Album: Victory Lap
Label: Epitaph Records / Indigo
The first thing to know, if you want to know about Propagandhi, is that they came here to rock. Right from the snarling opening riff of their seventh album, Victory Lap, that much is clear. For everything else that swirls around the band now, and for the last 31 years — the politics, the people and, lately, a gnawing sense of despair — the sheer volume of it all hasn’t changed. So even though Victory Lap was written while the world spun into darkness — we’ll get to that in a moment — this record is still made to put feet in the pit and fists in the air. Or, as frontman Chris Hannah sings on “Tartuffle,” Victory Lap’s penultimate track: “We came here to rock. Single moms to the front. Deadbeat dads to the rear. That’s how we do it here.” In that moment, Victory Lap finds Propagandhi close to how they began: a ferocious band from a wind-battered Canadian prairie, thrashing out jams in a city erected on stolen Indigenous land.
Of course, much is different about them, too. It’s been five years since the band unleashed their sweeping sixth record, Failed States. In sonic ways, Victory Lap is a natural successor to that record; for one, it was recorded at the same cozy Private Ear studio in Winnipeg, a comfortable jaunt from their homes. But many things have happened since Failed States was made. Some people close to the band were born; some people close to the band died. Not too long after the release of the last record, bassist Todd Kowalski realized that, despite years of pushing his voice into spine-rattling registers, he’s actually a natural baritone. (He takes voice lessons now, to undo some of the damage he’d inflicted from singing too high.)
Then there was the big change, which explains why Victory Lap came out five years after its predecessor, instead of Propagandhi’s typical four. In the fall of 2015, the band added a new member, Sulynn Hago, a seasoned guitar-slinger from Tampa, Florida. Her arrival came on the heels of a departure: after nine years with Propagandhi, David “The Beaver” Guillas wisely elected to get a real job, teaching the next generation instead of cramming their brains with jacked-up guitars. (That said, he’s still all over Victory Lap, contributing licks to four songs.)
In the wake of his departure, Propagandhi put out a call for audition tapes; they got over 400, and Hannah and Kowalski watched every one. Of those, about 20 had the chops they were looking for. Of those 20, one stood out above the rest. Hago had the experience in the scene, she’d slugged it out on the road, and — this is also important — her voice was as fearless as her fretboard fingers. “She’s the only person who wrote to us, and identified as a raging vegan Hispanic lesbian,” Hannah says. “I was immediately like, ‘whoa, let’s check this out.’”
Meanwhile, a refugee crisis was peaking, unarmed Black men, women and children were being murdered by police, and the the carbon in the atmosphere kept right on heating. While Propagandhi was writing Victory Lap, a loud man called Mexican immigrants “rapists” and bragged about sexually assaulting women. Half a nation shrugged, and elected him president. White supremacists started getting glossy features in magazines, and airtime on cable news.
This is a band that has always been fiercely political, that never backed down from calls for justice. Yet the events of 2016 still left them reeling, facing a landscape in which fascism is, among a certain crowd, suddenly trendy. “It hit me in a way I can’t really describe,” Samolesky says. “I almost feel like I’m trying to reinvent purpose out of this change, and the resurgence of the far right. How is this going to affect us, with what we do — and in the grander scale, where is this heading?”
All of those travails find their way onto Victory Lap, in ways both subtle and obvious. But there are deeper questions on this record too: oh, you know, stuff like the meaning of this whole shebang we call life. In 2016, Kowalski’s father died; Samolesky lost his father only months later. In the wake of those losses, Kowalski wrote two songs for the record, “Nigredo” and “When All Your Fears Collide.” Both, he says, were written in “total darkness,” and both wrestle with grief and existential depression. “The whole time, the whole year of making songs in my head is complete despair,” Kowalski says. “It’s partly why I only have two songs on the record. I felt like I had to do that one (Nigredo) right.”
On the opposite end of the journey, there was creation. Between touring on Failed States and starting work on Victory Lap, Hannah, now 47, welcomed his second child. It didn’t make playing in a rock’n’roll band any easier. “Seven years ago I used to get up, and go straight to the guitar,” Hannah says. “Now it’s straight to making somebody's lunch, or making somebody’s breakfast. At the end of the day there was that golden hour… of feeling creative. Well, that’s gone. Now you’re getting attacked by two kids.”
Yet it is that experience of fatherhood that informs what could be Victory Lap’s most poignant track, the closer “Adventures in Zoochosis.” The instrumental riffs are more upbeat than the lyrics, but in their razor-sharp musings about coming to terms with life in modern society’s comfortable cages, Hannah expresses the hope of all parents: that there will be a better life, a brighter life for their children.
Perhaps that thought is an antidote of sorts, to the grim haze that hangs over the world these days. Perhaps we all need someone we love fiercely enough, to keep trying. “Something I struggle with now is that I think it’s all over,” Hannah says. “That anything short of the destruction of civilization is just rearranging of the deck chairs on the Titanic. It’s the elephant in the room. You cannot have what we have, and expect it to go on into the future.”
So what do you do, when you’re an unapologetically political band in a time when political speech seems more fractured than it has been in years? When the darkness looms and the rapacious maws of power seem to devour more by the day? You can’t stop the violence; you can’t save the world. But neither can you stand to sit back, and just watch it all burn. So here’s what you do: you strap up a guitar and get ready to rock. Single moms to the front; deadbeat dads to the rear. This is still Propagandhi we’re talking about, and that’s how we do it here.