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Living Things, ‘Ahead of the Lions’ (Jive)

Getting arrested at the 2004 Republican National Convention, setting fire onstage to a photo of President Bush, hurling meat at a Dubya blow-up doll: Lillian Berlin has earned his spot in the political-rock fray. As the rail-thin frontman of Living Things, the St. Louis provocateur makes art for an era when a bulging backpack can get you searched in the New York City subway, and if he pisses off the authorities in the process, then all the better. In fact, the Man has put the clampdown on him before: Ahead of the Lions, Living Things’ full-length debut, is more like the group’s second album; a different version, called Black Skies in Broad Daylight, was supposed to be released twice last year, but it fell prey to record-label politics — perhaps the only kind the band can’t debate.

Still, as libertines like Joe Strummer and Pete Doherty have proven, you can’t keep a man with a message down. And Berlin has always got something to say. His frustration with the military-industrial-financial-pharmaceutical complex could pass for a stylish brand of Midwestern nihilism if his unbridled guitar roar didn’t convince you how much he cares about the bullshit he sees on the nightly news. On Lions‘ opener, “Bombs Below,” Berlin demands, “Where do all the dead boys go?” searching for answers (for Iraq? 9/11? Vietnam?) within the luxurious depths of a Steve Albini noise hole. In “End Gospel,” he bags on the hype-hungry media — “You got your war,” he seethes in Wolf Blitzer’s general direction — while the technophobic “Monsters of Man” could give your Sidekick a guilt trip. In “I Owe,” the dude indicts the FDA right along with the FBI, the CIA, and the NSA. His answer to these problems? More volume.

As pungent as Lions‘ fury can be, though, Berlin’s secret weapon is his instinct for pop. “Bom Bom Bom” swaggers with Stones sass; “God Made Hate” sounds like it was airlifted from Soundgarden circa Super-unknown; “New Year” sounds like a hypnotic rewrite of Blue Öyster Cult’s “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper.” Each track follows the Rage Against the Machine model: Make music for the masses without diluting it for the bosses. Berlin has worked for nearly two years to get this message heard; now he’s just trying to prove that it was worth it.

See also: The Libertines, Up the Bracket (Rough Trade, 2002)