REINVENTING PUNK Coalsack in Crux.

Like a virulent strain of malware or an alien in a Ridley Scott film, the sole task of punk is simply to not die. When successful, it can transform what it touches at the very core, radically reconstituting its basic principles and fucking up its ordering system for good. Its destructiveness depends only on your perspective. This is one way to explain several dimensions of Before, After, Forever, and Always, the debut full-length by the four-piece Portland group The Coalsack in Crux, and why in the one year since forming they've become one of Maine's most unexpectedly invigorating new bands, resurrecting the notion that punk has little to do with the formalities of sound, and virtually nothing to do with youth.

Coalsack is clearly a group where all four members' history is present, yet Before finds its sharpest teeth in the dynamic tension between the dueling personalities of its frontmen. Lead guitarist Leif Sherman Curtis and singer/guitarist/songwriter Caleb Aaron Coulthard are known entities in Portland — Curtis for his work in metalbending instrumental groups Conifer and Aok Suicide Forest and flamenco ensemble Olas, and Coulthard most notably as the singer of hardcore punk band Down to Kill and garage mess the Chickadees. Yet despite the pedigree, their contributions in Coalsack betray very little of their old work. Fortified by the tireless pulse of a powerful rhythm section — drummer Adinah Barnett (ex-Batshelter) and bassist Steve Tesh — the unlikely synergy between the two men is one of the album's most rewarding elements, especially to fans who might have expected a retread of older material.

In formal terms, Before is a sprawling and maniacal hardcore rock and roll album of searing regret, scorching self-reproach, and obsessive darkness. Its skeletal frame is the vulnerable yet muscular country songs of a spiritually reconstructed Coulthard; at its heart are his lyrics, poetic gems like "Smoke in the Rain" ("I'm like smoke in the rain, I'm miles away/unseen to the naked eye, always gray/dress it however you like, but the devil is here/and my breath these days, it stinks of fear") and "Butcher's Distress" ("And the butcher's distressed at his borrowed life/goddamn his mind which thinks like a wolf and child/brandish the torch alive in wild") no longer obscured by the foamy head of garage rock or the blunted cadence of American hardcore. He fronts the ten songs of Before as a howling, deranged cast of characters, yet takes full responsibility for the steps of each.

It's no less a surprise to find Curtis, whose previous guitar work was triumphant translations of kraut-rock, American sludge, and Japanese avant-noise, equally reborn. Where the riffs he wrote in previous bands roamed adventurously at the watch of their rhythm sections, his driving, relentless guitar is Before's central nervous system. On "Butcher's Distress," he rabidly chisels out refrains Greg Sage might; on the blues ballad "Continuum," he's Gun Club founder Jeffrey Lee Pierce; on "Fathers of Ancient Love," the album's feral closer, he's an early incarnation of John Doe.

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