Chicago’s Meat Wave is punk directness personified—in the slab-heavy weight of their name, the often two-syllable punch of their choruses (“Work force/Join now/Toll-free/Call now!”), and the clear line connecting them to post-hardcore heroes Drive Like Jehu and Hot Snakes. In an awed 2018 essay for Talkhouse, Meat Wave frontman Chris Sutter describes Hot Snakes’ Jericho Sirens in high-octane language—“flesh-searing,” “steel-melting.” Then Sutter says something interesting: He’d like to hear their music “played by an orchestra.” If it seems odd to compare a concerto to face-melting post-hardcore, then Meat Wave’s latest LP, Malign Hex, makes his meaning clear. The music is beautifully savage and hard-hitting, but within it lies a neurotic self-confinement—each song a vessel for repetitive structures that sprawl as far as it takes to make the point. The black-hole punk of Malign Hex tunnels into itself, so wide and claustrophobic that it leaves you disoriented.
Meat Wave have operated since 2011, rising alongside Chicago scene contemporaries like Ganser, Melkbelly, and Dehd, among some of the most interesting bands in American post-punk. Malign Hex, the band’s first studio album in five years, is grim garage punk buoyed by a math-y Polvo sensibility and alloyed with the intimate fury of early Protomartyr. The titular hex refers to the burden of family lineage; the tracklist’s encroaching darkness mirrors the inevitability of that curse. Everywhere Malign Hex’s characters turn, they meet stagnation, “wading in a waveless tide” or “steering through the slime” or reckoning within “a maze malign that never ends,” and the instrumentals strive hypnotically alongside them. “Complaint” is a rollicking, panicked spiral; “Merchandise Mart” bristles like an alley cat, its narrator trapped under the banal consumerist shadow of the titular Chicago landmark. The sudden sparseness of the lullaby-like closer “Malign” is as sharp as a temperature drop; a low-voiced Sutter utters no words but “malign” and “malign hex,” but the dread in his lament is as clear as if he’d screamed it.
Sometimes the songs ride too close to their inspirations; great as they are, “10k” and “Ridiculous Car” ring almost identical to the jackknife tempos of Hot Snakes’ Audit in Progress. And when there’s too much repetition without catharsis, as in the lumbering sprawl of “Jim’s Teeth,” the lapse in pace lends the album an uneven quality. But in its self-stymied fury, Malign Hex still offers something uniquely, viscerally raw.
There’s an accidental meta quality to the album’s themes of recursion and confinement. Although Malign Hex is Meat Wave’s first LP since 2017’s The Incessant, it was recorded in 2019, then delayed by the pandemic. When you pair it against the warmer, brighter EP Volcano Park, recorded 2020 and released 2021, the amber-vitrified nature of the material is apparent. Compressed under the weight of distorted time, the new album’s comparative darkness takes on a grim glow, like a surreal premonition of the psychological maze in which the characters on Malign Hex find themselves trapped. But though Malign Hex has been stuck in time for three years, the songs feel novel, challengingly complex without ever compromising Meat Wave’s blunt punk philosophy.