Rock songs about the Holocaust tend to center around graphic depictions of Jewish death and suffering, the favored artistic means through which to capture the magnitude of horror. Here, for instance, is Captain Beefheart snarling his way through “Dachau Blues”: “Danced and screaming and dying in the ovens / Cough and smoke and dying by the dozens.” Or consider Manic Street Preachers’ “The Intense Humming of Evil,” with its unsparing visions of malaria, misery, and “six million screaming souls.”
Trupa Trupa, a Polish post-punk quartet that’s been slowly amassing a following stateside, takes a different approach. The band was formed in the city of Gdansk, which is near where the first sparks of World War II flew and just 30 miles from Stutthof, the first Nazi concentration camp to be established outside Germany. “We live and breathe the history of the place where the apocalypse happened,” singer Grzegorz Kwiatkowski recently told Gigwise. Kwiatkowski’s published poetry largely concerns the theme of genocide, and he once personally discovered a stash of prisoners’ shoes in the forest near Stutthof.
When that fascination with collective trauma pervades the band’s music, it often takes the form of clipped, almost nihilistic chants. “Remainder,” a droning highlight from the band’s latest album, Of the Sun, aims its rhetorical dagger at Holocaust denialism: “It did not take place!” Kwiatkowski intones over and over, exposing an insidious ideology beneath the curdled guitars. “Never Forget,” from the band’s fantastic 2017 album, Jolly New Songs, chugs along like a blackened military march: “We never / We never forget / Those ghetto deaths.” (Virtually all of the band’s songs are sung in English.)
Here is a band more likely to acknowledge Shoah than The Strokes as an influence. And like Claude Lanzmann’s documentary epic—which famously eschewed newsreel footage of concentration camps—Trupa Trupa is more interested in the ways in which past atrocity echoes in the present.
All this brings an urgent and historically-minded dimension to the band’s brand of psychedelic art-rock. It sounds a little like late Fugazi, if they’d replaced Ian MacKaye with a higher-pitched Polish poet and gotten very blasted on Barrett-era Pink Floyd. (No wonder Floyd fanatic David Fricke has become one of Trupa Trupa’s most visible American fans.) “Dream About,” the album’s opening track, shows off the band’s fluency in odd time signatures by offering up a gnarled groove in 5/4 time. On “Glory,” the group’s forceful rhythm section handles an even tougher assignment: successfully backing one of Kwiatkowski’s most deranged sing-songy refrains. These are the types of damaged grooves that seem to compel music writers to whip out the word “angular” without hesitation.
Like the poet-singer’s anti-fascist lyrics, Trupa Trupa specializes in harsh repetition. The songs do not proceed through conventional structures—they lock into deceptively simplistic refrains and then mutate and warp like carcasses exposed to sun. “Long Time Ago” introduces a jaunty shuffle rhythm into the mix, while Kwiatkowski remains fixated on the distant past, repeating the titular refrain with a cheeriness that’s probably not applicable to whatever historical atrocity he’s referring to. Though the singer has published numerous books of poetry, the lyrics are often aggressively curt—he seems to reserve his more verbose tendencies for the long-winded emails he’s known for sending music critics.
When the band strays from post-punk aggression, results are mixed. I’m fond of the recent single “Longing,” which brings the group’s buzzing dread in a more conventionally melodic direction. But the title track, a rickety and noise-infused approximation of a piano ballad, is tedious and muddled, lacking the band’s trademark exuberance.
Nothing on here is quite as gleefully demented as Jolly New Songs’ best track, “Only Good Weather.” But one song comes satisfyingly close on Of the Sun. “Turn” arrives late in the album, delivering a sudden and exhilarating burst of carnival-barker hysteria, while the seven-minute “Satellite” ends things impressively with one of Trupa Trupa’s slowest-burning fuzz fireballs. “No one will ever remember your name,” the band repeats over and over, as the song approaches its clamorous peak. Maybe so. But it’s good to know these Polish noiseniks are bearing witness.