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Unfinished Business


A Brief Moment in the Sun, by Soulside

That the first song on Soulside’s new LP ends with a sample from a 1952 American civil defence film Duck and Cover, about a nuclear apocalypse, says it all.

No MAGA bots here: Soulside, 2022.

“We must get ready for many other dangers that are around us all the time,” the paternalistic narrator warns, setting the framework for the post-hardcore quartet’s first album since 1989. 

“Never seen times like these before,” vocalist Bobby Sullivan croons at the beginning of “Times Like These”. 

A Brief Moment in the Sun gathers together all of Soulside’s influences — from hardcore punk to bluesy rock and reggae – for an ode to the band’s storied punk past in 1980s Washington DC, reminding listeners that the DIY ethos and its progressives politics still resonate.

The context in which the album was written, during the height of the COVID-19 crisis, when over a thousand Americans were dying a day, bears that continuity out.

“It was daunting at first, trying to make music virtually from four separate locations (NYC, Los Angeles, North Carolina, Austria) in the middle of a global pandemic,” Soulside noted in a press release preceding the release of their new album. “But we quickly found a songwriting groove and we added biweekly video conference calls to keep ourselves on track.”

The familiar power-chord guitar chug of Scott McCloud announces itself from the record’s opening, while the drum and bass axis of Alexis Fleisig and Johnny Temple is unmistakeable, invoking Mark Stewart’s Pop Group and Dischord legends Beefeater.

The best songs on A Brief Moment in the Sun are buried deep in the album’s tracklist. If you want to get a whiff of the punk that made Soulside the house band at skate parks everywhere in the late 1980s, “Runner” is arguably the best song on the album. 

Stylistically, this is the Soulside that played with NYHC bands like Youth of Today and Gorilla Biscuits and fellow DC punks Swiz in the late 1980s.

Singer Bobby Sullivan names the Bad Brains as his inspiration: “The Bad Brains are a perfect example,” he told hardcore blog Double Cross in 2009. 

“Seeing Bad Brains live, right after the Rock For Light album, changed my LIFE forever! Those lyrics with that delivery…wow. Soon afterward HR took me under his wing and I got schooled. Ian [MacKaye] was the same way. In that DC scene we practically wrote songs together. That mentoring approach that the older brothers took was priceless. I still look up to Ian and HR to this day. I’m still giving thanks!”

For Sullivan, hardcore was a window onto a multicultural musical world, however briefly.  

“Seeing Minor Threat’s last show [in 1983] was also mind-blowing,” Sullivan noted, “especially with the Big Boys from Texas, doing their brand of punk/funk, and Trouble Funk headlining – a serious DC funk band in the Go-Go genre (sampled a lot by Public Enemy and the Beastie Boys). That was my first stab at slam-dancing and stage diving. Once punk got mainstream, I lamented how uniform the sound got.”

Soulside reflected that cosmopolitanism. They were always a sonic triangulation between Fugazi, Bad Brains, and Beefeater. At their best, they were never afraid to take chances in that space – something evinced, again, on some of this new album’s deepest tracks.

Rediscovery is musically like a Killing Joke song from 1982’s Revelations – in the best way. Bobby Sullivan’s vocals add the gravitas that originally made me think as a teenager, that Soulside was a band much older than they were.”Rediscovery” may be one of Soulside’s finest songs ever.

Survival may be the best song Joy Division never wrote. Soulside originally reunited in 2014 to play a series of live shows, but it wasn’t until 2020 – the first year of the global pandemic – that they cut their first EP as a reunited unit. They recorded a 3-song EP titled This Ship, which had “Survival” on it as the last song.

There’s good reason “Survival” gets repeated on this LP. It’s desperate, driving and filled with all the right hooks, ones that speak to Americans after Trump in the post-pandemic period.

Postscript

Too few fans of the band know that Soulside were the first Western, let alone American band to play in East Berlin before the Wall fell. And that Soulside brought DIY punk to several Soviet bloc states before the Iron Curtain collapsed in November 1989.

Drummer Alexis Fleisig has recorded Soulside’s early touring history beautifully in his book Soulside (Akashic Books, 2019).

According to Fleisig: “Being invited into an East German apartment building, watching state-run television, and being given all our guests could give us — potatoes and cabbage, translating Bobby Sullivan’s lyrics and mimeographing them — even old technology at that point was a revelation. We were always concerned with injustice and inequality, but seeing how much easier our lives were than a lot of people’s was incredibly humbling. They had the courage to rebel against the profoundly stifling East German/Soviet system, risking more than we could imagine.”

Uncommon to 1980s DC bands, Soulside’s last album, Hot Bodi-Gram, was recorded in the Dutch city of Eindhoven. “I think we had done everything we could do as a band and we were also pretty exhausted,” Fleisig wrote in Soulside. “We returned to the United States and played a couple more shows and then called it quits.”

In 2011, Bobby Sullivan recounted what Soulside thought would be their last gig. “The very last show [of Soulside in the 1980s] was at Ft. Reno with Fugazi. It was nice to do it there since it was in a park most of us had grown up near. It was a fitting end to the kids we were when we started.”

Those kids, it turns out, are still very much alive, albeit a bit older. A Brief Moment in the Sun is a testimony to that. Whether Soulside make another record or not after this is immaterial. It’s enough to know that a band can take three decades off and pick up where it left off.

Photograph courtesy of Soulside. All rights reserved.