Typical System, Total Control's latest album, opens with the song "Glass," while their 2012 debut album Henge Beat counterintuitively began with "See More Glass." Sonically and conceptually, the two opening numbers are relatives, as both serve as prologues for what is to follow. "Glass", like its predecessor, commences with caution, warning that history, if misinterpreted, is doomed to repeat itself. Total Control would know something about interpreting history. Part of being in a rock band means honoring the established format while simultaneously asserting a fresh notion individuality. On their new release, the Melbourne sextet offers something contemporary while remaining true to punk's origins. Shard by shard, Typical System rebuilds tradition into a sound that's new and dangerous.
Total Control's output pivots on a pendulum that swings from hardcore punk to dance and electronic music. "Synth punk", a descriptor I've seen applied often to Total Control, seems like an unnecessary distinction as electronics have been present from the beginning of the punk revolution. Early groups like Chrome, Screamers, The Units, and Devo all combined electronic sounds with rebellion. But punk moved on, as did electronic music, and both aesthetics became canonized. Total Control doesn't necessarily reunite the two camps -- in fact there is often a considerable stylistic disparity. Rather, on Typical System, punk and electronic music coexist, sometimes peacefully, but often not. There are more flavors: with "Hunter," the band flirts with Euro-Trance and Neofolk, but the sound never wanders so far as to become unrecognizable. "The Ferryman", one of the few entirely electronic tracks on the record, is likely the most haunting and emotional Total Control track to date. For me, this song is the emotional nucleus that the band orbits: defeated and saccharine, it marks the moment that the record's protagonist resigns to fate.
"Flesh War" is the track that sounds the least like the Total Control that I know. The song is lyrically interesting, and accounts for some of Typical System's most striking imagery. Musically, the track seems indebted to bands like New Order and Depeche Mode, with soft textural synths, reverberated guitar lead, and an anthemic-yet-melancholic chorus. At times "Flesh War" veers dangerously close to the campy melodrama associated with the aforementioned bands, but never dives into full-on mimicry. Perhaps there is something deeper to the homage, with 1970's Manchester standing in as a metaphor for bleakness. Bleakness is a recurring motif on the album, and in general it's done quite honestly, never coming off as heavy-handed or vacant. In truth, the lyrics on "Flesh War" are bleak and redemptive at once. Much of what early English post-punk had to offer was a bleakness that didn't entirely eclipse hope. "Systematic Fuck" intercepts the gloom of "Flesh War" as the sonic pendulum swings back toward punk. Authoritative and commanding, the song takes an unexpected turn via a harmonic guitar solo and groovy interlude, and it's here we find the band at its loosest.
Total Control, true to their name, seem to have a preoccupation with submission. This philosophical bent is no surprise, as vocalist Dan Stewart, separate from the band's output, writes fervently in the pages of his long-running and influential fanzine Distort and in his personal blog, about Nietzsche, Mishima, Cioran and Bataille. Punishing and powerful, the song "Two Less Jacks" epitomizes the duality of submission and control. Taking lyrical cues from the late Australian poet John Forbes, it uses stark imagery of imprisonment as a metaphor for human capacity in the face of oppression. Stewart's theoretical inclination gives Total Control an academic edge, but his romantic passion allows the band a grave sense of urgency, without empty sloganeering.
Indeed, due to their subject matter Total Control could be described as a "serious band", but such weight is delivered with a healthy amount of macabre humor. The lyrics to "Glass", for example, detail crimes against humanity framed in the parlance of a holiday carol: "Gripping onto strangers hands, spitting on foreign lands. On bloody stumps, on glass we dance." The band's sense of humor reveals itself not just in lyrical content, but also in lyrical process. "Two Less Jacks" combines its darkness with playful alliteration: "Ice the victim, ice the victor. I said victor, I said victim. Icehead victim." In several instances Stewart seems to struggle with his own agency, likening everyday minutiae to an ambiguous oppressive force. "You can shift your weight. You can turn your head. But there is no way to leave your bed. This has always been a safety net," he croons on "Safety Net."
It's hard to discuss Total Control without talking about the personalities involved. The six players who make up the band are each individually active in a variety of other projects which range from electronic (Lace Curtain) , to hardcore punk, (Straight Jacket Nation, East Link) and rock n' roll (Eddie Current Suppression Ring, Ooga Boogas, Dick Diver, UV Race). This pedigree undoubtedly makes the band the unique creature it is, and in many ways Total Control's albums are eclectic, borrowing the best elements from these styles. Take the track "Black Spring", where guitarist Mikey Young's presence is most apparent, as he creates a circular riff that would be just as at home on Eddy Current Suppression Ring's Primary Colours as on Typical System. Or witness the bridge on "Liberal Party", which recalls the more playful and melodic passages of UV Race.?
Most of the post-punk revivalists we've seen lately heavily rely on posturing. It may be an innate convention of the genre, but when done without enough attitude to necessitate the "punk" suffix, it feels like it lacks something essential. Similarly, electronic music often drapes itself in stoicism and coldness. Not to say that Total Control doesn't posture or isn't stoic, but the group shines because it isn't afraid to show its humanity. They're similar in that respect to landmark groups like Suicide, who embedded so much tenderness and passion within electronic mechanisms. This is music that, by precedent, should be cold and calculating -- but isn't. Total Control's ability to put heart and soul into a music that is simultaneously bleak and mechanical is the real measure of their skill. This mixture is the band's greatest achievement, and it makes Typical System an album worthy of much praise.