12 March 2012
Subpoena The Past were a post-punk project that existed from 1997 to around 2001, in which time they were sporadically active from various urban centres in California such as San Francisco, San Diego and Los Angeles. They released two EPs: 1998’s “This Year’s Eclipse” and 2000’s “Conjure Itch”, both of which contain different line-ups and have notably different sounds in instrumentation. All incarnations of this project featured Sonny Kay, who was the main mover and shaker of Gold Standard Labs (GSL), a label that captured the zeitgeist of the post-hardcore scene of the late nineties and early naughties. It was one of those go-to labels and one of the first to feature bands interpreting classic darker post-punk sounds with bands such as Beautiful Skin, The Faint, Get Hustle, Chromatics, etc. – all a number of years before that sort of thing was more common place.
This is also is the second entry of this Journal that I’ve dedicated to reflecting on some previously released recordings. I’m labelling these under the banner “Slightly Off Track“. Acting as some sort of digital filing shelf for audio gems of the recent and distant underground, these entries will offer up some stuff that have been lost in the ether over the years, and in particular stuff from the mid to late 90s and early 2000s. I just happen to have a good amount of that sort of stuff laying around — some of it almost impossible to find — and happened to be there in some respect as it was all being released. Slightly Off Track will be a sporadic venture. I don’t have any aspirations to rise in the world of music journalism or on-the-pulse blogging.
The two releases for Subpoena The Past came into consideration for a re-listen through my friend Ryan, whom I’ve only actually met once in the summer of 2001 in a show in a cafe in San Pedro CA while on tour. I’m not really sure what we talked about or how we connected but to this day we’ve been keeping on an off correspondence over the course of over ten years. I’ve moved overseas in that time and he’s moved around the US numerous times. He got in touch again with me recently after a year or so of being off the radar. We caught up on what we were going, with one entry from him going as follows:
“Oh! & You probably would be the right person to ask, but do you have any Subpoena The Past? Please say yes, I have been looking to start a blog that focuses on the more obscure releases of the nineties/early 00’s, & I feel that those bands always kind of got the short end of the stick.”
Short end of the stick. Yes, to some degree. It came out at a time riding on the back of the ‘zine and underground music magazine culture of the 90s and before the easy “click n’ browse” underground music enthusiast of the internet-saturated naughties came to a full tilt.
I had recently had all of my vinyl 12″ and CD collection shipped over from some dank place of storage back in Canada and decide to give both EPs a re-listen.
The first release, “This Year’s Eclipse”, was a co-released on GSL and Hymnal Sound, the latter a San Francisco label responsible for releasing the first 7″ single by the now well-known DFA group The Rapture. It contains five tracks of cold and sparse electro-industrial in the classic vein, with moments sounding like early Coil or the more electronic moments from “Nada” by Death In June. At this point the group were consisting of Kay and Joseph Karam from The Locust. The EP was produced by Helios Creed from the legendary Chrome.
For the time the tracks sounded very alien positioning themselves in the primarily guitar-oriented landscape of the nineties. For me it was like a red beacon of strangeness flashing in the corner, or perhaps like Robert Drake’s character in Lost Highway attending a party a Gilman Street or The Che Cafe*.
“Who’s that guy?” Most of the party-goers are unphased or slightly confused but one or two take notice and are attracted by the presence.
Nowadays “This Year’s Eclipse” wouldn’t too sound out of place with newer artists like ///TENSE/// or White Car — although this EP is far less funky and less dancey, lacks the same development but offers more unsettling discord. All in all it was an pretty good starting effort but it always felt like the best was to come with that sound as this release to me was a group finding it’s footing with the full realisation to come.
And a follow up came, but it was quite different. Shedding all of the electronics and taking up a more guitar oriented approach, Subpoena The Past came back in 2000 with “Conjure Itch” on the GSL label. This was a 12″ vinyl only release, with four tracks on a single-sided slab of vinyl. The reverse side was a complex geometric etching done by guitarist Julian Myers. The artwork within were collages done by the well-known US collage artist Danger.
From what I was told this recording was recorded in a cold, cold warehouse one winter and it shows on the recording. The chilly guitar shards with heavy chorus pedal effects over top of a menacing dub-influenced rhythm section that invoked barren landscapes. “Revelations”-era Killing Joke, early Modern English or Virgin Prunes come to mind, as well as an injection of some 90s stuff like Quicksand or Jesus Lizard.
As Subpoena the Past came across more like a project than a band, likely due to the other monumental commitments of those involved, there was never the big tour or the massive push behind either record. Both releases were more exercises in experimenting with sound and style based on collected influences rather than a standard band trying to break through to an audience. Shortly after the release of the second EP the group dissolved, with those involved moving onto such projects as Year Future and Ghost Orchids, both who have long dissolved. The year is now 2012. The fictional plotlines of both 2001: A Space Odyssey and it’s sequel have already passed.
Sonny is currently a visual artist tied with strong ties band The Mars Volta and Omar Rodríguez-López. Julian as far as I know still in on the staff roster at The University of Berkeley.
Well, pens down at this point. Here’s the music:
*Both were examples of notable venues in California for touring punk and hardcore bands back in the 90s.
SUBPOENA THE PAST : This Year’s Eclipse
1. Altitude on Ice / 2. Ripe Trial / 3. A Red Decree / 4. Last Year’s Ghost / 5. Patience
Released 1998 on GOLD STANDARD LABS / HYMNAL SOUND
SUBPOENA THE PAST : Conjure Itch
1. Sphere of Influence / 2. Holding Pattern / 3. Rats of Indulgence / 4. Ghost
Released 2000 on GOLD STANDARD LABS
SPHERE OF INFLUENCE