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Review: Turnstile’s Time & Space Is a Bracing Aggro-Pop Dance Party

If you had to hear about Turnstile from people like us, it’s already too late. Similar to their newly Grammy-nominated labelmates Code Orange, Turnstile’s major label debut arrives necessitating a swift recap about how they “swiftly rose the DIY hardcore ranks” or are “really big with the kids.” Because it involves aggressive music played with guitars, theirs was a youth movement critics always condescend toward, if not ignore, and are thus in the worst position to explain its appeal—at least until records like Time & Space, which integrate more respectable influences and are reflexively used to highlight the limitations of their earlier work.

Turnstile offer a syllabus of talking points right in the credits: guest appearances from a Lauryn Hill backup vocalist, Sheer Mag, Diplo, Will Yip, all the stuff you can afford with that Slipknot and Nickelback money. But this isn’t The Shape of Punk to Come, Zen Arcade or The Chemistry of Common Life, bombastic, sprawling and anchored by an earnest sense of its own importance. Time & Space achieves something more spectacular by presenting the breadth of their interests with the power and precision of a six-inch punch.

Of course, Turnstile wouldn’t have gotten to this point if they’d been orthodox. Their 2015 debut Nonstop Feeling stands as a truthfully advertised gym-rat classic that earned comparisons to Rage Against the Machine, Incubus and 311, and those were compliments. Even fans of those jock jams are usually self-deprecating with their praise and have a sense of humor about the often maladroit way in which they tried to affix funk, ska, reggae and rap to skate-metal guitars. Turnstile are likewise genre fusionists and have a bassist nicknamed “Freaky” that spends maybe 15% of any given show actually touching the stage. But rather than forcing awkward mergers, Turnstile wisely skim off the riffs, the rage and the rhythmic vocal hooks, maintaining the most important thing about Nonstop Feeling that separated them any modern form of rock music, hardcore or otherwise—they groove and they’re fun.  

Circle pit all you want to “Big Smile” or “High Pressure,” but Turnstile are at their best when they bring the bouncing soul. It all comes back to rhythm: “Real Thing” mimics the headknock beats of Tunnel Banger hip-hop as much as its NYHC neighbors, the chorus of “High Pressure” is barrelhouse on a bullet train, “Right to Be” and “I Don’t Wanna Be Blind” are literal twist and shout, as danceable as any rock music entrusted to Mark Ronson, but without the stylized GQ-ready stiffness.

Though Will Yip has already spawned a modern alt-rock empire from the modest Philly suburb of Conshohocken, Time & Space is the album that’s been waiting for him all his life. The interludes recall the oddball hip-hop fusions that sustained Studio 4 in the ’90s when the Butcher Bros. were running Ruffhouse; “(Lost Another) Piece of My World” and the title track trace back to Yip’s name-making gigs with early Title Fight; “Generator” and “Moon” are ready for KROQ when they’re ready for Turnstile. And like most Yip productions, it recalls the Buzz Bin era primarily in its generosity, in the way it makes you remember what it was like to have the expectations borne of buying a CD from Sam Goody as a teen despite barely having two nickels to rub together. Barely a second passes without a “wow” moment more typical of double-LP indulgence: true shred guitar, psychedelic pedal abuse, a dash of Gap Band-quoting R&B, a single M’Baku-like woof in “Can’t Get Away.” And here’s a neat trick—the song that sounds the most like Sheer Mag isn’t the one here that actually features Tina Halladay, it’s the one with production from Diplo.

Even if Brendan Yates functions mostly as his own hypeman, his utilitarian sloganeering voices the same primal urges underlying nearly anything you’ve read about American millennial anxiety in 2018. There are the urgent questions: How can I get out of my own head? If I disconnect from social media, will I somehow be more ignorant? What makes us so sure that things can’t get any worse? How are any of us going to keep it all together, and even then, what are we waiting for? The answer on Time & Space: It won’t come from the thinking, but the doing. Sure, it’s Madball mad-libs, but when Yates yells, “Don’t need your big smile / your green light / your damn time,” he’s smart enough to know not to ask for permission.

“I gravitate towards high pressure,” Yates screams in a rare discernible confession, and Turnstile is under a lot of stress three years removed from Nonstop Feeling—not just from Roadrunner execs hoping that they’ve cornered the aggro-pop market for the second straight year. Punk music is under a lot of pressure now to be important and relevant, to justify itself as both music and a social movement during the Trump years. Whether “It’ll be great for punk rock!” happens or not, this moment has provided countless opportunities for bands to earn easy praise if their politics happen to mirror ours. Sometimes, when simply getting out of bed and facing the world feels like a civic protest, you just need a bracing reminder that “this slaps” is a proper primary purpose of this kind of music. Make way for the prophets of rage.

Read our February cover story on Turnstile.