New Music: Bad Optics’ ‘Pax Americana’

The cover of Bad Optics 'Pax Americana'
Bad Optics ‘Pax Americana’ (cover design by Jacob Kaiser)

I’m going to lay this out right here, right now: I probably shouldn’t be reviewing Bad Optics’ debut album, Pax Americana. I feel too intimately knowledgeable about the struggles and pressures involved in the incubation and subsequent birth of these tracks. I’ve literally both cried and raged, internally and for others to see when it comes to Bad Optics. Frankly I’m too close. Doesn’t journalism require a dispassionate, neutral eye, one that I certainly don’t have in this situation? I’ve struggled with this question the past few months while digesting Pax Americana. But ultimately, it all comes down to the fact that YOU need to know about these songs and I’m the fucking Bad Optics Encyclopedia. Who better than the one who knows too much to tell you that Pax Americana is an unflinching, unrelenting, stark raving gem driven by sheer anger, genius and instruments?

Bad Optics experienced a seismic upheaval during the initial recording sessions for the album due to the departure of two members and then multiple roadblocks and delays due to COVID. The remainder soldiered on, with guitarist/vocalist J. Hidell and drummer/vocalist Joshua Ihler joined by second guitarist Max Stephens (who had been engineering the initial album recordings), and bassist Stephanie Jones (of Zookraught), which resulted in a fundamental change in sonics. The shift is obvious when comparing the EP Warm Strokes of Pragmatism to Pax Americana. The quirks, mystery, and squirrely-ness of the initial EP has been eschewed on the full-length. It’s as though a softening, protective layer of skin has been torn off and underneath is cold, unyielding steel mechanics running on high test ire. It’s possible to make the argument that this is a completely different outfit even though half of the tracks on Pax Americana existed prior to the addition of Stephens and Jones. The good news is that Bad Optics 2.0 is still an excellent band.

And this album. Bad Optics couldn’t have known, yet somehow have prophesized the dystopia that we have been living these past years. I mean, it’s been a long time coming, but it’s still uncanny, and in a way Pax Americana is like having salt water poured on you after having been pricked by a thousand pins. You know you’re down already. You know things are wrong, a feeling that’s settled deep in your bones. And here comes this band, not just commiserating with you but poking their fingers into your wounds, egging you on to get pissed off and do something about it. And yelling. This is the soundtrack that rages against late-stage capitalism, a true horror movie of epic proportions.

Oh geez. I’m terrifying you. Let me sand this off a bit.

“Drowning” starts the album off, and it’s a great choice, because it’s legit peppy, with snappy drumming by Ihler that goes from staccato to racing in a flash, paired with guitar to match the pace from Hidell and Stephens. Jones’ bass is round, warm, and bouncy, a sound that follows throughout the album and helps to ameliorate the oftentimes vicious, piercing menace coming from the other instruments. Her “ooooo-ooooo’s” on “Drowning” makes me wish there was more of her lone voice on the album (gonna have to catch a Zookraught show). The twin thrumming of the guitars during the chorus sounds pretty divine, but the words (“frail, old, and weak…the skin is peeling and revealing the rot”) alert us that all is not well. This track eases us down into the inferno.

“Personality Proxy” is re-recorded from Warm Strokes and is a favorite live. Many a mosh to that one. The next two tracks, “American Gaullist” and “Turnscrews,” were released as singles, and rightly so. You can read about “Turnscrews” and watch the video here. “Gaullist” is one of two songs on the album with lyrics by Stephens, but the general sound seems to also come from his brain; anyone who has heard Fuzz Mutt’s EP Colorless would agree. But Stephens’ work with Fuzz Mutt concerned itself with slackers and ennui, and this new stuff is anything but that. “Gaullist” lays bare the hypocrisy of conservative nationalism; the character in the song “can’t find the ‘I’ or ‘why’ in collectivism,” but Stephens then intones “visions of a life of splendor, don’t you feel a little misled?” The guitars sound acidic and metallic on Pax Americana but it’s particularly effective here as the chords slide up and down the frets during the chorus.

“Every Body Is A Mirror” is perfectly situated at the heart of Pax Americana. “I like you! Or at least I like the idea of you!” Hidell barks to a step-staggering beat as the guitars bark along. It’s ridiculously spot-on as it tackles the great American Divide, and it is freakishly prescient when Hidell sings “Begging for the antibodies! Look at yourself, touching Mother!” because as far as I can recall, this song predates the pandemic. Just. Wow. Beyond that, “Mirror” is just a badass punk crusher of a song that inspires more moshing wherever it goes. The lead in to “Subtract Detractors! Subvert Disaster!” is kind of a lie; it’s a bit drawn out and hides the fact that this one’s actually on fire in a fantastic way. The twiddly breakdown in the middle gives you a short-lived break, but tearing down capitalist societal structures necessitates haste, man.

“House Plant Intellect” is a weird little freak of a song sung by Stephens, and it’s admittedly a tough nut for me to crack, which is not unwelcome. It meanders and feels loosey-goosey compared to the rest of the album, a short-lived reprieve and space to breathe. There is a great, messy saxophone solo courtesy of Sam Morrison (Actionesse and Zookraught) that shakes things up even more. “Pain Monitor,” while not the hardest hitting of the bunch, is the darkest song of them all. The dispassionate distate of the narrator over a failed/failing relationship/life is achingly sad.

Pax Americana closes out with two powerful tracks, “Isopropyl Sunrise” and “The Noose.” The former starts off all punk-quirk before slamming into the brick wall of sound that encloses the chorus (“IT SPITS LIKE HELL. IT BURNS YOUR SHELL. YOU’VE BEEN REBORN.”) The lyric eyes a guy safely ensconced in a career built by nepotism, his back turned to the dystopia experienced by those without his gifted financial security. But the song warns him: “Blood on the frame of your home cannot stop the unknown.” They’re coming for him.

“The Noose” is a sprawling yet suffocating song. It spans six minutes, and you’ll appropriately find yourself holding your breath at times as it inexorably ebbs and swirls along, dragging you with it. “Noose” starts with a lone guitar before the rest of the band crashes in for a bit, then things settle down. The words at the front of the song lie under drawn out, dreary, dream-like instrumentation, making them hard to decipher (I was once very, very tipsy at a show and kept insisting to Hidell that the only words in the song were the chorus, pissing the very, very tipsy him off to no end). Jones’ bass drones a beefy drone that feels endless and sticky, like it wouldn’t come off in a shower. The drear and dream trails off, leaving Jones’ drone, and then the band crashes back in again: the guitars arrowing and harrowing, Hidell apoplectic, waking us up from the previous self-constructed farce of our lives, screaming “REDUCE ME TO A SLUMP!” “MANGLED ON THE ROCKS! THIS BODY’S HAD ENOUGH! I WANT MY MONEY BACK!” When Bad Optics plays this live, almost always as the closer, it’s an emotional gut punch that leaves you in awe, and they do a pretty good job of re-creating that feeling here. As those acid-drenched guitars fade away, you’re left with a sense of disbelief that it’s over. At least with a recording you’re not left as bereft as you are at a show; you can start the whole thing over again, if your body can handle it.

In a parallel universe, maybe, Pax Americana is a very different album, and I’ll always be a little cheesed that I won’t get to hear what that would have sounded like (I’ll always miss the line “there’s an unpaid intern rotoscoping your life” from “The Noose”). But that doesn’t lessen the power and talent encompassed by these tracks and these people. Pax Americana is a triumph and a testament to tenacious creativity without compromise.

Do yourself a favor and pick up one of the physical releases (tape via Den Tapes and cd via Panopticon Records), Jacob Kaiser’s design work on the album art is excellent and beautiful to hold in your hands.

Bad Optics’ album release show has been postponed to an as yet unconfirmed date. Until then you can listen to the album below and purchase on Bandcamp.

Christine Mitchell has been poring over album liner notes pretty much since she acquired the skill of reading, and figured out the basic structure of rock songs at an early age. Whether it’s the needle popping into the first groove of the record, the beeps that signal the beginning (or end) of a cassette tape, or digital numbers ticking off the seconds from zero, music brings Christine happiness, ponderous thought, opportunities for almost scientific study, and sometimes a few tears. When she started attending live shows two decades ago, a whole new piece of the puzzle clicked in and she has been hooked ever since.