With each year comes talk of the year’s most important album. Sometimes it’s the one that changes the face of music — an album so revolutionary it makes people listen to music in an entirely different way. Other times, it’s the album that makes a statement and stirs up politics with music and influences people to do something. And even more frequently than that, it’s the album that’s just plain fun, which makes people leave all seriousness and drama behind for the sake of dancing. This year there are plenty of contenders, all worthy of holding the title “most important album of the year.” But I’d like to add a sub-category: most important EP of the year. And for this award, I’d like to nominate Channels’ debut, Open.
Channels, a D.C. power trio, consists of former Jawbox and Burning Airlines frontman J. Robbins, his wife, bass player Janet Morgan, and drummer Darren Zentek, formerly of Kerosene 454. At first glance, they may seem to be just the next in a long line of Washington punk bands. But there’s a reason why this is the most important EP of the year: bands like Channels are a dying breed. The hybridization of genres, comings and goings of big name indie rockers and increased emphasis on switching styles between albums has made intelligent punk bands like Channels an endangered species. Thankfully, J. Robbins doesn’t give up that easily.
Open, more or less, picks up where Burning Airlines left off. Robbins has gradually been veering toward a more refined direction, transitioning from the straight-up hardcore of Government Issue to the angular post-hardcore of Jawbox to the spastic pop of Burning Airlines. Now, however, Robbins has merely taken his adoration of dissonant riffs and infectious harmonies and filtered them into a sound that relies slightly less on distortion and more on melody. Opener “Disconnection Day” is a perfect example, paced slightly slower than your typical Burning Airlines song, but still retaining their abrasive edge. “Story Time (In The Street Of Spies)” is the song that sounds most like Robbins’ previous band, but still different enough to stand out. Morgan’s bass pounds beneath Robbins’ tweaked guitar riff and Zentek’s dizzyingly syncopated beats. During the chorus, jagged riffs are coupled with mesmerizing vocal harmonies beneath J’s Orwellian delivery: “It’s story time/ In the street of spies/ We’ll tuck you in again.”
Also included here is a newly overdubbed version of John Cale’s “Fear is a Man’s Best Friend” that has been beefed up since Robbins contributed his version to the Don’t Know When I’ll Be Back Home compilation last year. Next comes “To Mt. Wilson from the Magpie Cage,” one of the strongest tracks on the EP, utilizing a more subtle, albeit strangely rocking approach. And “Win Instantly,” the disc’s closer, features a lead vocal by Morgan. It is here where we see the biggest transformation, as the band sounds more like the dreamy weirdness of Beauty Pill, as opposed to anything remotely resembling Jawbox.
Channels may not be the last of their kind, but with so many bands going screamo or disco-punk, they’re a breath of fresh air, especially for those of us who like our punk rock with a little D.C. or Baltimore influence. Open seems to be the only record of its kind to be released this year, which is strange, considering how enjoyable it is. But its scarcity, matched with how much it rocks, is exactly what makes it so important.
Burning Airlines – Identikit
Failure – Comfort
Beauty Pill – The Cigarette Girl From the Future
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.