On the surface, Useless Eaters’ new LP, Hypertension, is a genre exercise: a raw, mid-fi slice of moody and raucous garage punk, which would sit nicely alongside the 1978 catalog from formative UK indie Rough Trade. Razor-sharp guitar riffs and spare, nervy keyboards swirl above relentless beats and prolific mastermind Seth Sutton’s often heavily treated vocals. Many players in the current garage revival borrow the bent and bubbling takes on pop music that create a pleasant sense of discorporation in late-‘60s psychedelia. While no less disorienting, the warbling modulations on Hypertension are cold and industrial, an influence one might credit to post-punk artists like Swell Maps, Wire or Gang of Four — or even Gary Numan and Devo, minus the heavy synthesizers.
However, it would be a mistake to let the strong pull of nostalgia shift focus from the social conscience behind the sounds on Sutton’s latest full-length. A self-described army brat and high school dropout, 23-year-old Sutton has found himself on the social fringe for most of his short life, an experience which has sharpened his distrust for the prevailing trends toward fragmentation and compartmentalization that touch nearly every aspect of present-day society. Outsiders saw these forces as withering creativity and critical thinking in the 1970s and '80s, and throughout Hypertension, Sutton reminds us that they're just as powerful in the Information Age.
Over a poisonous surf riff, Sutton gets straight to the point on opener “A New Program,” outlining our self-destructive tendencies with a snarl: “When they give you instruction, you pursue it / A new program that you can’t quit … People in this world are out of touch / They never live for much.” Embedded in the robo-Cuisinart soundscape of “Life on a Grid” is the assertion that no one is invulnerable in a culture where the idea of a school as an educational institution sometimes falls secondary to its function as an economic enabler. The title track finds Sutton either succumbing to the malaise or strengthening his resolve against it: “Do the people ever notice themselves? / Throw their lives into the garbage … Let them drown in the ocean / Nothing’s gonna happen to me.”
Several songs address the evergreen topic of navigating relationships in this bleak context; some are more successful than others, but the hits ultimately outweigh the misses. The crooning punk in the mellow love-at-first-sight tale “Black Night Ultraviolet” is neither menacing nor sweet enough to stir much interest, but Sutton's troubled counterparts in “Addicted to the Blade” and “Shapes of a Mannequin” are both more engaging on their own and more relevant to the central themes of the album.
Besides his knack for writing and producing, Sutton is skilled beyond his years on several instruments. In a fashion similar to that of peer and sometime collaborator Ty Segall’s recent Twins, over half of Hypertension features the frontman playing all the parts. To everyone’s credit, the tracks featuring sidemen Casey Weissbuch and Chet Jameson are virtually indistinguishable from the solo efforts. More than a few of the songs are re-recordings of previous releases with higher fidelity. The album marks Sutton’s first time recording outside of a bedroom, though engineer Drew Akers’ studio — “in Nashville next to a garbage dump,” according to the liner notes — shares a certain limited-fidelity charm that has made San Francisco’s Bauer Mansion a destination for up-and-comers.
The LP is available for pre-order in limited-edition blood-red vinyl from Jeffery Drag, the vinyl- and tape-focused imprint spearheaded by Bad Cop frontman Adam Moult. Feb. 19 marks the official release, with non-pre-order copies available on special marbled and split-color vinyl, as well as a plethora of digital download options.