Priests’ breakthrough EP didn’t traffic in subtlety. Not in songcraft, nor in name: Bodies and Control and Money and Power, released in 2014, had a mouthful of a title that seemed to capture much of the band’s ethos, from its confrontational disposition to its preoccupation with the personal as political. The EP squeezed seven tracks into 17 energized minutes: seven outbursts, ranging from the prescient (“Ring Wing”) to the surreal (“Doctor”).
It took a minute for Priests to materialize with a full-length debut. (Together since 2011, the Washington, D.C. quartet spent their first few years releasing a handful of tapes and 7-inches prior to recording Bodies.) But this particular full-length debut turns out to have been worth a minute. On Nothing Feels Natural, the band’s scattershot punk tantrums congeal into a more ambitious LP outfitted with deep post-punk grooves and anti-corporate screeds. It’s a weightier, more cerebral collection that succeeds without sacrificing the raw force of this group’s chemistry. By chance or by design, Nothing Feels Natural might well be the first great punk album of the Trump presidency.
If Priests has a signature sound, it is anchored by singer Katie Alice Greer’s deep, exacting wail of a voice. It’s a voice that lends itself to snarled critiques — of society, of shitty men, of consumerism. The opening track, “Appropriate” — before it slides into free-jazz territory — is an exhilarating workout for Greer’s almost free-associative yowls (“I’ve tasted maggots / I ate bugs!”). The rhythm section, including Daniele Daniele on drums, is a stabilizing weapon of intense precision, holding it together on lurching grooves (see: the eerie, self-affirming “Nicki”: “Save your paltry dowry / I’m gonna buy you before you buy me”) and New Wave backbeats (the polyrhythmic, disco-tinged closer, “Suck,”). But as Nothing Feels Natural progresses, Priests’ startling melodic range uncoils: Greer turns in her most vulnerable performance to date on the elegiac title track, while “JJ” offers fragments (both comical and sad) of a doomed relationship set to teetering surf-rock riffs.
Like Bodies and Control and Money and Power, the LP thrives on an economy of force and purpose: Nothing Feels Natural clocks in well under 40 minutes, as most first-wave punk albums do, and contains barely a wasted note or superfluous snare crash. There is a string interlude of one minute and 17 seconds. There is a brief but exhilarating spoken-word number which coils and shakes under the weight of overlapping vocals like something from Sleater-Kinney’s Hot Rock.
In a recent interview, drummer Daniele remarked that “pretty much everything is political. Talking about us being a political band is like saying we’re a band that makes noise.” That sense is hard to avoid. Nothing landed seven days after Donald Trump’s inauguration; the band spent that day performing at an anti-fascist benefit in Washington. In a Priests song, everything — pleasure, pain, sex, buying shit — has political dimensions. The album’s funniest (if least essential) track is “Puff,” which tells a story about a friend who wants to start a band called Burger King and then winds itself into a twisted capitalistic chant: “Achieve your dreams! / Burger King!” “Pink White House” hints at the promise of a female presidency and sneers at the hollowed out American dream: “Come on, sitcom / Come on, streaming / Come on, nostalgia, ‘90s TV / Ooh baby, my American dream.” Like much of Nothing, the song sounds caustic, rattled, grasping at survival — but not defeated. It’s arriving nearly three years after the Bodies EP. It’s arriving on time.