Riot Redux

Dance-metal ducklings, all in a row: Swan Island
Courtesy of Matt Wright PR

Swan Island
The Centre Will Hold
Holocene Music

Last August, I went to the Girls Rock! Chicago Showcase, where there were three bands, virtually no musicians over age 15, and one shout-out to a little brother, because "he is turning three and that is so awesome!" The Dead Pedestrians, who played last, had a two-song set list. Halfway through the first one, their vocalist pushed up her glasses, took a deep breath, and said something like "Forget you, Bikini Kill!"

What? Really? Bikini Kill, the Riot Grrl punk band that insisted it was okay, really okay, to be both angry and sexual? Theory isn't always actuality, but I think it's perfectly reasonable to say that without Kathleen Hanna & Co., bands like the Dead Pedestrians might not have been around in the first place. These kids have come up in a world where a girl can play dolls or drums, each as normal a choice as the other. It wasn't always so easy. "I feel completely left out of the realm of everything that is so important to me," Bikini Kill's Tobi Vail wrote in her mid-1990s zine, Jigsaw. "And I know that this is partly because punk rock is for and by boys, mostly, and partly because punk rock of this generation is coming of age in a time of mindless career-goal bands."

Yet I was feeling that 12-year-old; it reminded me of the declaration Patti Smith tacked onto the end of her "My Generation" cover: "We created it, let's take it over." In other words, "I'm tired of just admiring; I want to do it, too." The lucky ones have a moment when their heroes become their contemporaries, and the girl's only real problem was killing her idols without thanking them first. Due in part to the Riot Grrl movement, bands like the Dead Pedestrians don't have to feel as alien as Vail did in the '90s. And it's not just a matter of fitting in—when girls grow up in a music scene that acknowledges punk women, it stands to reason that their own musical offerings might surpass those of their elders.

That's what happened with Swan Island. When they were 12, Brisa Gonzalez and Vera Domini lived in Portland, Oregon, which meant that when they snuck out, they could choose between Team Dresch's queercore or Sleater-Kinney's rock, instead of just dude-metal and the 7-11 parking lot. Eleven years later, Gonzalez and Domini are playing their own dance-dance apocalyptica for a new generation of potential musiciennes.

Thanks to Riot Grrl and girls' rock camps, there are quite a few young, punk females around, but Swan Island fly above the rest. Most of the Islanders have been rocking since junior high, so the band can be critically praised without a lot of technical caveats (something you couldn't always do with Bikini Kill). Domini, sometimes known as DJ Automaton, was playing Portland's Crystal Ballroom as a seventh-grader. Aubree Bernier-Clarke played guitar in Kentucky's Half Seas Over, then moved to Portland and joined Sarah Dougher's band, Cherchez La Femme (which has since morphed into a record label). The band is rounded out with guitarist Torrence Stratton and bassist bob e. kendrick.

Swan Island's debut album, The Centre Will Hold, drops this week on Holocene Records. It's dark and taut and semi-prog, with sharks and lava on the cover and eight songs inside. They've been baptized "dance metal"; their sound combines Black Sabbath's steamroller riffs with Mary Timony's fantastical lyricism, with everything laced up tight by Gonzalez's sweet roller-coaster voice. "There are cities made of cardboard, cities made of diamonds," she sings, and then swoops upward without the slightest quiver. "A-ll will be re-vealed."

Swan Island has a mission statement. Unlike ladybands who rest on rock and are lax on lyrics (see Pony Up!, who say weird and angry is okay while singing "I don't know what I want or what I've got"), Swan Island understand that, as Gonzalez said, "the world is falling out from under us, and there's a necessity to make it beautiful." She's talking about war and feminism and the environment, and I can see all the punk dudes rolling their eyes; stop it. Catharsis, as feminist novelist Kathy Acker once wrote, is "the way to deal with evil," so when the world seems screwed, it sort of makes sense to dance, especially if it helps you toward an intimacy and physical safety that you don't have elsewhere. "I look people in the eye when I'm onstage," says Gonzalez. (Once, a male musician told me something similar—except he looked at only one girl, and only because he wanted to fuck her.)

Swan Island are still maturing, so you might want to wait on that cygnet tattoo. But they're one of the few bands around today who understand the luck of having a Riot Grrl-and-PDX-childhood, use it, and continue to move forward. If you haven't heard of them until now, it's probably because they're women and queer-friendly and not from Brooklyn. Riot Grrl or no Riot Grrl, this combination seems to keep them off the radar of today's music media. This oversight is objectionable—on theoretical grounds, first; but also because I repeated the darting bass and crescendo of "Night Owl" at least four times yesterday—and the day before that, too. But Swan Island will tough it out, despite the inhospitable cultural climate. The band's name comes from a toxic-waste site in Portland. When Bernier-Clarke moved to the Northwest, she heard "Swan Island" and thought it sounded like "a lovely place for a picnic." But when she got there, she found garbage and clouds of smoke. She ate anyway. To complete Acker's quote, "Catharsis is the way to deal with evil. She polished up her green pen." Forget Bikini Kill; let's pack a picnic.

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