I had a very unfortunate false start with Gnod, as the first time I heard them, I mistakenly concluded that they were basically the UK version of White Hills rather than a deeply radical and experimental entity of Swans-like intensity. With the benefit of hindsight, I have since embraced them as one of the single most exciting forces to emerge from the underground in recent years. Thankfully, no one at all will be likely to repeat my mistake after hearing Just Say No, though it admittedly tones down the band’s more arty and indulgent tendencies quite a bit in service of visceral brute force (the album title provides a very unambiguous clue as to the band's current mindset). Of course, as much as I enjoy raw power, punk energy, and hardcore fury on their own, the beauty of this album lies in how brilliantly Gnod manage to blend heavy music with their longstanding Krautrock and psych fascinations, enhancing the expected monster riffs with bulldozing no-frills repetition, seismic percussion grooves, Gang of Four-style minimalism, and a wonderful textural chaos of electronics and radio broadcasts.
If I had to succinctly summarize Gnod’s aesthetic with Just Say No, Entertainment!-era Gang of Four would be the clearest reference point, but with the caveat that all their equipment was stolen right before an important gig and that they had to perform using gear that was already set-up and soundchecked for Ministry or Neurosis. There are plenty of tight grooves and "angular" guitars, but they are often atop an incredibly dense, earthquake-level low end. The opening "Bodies For Money," ostensibly the album's lead single, is a bit of aberration from that template though. In fact, Gnod are roughly in White Hills territory again, barreling along at a double-time pace with a simple power chord riff and even erupting into a noisy guitar solo at one point. There are some key differences though, as Jon Perry's drums are jacked-up to rumbling, elemental force and vocalist Paddy Shine's ragged, world-weary vocals are more of a sincere, snarling, and rueful denunciation of the state of the world than a melodic hook. Put more glibly, it is Motorhead music with a Crass intellect. That is an admittedly gratifying and bracing aesthetic, but it is not nearly as compelling as the more distinctive fare that Gnod conjures up elsewhere. For example, the following "People" is every bit as bludgeoning, but slowed and pared down to little more than pummeling, fill-heavy drums; densely buzzing bass; and a flanging sample that sounds like a processed muezzin's call. Eventually, an ascending strummed guitar motif appears, but the foundation of the piece is essentially just a sample and some stomping, improvisatory drumming and it all works beautifully. In fact, it seems like Gnod work best when they are working with the fewest materials.
The following "Paper Error" unexpectedly brings shades of Steady Diet of Nothing-era Fugazi, as Gnod lock into an obsessively repeating two-chord riff while Shine howls elliptical and scathing thoughts about errors and bodies. While it is not exactly my favorite piece on the album, "Paper Error" makes one of the stronger cases for Gnod's brilliance: it is built upon an incredibly simple riff and a lyric sheet that probably only has like three lines scrawled on it ("Error! Error! Error! Error!"), yet it feels like being run over by a goddamn tank. It is the perfect distillation of the album's description of "a harsh and repetitive riff-driven rancour refracted through a psychotropic haze of dubbed-out abstraction," as the riff is an unstoppable juggernaut, Shine's raw-throated intensity is magnetic, and the underlying music is a dense and roiling onslaught of furious crash cymbals and buried snarls of ugly guitar noise. Even better still is "Real Man," the album’s muscular and hyper-minimal centerpiece. At its core, it is essentially a cutting denunciation of macho culture delivered over a heavy and perversely funky drumbeat. There are some embellishments, like a blown-out one-note bass line and stabs of discordant guitar, but all of that is secondary to the perfectly swaggering menace of a song mocking swaggering menace. Eventually "Real Man" erupts into a crescendo of noisy guitars and jabbering loops, but the lasting impression is that Shine and his drummer are about to curb-stomp a bunch of football hooligans.
The album finally winds to a close with the epic "Stick in the Wheel," which initially reprises the band’s winning formula of heavy drums, Shine's bitter and blackly funny rants about society, and well-placed splashes of noisy guitars. Bizarrely, it suffers a bit from having too many ideas, as Gnod seem to reach their peak when they focus all of their energy on just one simple thing with face-melting intensity. I suppose I cannot blame them for including it though, as its extended length (just over 12 minutes) gives the band a chance to shift gears into a lengthy dub-damaged interlude of simmering psychedelia, reminding me that the rest of Just Say No is not necessarily the true Gnod. Of course, the true Gnod is a very fluid concept that varies greatly from album to album. The band have certainly made some stellar albums exploring their more hallucinatory and abstract side, but Just Say No works best when the band sticks to no-frills thuggish brutality, so the arty coda mostly feels like it accidentally wandered in from a different album. Aside from that, my only real critique is that the band has a tendency to drag their songs on a bit longer than necessary here, as riding a groove for ten minutes works a lot better with psychedelia than it does with eruptions of violence. With music like this, the best approach is to get in, tear my goddamn head off, then get out. There is no need to linger. I have absolutely zero problem with the vision and the execution here though, as Just Say No is otherwise an absolutely crushing and timely tour de force of controlled fury. This album will deservedly be all over "Best of 2017" lists in December.