HYPERCAFFIUM SPAZZINATE by Descendents
Genre: Hardcore Punk, Skate Punk
Favorite Tracks: “Victim of Me,” “On Paper”
Unpacking a Descendents record is a challenge, because they occupy a strange space in the punk narrative. Their sound, which combined hardcore punk with a strong sense of melody, as well as their eggheaded charms and witticisms, were major influences on the punk output of the 90s and 2000s. Thanks to their famous “Milo” logo, they also sort of fit the bill of a “t-shirt band” — a band like Nirvana, Misfits, or the Ramones — whose brand is more popular than their actual music. Additionally, there are large gaps in their discography. HYPERCAFFIUM SPAZZINATE is their first album in twelve years, and due to frequent breakups and reunions attributed to frontman Milo Aukerman’s biochemistry career, the shortest amount of time we’ve had between Descendents albums is the eight years between EVERYTHING SUCKS and COOL TO BE YOU.
These large gaps in activity tend to contribute positively to a beloved artist’s brand, and Descendents have certainly benefited from that tendency, though they’re probably better known for being an influential band than a good one at this point. However, Aukerman’s time as a professional nerd is over, and according to him, he’s back to being a professional nerd in a band full time. It’s certainly possible for older artists to come back from long periods away from music and be just as good, if not better than they were before. And, sure, Descendents have put out an album that’s better and more interesting than what the shambling corpses of most early to mid 80s punk bands are capable of in 2016, but HYPERCAFFIUM SPAZZINATE doesn’t provide sufficient evidence that Aukerman and Descendents are up to the challenge of besting themselves.
There’s not much that’s technically bad to say about this album either. In fact, there are moments where it feels like they’ve recaptured the energy of their past music and listening to it makes you feel like it’s 1983 again. In particular, “Victim of Me,” the album’s lead single, contains a very effective translation of the youthful suburbanite discontent found in their classic albums into one of the most convincing displays of middle-aged white male anger that you’ll find in music. “On Paper” is another point where the old and new converge with facility, a lamentation of the pains of simply being average despite “looking good on paper,” and it provides an interesting twist on a common lyrical theme. Descendents is still very, very capable of making solid punk rock songs, and it shows.
The band does deserve major praise for aging about as gracefully as a punk rock band can on HYPERCAFFIUM SPAZZINATE, and it’s probably the biggest strength of the album. The band’s self-awareness and acceptance of its age generates one of the strongest moments on the album, Aukerman’s 45-second hardcore-tinged burner “No Fat Burger,” in which he laments having to change his diet as he grows older to avoid heart disease.
Other than these moments, the rest of the album feels like a scattershot of 90s melodic punk bands. They sound like Bad Religion on “Shameless Halo,” like Pennywise on “Limiter,” and the Mighty Mighty Bosstones on “Fighting Myself.” In the nearly 30 years since they’ve been consistently active, other bands have made the progress that they seem to be making now, and they’re just trying to catch up. It’s a tall order for old bands to keep themselves familiar while also moving forward and avoiding stagnation, of course, but the glimpses at what Descendents are still capable of make these lesser attempts even more frustrating.
Now that they’re back for good, it seems that Descendents’ best move from here on is to continue to adapt and explore with their lyrical voice, as well as cashing in on that sweet, sweet nostalgia. The gifts that made them great are still clearly there, but they may need some time to shake off the dust and find something that works consistently for them. In the meantime, if you aren’t familiar with Descendents, go to their shows, where they can mix the best of the new with the best of the old, because like most punk, there’s a good chance that it translates to live music much better than to a recording. The recording alone of HYPERCAFFIUM SPAZZINATE, however, is an inessential listen for everyone except the most diehard of fans.
Verdict: Do Not Recommend