announced shortly after the release of Prison on a Hill. Their third album wears its radicalism on its sleeve: The title reappropriates the puritanical vision of their native Boston and Ronald Reagan’s sundowning American dream, while the cover utilizes anti-Nazi iconography. But more importantly, that’s what Phil Haggerty would’ve wanted. Somos’ guitarist passed away August 12 at age 28, and the band paid tribute by emphasizing his activism, posting local news footage of Haggerty ripping down white pride flyers.

Their label, Tiny Engines, rush-released the album for a week to help defray funeral costs, donating the overage to the Heather Heyer Foundation. While Haggerty’s death lends an unfortunate urgency to Prison on a Hill, it doesn’t fundamentally change the album so much as emphasize what it already was: a band reaching a new level of confidence making songs about the human cost of late capitalism.

Many punk bands rail against the “same 9-to-5, 16-to-65” from a position of moral superiority, whereas Somos’ breakout single “Dead Wrong” saw it as a trap that most don’t have the privilege to avoid. The average desk jockey wasn’t complacent or weak, just struggling to maintain sanity in a system that saps whatever energy could be spent trying to improve the collective lot. “We have insufficient hate for an unforgiving place,” Michael Fiorentino sang on 2016’s First Day Back, which prophetically alluded to a violent decline led by right-wing demagogues or apolitical shitposters (“You can mock anyone/You can find humor in anything”). Turns out it was both, and now Prison on a Hill surveys the suffering that results when these viewpoints gain even the slightest public legitimacy. “What do you think they’ll do to us, once they are really on the move?” Fiorentino asks on “Mediterranean,” a song inspired by the rise of anti-immigrant movements in Europe.

While Somos’ political stance isn’t new, Prison on a Hill imagines it as a message worthy of thousands, rather than a few dozen in a basement. “Mediterranean” is a surefire, almost sweatless stadium-rock groove, the kind you hear from bands destined for beer commercials and an eventual gig opening for Foo Fighters. This is not the same band whose hiatus appeared permanent after their second album First Day Back, an album that managed to sound both demo-like and overproduced, alienating fans of their more rugged debut and failing to attract new ones. Throughout 2017, the group focused their energy on activism and other projects, but eventually returned to the recording studio with ideas to match their ambitions.

Somos now operate with a newfound sense of adventure, doing everything more than in the past. The timid synth washes of First Day Back are swapped for pianos and strings on “Iron Heel” and “Mediterranean,” achieving a symphonic grandeur that might’ve once seemed overblown. “My Way to You” equally recalls the Tinkertoy beat-making of Tanlines and palm-muted pyrotechnics of early Taking Back Sunday, and delivers the album’s most unintentionally heartbreaking moment. “Thank you for the best years of your precious life” feels like foreshadowing now, even if “My Way to You” is still a quintessential Somos song, one where a faceless, domineering entity offers some kind of trinket—a medal, a retirement watch, a severance package—in exchange for human capital.

Both dominant parties in American politics—the right and center-left—caricature Antifa as jackbooted extremists, rather than guys like Haggerty who fought racism on a street level and whose obituary noted how much he enjoyed the beach and the Boston Celtics. Prison on a Hill is also variously enraged, defeated, hopeful, and dreamless—but always empathetic, even for those who find themselves on the wrong side of history because they just didn’t see other options. The “heavily armed guards/Bored out of their minds/Desperately hoping for a chance to shoot to kill” on “Granite Face” and the shellshocked veteran on “Farewell to Exile” (“I was too young to see it all”) are treated in a way that targets the military-industrial complex, rather than the enlisted. Fiorentino has frequently utilized “the killing fields” as a metaphor in his lyrics, purposefully vague about whether he’s referring to a “war of annihilation” abroad or the simple fact that everyone is battling for an ever-dwindling amount of resources. “Iron Heel” takes its imagery from Mad Max, yet when Fiorentino sings “How did it feel to be born after the gold rush?” the post-apocalyptic wasteland might as well be the gig economy. Prison on a Hill is nearly 20 minutes longer than First Day Back, and its back half is subject to an occasional midtempo lull. But at its best, it’s like a Born in the U.S.A. for 2019: synth-gilded, blue-collar rock honoring people drafted into a war they had no part in creating.

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