iTunes genre tags are rarely very creative. I can’t count the number of rock albums I’ve downloaded that are described as “Alternative,” a term no one has seriously used since about 1992. In protest of the way African-American singers automatically get classified as R&B, Frank Ocean labeled his mixtape “Nostalgia/ Ultra” as “bluegrass.”
The LA “queer feminist art-punk band” Object As Subject gives the listener some idea where they stand by calling their debut album “Permission” “bitch wave.” Led by singer/ violinist/ percussionist Paris Hurley, they combine elements of post-punk with the riot grrrl movement.
It’s not apparent from listening to “Permission,” but Object As Subject’s live act is very theatrical. If punk is supposed to equal spontaneous anger and even an embrace of amateurism, a live performance of Object As Subject’s “Thrown to the Wolves” available on YouTube shows a band that carefully choreographs its performances, as Hurley dances in unison with another woman onstage. The band’s current live lineup includes former Hole drummer Patty Schemel and two members who dance, sing backing vocals, and pound on tom-toms. Rather than having a guitarist, Object As Subject relies on bassist Gina Young cranking up the distortion on her instrument and playing extremely loud.
Most of “Permission” is a wall of sound created with fairly minimal means: just Hurley’s voice, Young’s bass, and a barrage of percussion. Hurley also performs in the band Kulture Shock, but she began as a classical violinist. She returns to it on the two-minute instrumental, “iii,” that closes the album on a note of beauty and peace that resembles Eastern European folk music.
For most of the album, it’s hard to make out what exactly Hurley is singing. The opening moments of the very first song, “Yeah, You Want Me (To Believe)” bury her vocals under feedback and tom toms. Throughout “Permission,” Hurley tends to use her voice as an instrument, but the lyrics that are audible consist of feminist statements: that song’s first intelligible line is “burn your makeup and set yourself free.” Object As Subject’s songs tend to repeat one line like a mantra: “Construction Man” goes through some dynamic changes, with surprisingly pretty backing vocals, but centers around the line “I see you.”
The very name of Object As Subject makes their feminist perspective clear. “Pom Pom Moves” complains, “Pussy, pussy/ That’s all you want us to be.” A recurring theme through the album is escaping limitations men place on women. But while the weakest riot grrrl bands simply Xeroxed female-led punk and post-punk groups from the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, Object As Subject has built from that period into something new. The swagger of its sound speaks volumes. Despite having clear politics, the band avoids preaching. In a statement from Hurley, she explained the meaning of the album’s title: “This record is a permission slip to my deepest self, granting her all the allowance and approval she needs to take up space within her own life. It is a ritualistic destruction of the long-held myth that my existence, my talent, my joy, my magic, my anger, my brilliance, my desires, and my voice are harmful to others unless used entirely in service of their needs, ideas, or dreams.”
The extent to which Object As Subject’s music is dominated by percussion evokes Bow Wow Wow and early Adam & the Ants, although the band doesn’t share those groups’ pop sensibility. Siouxsie and the Banshees’ debut album “The Scream” also seems like a clear inspiration. In the brief length of “Permission,” the band includes four interludes running two minutes or less, which give breathing room from the nonstop anger. If Hurley’s vocals generally consist of yelling, she knows how to sing in a more conventional register and work with backing vocalists in harmony, as well. The 48-second interlude “Benediction” is an a cappella showcase for overdubbed vocals. “Thrown To The Wolves” is the album’s longest and most fully developed song, with fairly quiet verses building to a noisy chorus.
These days, punk often means a nostalgia trip or something mixed with so many other genres that the label only makes sense as an attitude. On the other hand, teenagers who grew up either on hardcore or the many bad pop-punk bands that became huge in the wake of Green Day’s “Dookie” would probably find it bizarre that Patti Smith’s “Horses” and Television’s “Marquee Moon,” which both feature 10-minute long songs, were ever considered punk, yet they’re crucial building blocks in the ‘70s New York scene that arose around CBGB.
Object As Subject has a tremendously aggressive sound, but the band’s avoidance of guitars and emphasis on percussion mean that they’re not copying a conventional punk rulebook. And if their lyrics are generally hard to understand, their feminist perspective is embodied as much by the overall force and fearlessness of their music as by anything specific Hurley sings.
OBJECT AS SUBJECT | “Permission” | Lost Future | Drops Aug. 17 | objectassubject.com