REVIEW: War On Women – Wonderful Hell

This is not a subtle record. A cursory glance at the band name and song titles tells you that. But its lack of subtlety isn’t a weakness; nor is it accidental. This album is a rallying cry, a line in the sand, a statement that enough is enough. The time for subtlety, for lyrics couched in allusion and nuance is gone. Instead, the 41 minutes of music here offer up righteous anger and a clear-eyed dissection of what it is that ails contemporary society.

But it is more than just a critique. The problems the songs identify aren’t just negatives, they are existential threats and have to be treated with the seriousness they deserve. The band’s name frames this threat as a war, and several songs utilise the same imagery. ‘Seeds’ pictures its protagonists stuck “on a minefield”, and both it and ‘Wonderful Hell’ make repeated references to “the enemy”. Both songs use the existential threats as a call to arms. On the verses of ‘Wonderful Hell’, Shawna Potter sounds like a drill sergeant, barking at troops to whip them into a frenzy. On the choruses, she slips into a more anthemic mode, vowing instead to “raise some wonderful, beautiful hell”. Seeds presents the power of love, asserting that if we come together, “we can’t be defeated”.

This call for agency, and the idea that the oppressed should take charge and fight back is a common theme on the album. War On Women are, unsurprisingly, a feminist band and many of the songs here are devoted to critiquing misogynistic society. ‘In Your Path’ is the shortest song on the album, barely a minute long, but its brevity increases the power of its message. It’s a call out of rape culture that underlines how the structures of society rather than just individual bad apples are what create such a culture. Potter repeatedly asserts “the rapist is you” as a way of challenging our complicity in it.

‘Her’ takes aim at the excuses people make defending why they don’t like female politicians. Structurally, it’s a masterpiece: a list of reasons, presented without explanation, why people claim not to vote for female politicians. As the list gets longer, its shaky claims become ever more ridiculous. The shift to physical attributes towards the end underlines what it really is that people don’t want to vote for, the final word, “brain” laying bare the characteristic men are often most threatened by in women.

Elsewhere, ‘White Lies’ and ‘This Stolen Land’ take aim at racist power structures and hostile attitudes towards refugees with similar vitriol. The latter attacks the hypocrisy of a society that destabilises other countries then refuses support to its citizens and points out that America is itself ‘stolen land’.

If my review so far has made the record sound dour and worthy, like an unpalatable mixture of bad student poetry and sociology thesis, don’t be misled. The music that the lyrics are married to is furious and throbbing with life. It draws on the best elements of their hardcore punk and riot grrrl forebears without sounding derivative or like cheap imitation. The production is a notch above what you normally find on many of those records, and the effect is transformative. The drums are immense, often sounding pummelling and martial. The frenetic, buzzsaw guitars are by turns savage and anthemic, mirroring both the anger and the resolve of the lyrics.

It’s not a subtle record. It’s a bludgeoning, furious beast of an album that grabs the listener by the shoulders and forces them to confront some uncomfortable truths. But it also offers a hopeful message of resilience and resistance, and leaves the listener with the sense that all is not lost. In many ways, it is exactly the album we need at the tail end of a year like this.

Words by Will Collins

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