Who ever thought the tuba could be so punk rock? Add in a bevy of brass, plenty of raucous sing-a-longs, and you’ve got the empowering DIY collective known as Speaker for the Dead.
Originally formed as a simple four-piece folk group in Worcester, Speaker for the Dead has undergone a dramatic transformation since their 2011 release I Hope You Have Fun While You Sleep. Their newest record, The Ballad of the Undercrust, features over twenty different members strumming, blowing, and screaming along with noticeably more aggression and political awareness. This community of radical musicians has no problem jumping from traditional protest ballads to spastic pop-punk, even successfully incorporating elements of polka into what they describe as an absolute “clusterfolk”.
Lead singer Greg McKillop wastes no time presenting his political views to listeners. The second track, “Sounds Like A Protest,” is a fierce but necessary critique of the music industry that harkens back to a forgotten era when activists used folk music as a vehicle for social change. McKillop not only skewers the record executives, but also calls out the public for their oppressive and hateful behavior. The song finishes powerfully with the full band shouting, “Don’t support a music scene that doesn’t support you and me.”
But Undercrust isn’t all scathing commentary. Tracks like the speedy “Punk Rock Did Not Save My Life” and the comforting story time quality of “And the Ghost Said! (don’t say able-ist things!)” offer up sincere support. Both are full to the brim of uplifting messages about recovering from heartbreak, individual agency, and the importance of accepting people from all walks of life.
Two songs on the album actually call back to the group’s previous release. The first, “Worcester Song”, is a superior full band version of an older acoustic song that draws morbid comparisons between Massachusetts and a coffin, with Worcester as the funeral. The second, “Saint Peter Part Two” – quite obviously a sequel to part one from I Hope You Have Fun While You Sleep – serves as the musical pinnacle of the record. At times the horns can be heard faltering or squeaking a bit, but on this track they boom bright over McKillop’s signature wail. With a twenty-person call and response near the end, plus an unexpectedly face-melting guitar solo, the true range of the band is fully realized in this song.
One of the late highlights, “The Troll,” sounds like a circus from hell, with a somber show-tune verse and a sing-a-long chorus straight out of someone’s bar mitzvah. This tune also heavily features the eerie wobbles of the musical saw and the lumbering strength of the tuba, which only makes “The Troll” an even better listen.
The Ballad of the Undercrust drags out surprisingly long for a folk-punk album, with the final two tracks clocking in at almost 16 minutes combined. For a record that comes out of the gate roaring with aggression, it’s a little disappointing to see it lose some steam toward the end. The overall sound of the recording is the typical raw, lo-fi approach to folk-punk, but for the most part it matches the DIY aesthetic perfectly. While there are a few recognizable mess-ups by the band, the music is sung and played so passionately that it almost doesn’t matter. With twenty members already, how many more crazy people can they cram on that stage? I don’t know. But as Speaker for the Dead forges on into the unknown, I would genuinely enjoy seeing this gang of friends continue to grow, improve, and evolve. Their chords and lyrics are all available online, and anyone can join at anytime. So what are you waiting for?
- Heartfelt criticsm about music scenes and the industry
- Creative use of some unexpected instruments
- Twenty members means lots of memorable sing-a-longs
- A few noticeably sloppy moments
- Recording quality is sketchy at times
- Loses steam and drags on near the end