One can use seafaring as a metaphor for almost anything. Yet no modern pursuit seems to parallel the exploits of salt-soaked explorers (imperialistic and psychotic as some of them might have been) as that of art, and specifically music. While early navigators had the stars, primitive maps and perhaps a compass to guide them, musicians have scales, instruments, form and inspiration. And while seafarers had deadly storms and ornery sea creatures to contend with, musicians have economic and cultural climates that often do not favor those who have the guts to be original.
Honolulu-based punk/ska/reggae band Black Square, which will play two shows on Maui this weekend, is aware of this parallel; their latest album Onward features a tattoo-like rendering of a 19th century clipper ship.
“The clipper sailing ship to us represented a metaphor for new discovery and a swift and direct route to something new,” says Josh86, the band’s guitar player and lead vocalist.
Black Square formed in 2002 as a three-piece with Josh86 on guitar and lead vocals, Nick Danger on bass and Little Brian Kim on drums. They were essentially hardcore, but they borrowed elements of reggae and punk rock and later added a horn section. The band derived its name from Russian painter Kasimir Malevich’s 1915 painting of a black square and Suprematism, the art movement it inspired. Suprematism’s thrust is that a work of art is less important than the response it invokes in the observer. Josh86 relates the obscurity, uniqueness and ambiguity of Malevich’s black square to the band’s style.
“We hope for our music to be something that people can listen to without needing to categorize into a genre,” Josh 86 said. “We want them to hear our message and respond, react and be affected by it.”
Nearly every track on Black Square’s third release harbors a message of social consciousness, though each holds down a different front.
“Change,” Onward’s eighth track, for example, asks, “where the punk rockers/where the protesters/where the rebelers and where the song singers?” Incredibly melodic and assisted by harmony as well as call and response, the song urges the listener to talk politics, write a poem, do something other than pretend thinking is uncool.
Track one, titled “Ego,” looks inward: “I lie to myself to pick up the slack/I’m afraid of who I’ll be when no one is around.” While the band’s lyrics are brutally honest—even when they get surreal as they do in sea-shantyesque “Virgin Glance”—the message and instrumentation are wholly optimistic and bright.
Even the tunes that unfold in a minor key are upbeat. When Josh86 sings about crack dealers and hookers in “China Town,” the sunny walking bass line and reggae-inspired guitar upstrokes make you want to sway.
Black Square has come to Maui four times in the past two years; this time they make the trip with new bass player Kat. Haiku-based Order of the White Rose will open the show with a set of hard-hitting, political punk rock.
Let’s all raise our glasses, brimming with rum, to the hope that Maui will prove a safe harbor for Black Square as they venture onward. MTW