ALBUM REVIEW: Poison Idea – Confuse & Conquer

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cover Tom “Pig Champion” Roberts died on January 31st, 2006 at the age of 47. For folks like me, this effectively signalled the end of Poison Idea–I mean, who in their right mind would try and keep a band going when one of its most iconic members had just died, right? In May of that year, The Latest Will and Testament was released, its title having been suggested by Roberts prior to his death. As a standalone item the record isn’t all that bad, but when held up against their past successes–particularly Feel the Darkness, Pick Your King, or War All the Time–it fell flat. Despite the album’s failure to deliver what fans had come to expect from the self-proclaimed Kings of Punk, however, it still stood as a perfectly acceptable monument to what is arguably one of the best hardcore bands that America has ever produced. As fans, we just sort of accepted it for what it was, and moved on with our lives.
Of course, it was only about a year before vocalist Jerry A. had reactivated the band yet again, releasing the occasional 7-inch and touring regularly. This brings us to the tail end of 2014, when they announced that they would be releasing a new LP via Southern Lord Records. By this time my attitude towards band reunions had drifted from Cautious Optimism toward Outright Hostility, so my expectations remained low. I have to say though, as much as I wanted to hate Confuse & Conquer, I don’t. I’m not about to throw it on the stereo whenever I feel like listening to Poison Idea, but it’s not an awful record by any stretch.
The album opens with “Bog,” which has more in common with their late-80s material than anything they’ve released in the 25 years since then. It’s played with the sort of unbridled rage that made their classic material so infectious to begin with. The next track, “Me and JD” could easily be mistaken for something off of Feel the Darkness. In fact, so could “Psychic Wedlock.” Actually, now that I think of it, things start to seem awfully familiar after a while. That is until “Dead Cowboy” slinks through like some weird combination of later-period Iggy Pop and a spaghetti western soundtrack set against a Coen Brothers movie. The song sticks out like a sore thumb and is a bit of a head-scratcher, but honestly could have served a purpose being placed closer to the middle of the record as a means of breaking up what can otherwise start to feel pretty monotonous by the time you’ve made it through the preceding eight tracks.
Ultimately, Conquer feels more like a band going through the motions than it does a group of elder statesmen returning to reclaim their throne. For some people, this devotion to repeating themselves might be more than enough to satisfy (if the response from fans online is any indication, it absolutely is), but one of the things that drew me to Poison Idea when I was younger was the fact that I was loaned two very different releases as my initial introduction. A cousin let me borrow Pick Your King and Feel the Darkness when I was about 10 and just learning about punk beyond the realm of what television and radio were feeding me at that time (Green Day and the Offspring, mostly). Later in life, as I began to discover everything that had come between those releases, the brutally raw early demos that came before King and the metal-leaning material that followed Darkness, the band became very dear to me because of how much they evolved throughout those first 26 years. To be fed a second helping of 25-year-old ideas in 2015 feels underwhelming, to say the absolute least.
The other main concern with Conquer is the production. Crystal-clear sound has never been a benefit to Poison Idea’s brand of raging metallic punk, and the mixing job by Brad Boatright mostly just drew my attention to the sorely-missed chaotic riffs that Pig Champion brought to the table. Guitars here feel stiff and mechanical, like they hired a session player who isn’t totally comfortable with Jerry’s asylum patient vocal delivery. Since they already seemed to be leaning on their early 90s output as a reference point, adapting the rougher sound of War All the Time would have worked in their favour.
Of course, none of this is to say that Confuse & Conquer is a bad record. Far from it, actually. This is perfectly serviceable hardcore, tinged with a hint of thrash metal, and served under a name that simply has a measure of quality looming over its head that would have been impossible to meet to begin with. It’s not likely to convert anyone who has already decided that they don’t like the band, nor is it a recommended entry point for new fans (start with Feel the Darkness), but for old fans who just want to hear a new Poison Idea record? It’s fine.