If you’re surprised that Direct Hit Is dropping their second full-length in three years (with a killer split LP wedged in between), you might not be alone: The Milwaukee quartet’s third album, Crown Of Nothing, was largely constructed in the shadows, with little information of its creation being shared with the public. Frontman Nick Woods has a reason for that. “I feel like artists these days talk too much—myself included,” Woods remarks. “No one’s short on ideas, but very few put the work in to actually execute. So it was a deliberate choice to produce something and let the music do the talking this time around, instead of our collective ego.” The music of which Woods is referencing is his band’s new, 14-track collection Crown Of Nothing, which is Direct Hit’s most challenging, elaborate and downright catchy work to date—and it’s built around the idea that heaven and hell might very well be the same place.
“Crown Of Nothing describes the relationship between a vengeful angel, put to death by a demon she then torments in the afterlife for eternity,” Woods begins. “Day after day, for an unknowable amount of time, he wakes up, meets her again, and is systematically tortured and dismembered before being stitched up by a ‘heavenly’ host of characters and made to endure the same treatment upon revival. He deserves the punishment, and she deserves her vengeance, if heaven is indeed a place where righteous existence and tragic death is met with divine reward. But she eventually finds herself asking how meaningful that reward is in the face of infinite time—and that existential crisis eventually gives the demon the upper hand. Crown Of Nothing is about how the angel finds meaning in the afterlife beyond her vengeance, comes to terms with anger, and ascends beyond our human perception of death.”
Phew! punk rock’s come a long way since “Amoebaaaaaaa, amoebaaaaaaaa” hasn’t it? But just because the album’s concept is that deep and heavy doesn’t mean the music surrounding it is any less than top notch. Crown Of Nothing continues Direct Hit’s unique strain of “fuck you, get pumped” party punk they’ve been honing throughout their decade-long career. Album opener “Different Universe” has a killer new-wave vibe; “Pain/Boredom” is a guaranteed circle pit starter that evokes labelmates Pears; “Bad Answer” is loaded with fuzz bass, a disco beat and a sax solo that would make the Big Man smile from beyond the grave; “Disassemble” is so catchy, it could be something John Feldmann would write for Goldfinger and then sell to Blink-182. (There’s also a flute on the track.) Direct Hit pinballs from style to style over Crown Of Nothing’s 44-minute runtime, but it never feels schizophrenic—more accurately, it feels like the best mix CD ever. There’s a reason why no two Direct Hit songs ever sound quite the same, too.
“We all have very severe cases of musical attention deficit disorder,” Woods explains. “We don’t get bored of certain sounds—we revisit different records we all like, all the time—but it becomes easier to pick out what we don’t like about something when we hear it repeated ad nauseum. We’d all rather continue to enjoy what we enjoy rather than spoil it for ourselves. It’s tough enough that Direct Hit consumes so much of our time, as joyful of an experience as this band has been; we’d hate to ruin it and make it unfun if we felt obligated to write the same shit over and over and over again.”
The band returned to producer Mike Kennerty (Masked Intruder, Screeching Weasel), who’s captured just about every note Direct Hit has played in the past five years. That doesn’t mean the band was complacent in the studio, though. “Mike has done a really good job of teaching us how making different-sounding music doesn’t come from putting the first idea you have down on tape,” Woods says. “We tried to take that ethos to an extreme this time around. We deliberately worked in a way that made us uncomfortable, by giving up control of the process earlier on and not working toward a light at the end of a tunnel. It was a much more harrowing process than we thought it’d be. I can’t speak for the other guys in my band, but I learned a lot about how to deal with self-doubt, discovery, acceptance and identity by working on this record. I don’t know if other people are really going to think it’s any good, but I’m confident in saying that it’s at least different—and interesting.”
Final question, Nick: Is it sheer coincidence that an album about the problems of religion has a title that can be conveniently shortened to CON? “Sheer coincidence,” he admits. “I’m the product of 12 years of Catholic schools, and I have no clue whether God exists. I’m not an anti-religious person, though. You do what you gotta do to fall asleep at night—I don’t begrudge anyone that comfort. But don’t take yourself too seriously, because you don’t know the answer, not to anything truly important.”