The AK Massive - Beats and Bars

2007-01-29 16:08
When it comes to rock ‘n roll, anger has always sold well. Everyone from Metallica to Nine Inch Nails has traded on different shades of this versatile emotion. But righteous political anger has always been more elusive. Until they split in 2000, Rage Against Machine had successfully dominated that territory with their unique brand of hard rock, rap and fiercely confrontational lyrics. Local rockers The AK Massive seem keen to take up the banner, mixing hip-hop rhetoric with driving punk rhythms.

Not that this Durban based three-piece is a RATM clone. Their snarling guitars and passionate lyrics may bear a superficial resemblance, but The AK Massive is more sarcastic than menacing, like an angrier South African version of Cake. Vocalist and lead guitarist Mark McMahon is more of a traditional singer than a full-blown rapper, though he does lapse into a kind of spoken word rhythm for tracks like “Capitalist”.

For all their anti-establishment chest thumping, their melodies are fairly mainstream stuff - noisy, hook laden and far more nu-punk than metal or grunge. It’s catchy stuff, much of it built around the capable base playing of Bruce Graham, with McMahon riffing away over the top on guitar and Brett Langton adding oomph and variation on drums.

On their best tracks – like their hit single “Hey” – The AK Massive can produce the kind of tightly knit wall of sound that any punk band would be proud to call their own. But too often they descend into monotonous two-stepping. This is most obvious on tracks where the lyrical content is intended to sustain interest. Tedious affairs like “Capitalist” and “Ahh Corruption” are the worst offenders.

It’s not that we doubt the sincerity or passion of what they are singing about, it’s more that few people enjoy being preached to, particularly when we’ve all heard this particular gospel so many times before. Righteous anger is one thing, but self-righteous posing is quite another. In “Capitalist” McMahon snarls “While you quiver on your sidewalk, we stand firm!” Really? Well, how brave of you guys, well done. We cowards are suitably ashamed of ourselves.

This polemic might be more tolerable if it was at least clever or funny. But The AK Massive are far to concerned with the profundity of their own message to notice when they stray into self-parody. “I am a third world leader, African dictator,” McMahon sneers, again on “Capitalist”, “I order out daily while my people starve.” Order out daily? What dictator eats fast food when he can have a team of trained chefs?

“I am an armchair activist,” he growls earlier in the song “I drop my fiver in the hat of the musician on the sidewalk, wish I could do more.” Come again? Sounds like someone has bad memories of busking. Or on “Ahh Corruption”: “Welcome to the hole, my hole, the political rigmarole. Your mission once sacred, now tainted by hatred.” Powerful stuff indeed. But what, exactly, does it mean?

Of course it’s not fair to sit and pick holes in lyrics like this since they are not always intended to make literal sense. But, childish as it may sound, the AK Massive started it. They got up onto their high horse, and it’s awfully hard to resist pulling them down.

It’s a pity, really, because these guys really do mean what they’re singing. They’re also pretty darn good musicians, but they only seem to let this show when they’re singing about their lives – like on goofy, freewheeling satire “Cashing In” and sweet ballads like “Why”. As soon as they get all political on us, their whole style cramps up and becomes painful to listen to.

So, is their debut album worth buying? It depends entirely on whether you can stomach growing pains of an obviously talented local band. Given a few more years, McMahon and co. might realise they’re better off singing about what the really care about, and not a set of high-minded ideals. And, if we’re lucky, this album might just become a collector’s item – the angry political beginnings of a great band.

- Alistair Fairweather
These Durban rap rockers are angry and they want you to know it. Pity it gets in the way of their obvious talents.

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