There may be a little bit of pressure writing about a band when I know that at least one of its members will read this. Having said that, when I remember that I watched these guys play acoustically in a park in my hometown when the Dallas stop of their first national tour was cancelled, I can breathe a bit easier. In any case, this week brings you the best act to come out of Philadelphia since Will Smith: hard-rocking and reggae-grooving Among Criminals.
I was still in high school when I first heard Among Criminals. At the time I was pretty plugged into the community of fans that followed the band State Radio (read: I geeked out reading and occasionally posting on the band’s fan forum), and heard about a really great group out of Philadelphia that not only had some great music, but made a point of being accessible to anyone who followed the group. I followed the group’s progress, downloaded their albums, and struck up an online correspondence with the band through the myspace page that they personally managed.
According to Ryan Gaughan, Among Criminals’ singer and guitarist who was gracious enough to answer a few questions about the group, he and the bassist known only as “Bean” were childhood friends who reunited as bandmates upon returning to Philadelphia after time in Boston and Las Vegas, respectively. While in Boston attending Berklee College of Music Gaughan met drummer Jarrod Pedone, who happened to come into the market for a band at the fortunate moment that Gaughan and Bean were looking to round out a band. Among Criminals was born by fire when Gaughan introduced his prospective rhythm section immediately before the group’s first show in Trenton, New Jersey. The trio hasn’t looked back since.
Gaughan truly has found a way to live the dream. After Among Criminals’ early rehearsals, the three decided that they didn’t have anything better going on, bought a van, and proceeded to play roughly four hundred shows in three years (“that number inflated depending on who we talk to!” reveals Gaughan). After three self-produced albums and sharing bills with State Radio, SOJA, Dirty Heads, and Jello Biafra of the Dead Kennedys, Among Criminals went for broke (literally) and recorded their first professionally produced work. As I write this the band is in Los Angeles shooting their first-ever music video.
The three shaggy-headed members of Among Criminals each brings a wild energy to the group’s recordings. Gaughan lists 90s alternative rock giants such as Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters as playing as much a role in the band’s musical heritage as punk and reggae acts The Clash and the Police. Each song is as likely to settle into a hard-edged reggae bounce or a hot latin groove as it is rise into a distorted and blistering rock song; for that matter several of Among Criminals’ songs boast all of the above. Pedone is an impressively fluid drummer, and shifts styles somewhat effortlessly as the group’s varied music demands. Bean seems constantly in the pocket, and ensures that the bass guitar demands as much attention as any other aspect of the power trio. Gaughan remains in the center, his soft vocals juxtaposed with his virtuosic brand of Joe-Strummer-meets-Carlos-Santana-on-amphetamines lead guitar work.
All of this accompanies the righteous anger and hope beyond hope that the highly political and social lyrics of the music contains. The group has no qualms about wearing their beliefs and ideologies on their collective sleeve, and Gaughan’s calls for an end to violence, war, and political corruption fall in line with both a musical style that is recognizably influenced by The Clash and Rage Against the Machine and a social stance that has led to the group’s placement on bills with Tom Morello and Anti-Flag (Among Criminals signed on for two shows to benefit Iraq Veterans Against War that never happened, much to Gaughan’s chagrin).
As can be imagined, Among Criminals’ songs are typically highly dynamic. From the quasi-latin riffing of “Cold Solider”, “Fire”, and “Last Bullet” to the distortion-heavy numbers “Bare-handed Hitman” and “Smartest Man in the World”, elements of the song are both hauntingly distant and unabashedly in-your-face. Working through the band’s discography, however, reveals unexpected surprises: almost tribal chants float over a constant guitar skank in “War”, the world nearly comes to an end in the genre-bending odyssey of “Ghost”, an upbeat funk groove belies more angry lyrics in “Step Back”, and lighthearted acoustic tunes like “Go Say” and “I See” occasionally pop out (mentally prepare yourself for the guitar solo in the latter before listening). The pacifist ballad “Killin’ is Killin’” even features steel pans.
To note any differences from album to album would be an exercise in futility, as each album is more the result of funds coming through to record tracks that are constantly in flux. The freshly-minted 2012 release Among Criminals even features new recordings of several songs that appeared on the trio’s earlier releases,Kill the Myth and Happy History.
It’s been four years now since the night I gathered a few friends and met Among Criminals as their van rolled into a neighborhood park in the suburbs of Dallas-Fort Worth. Whether it was the impressive skills each member of the band has honed on their instrument of choice or the diverse influences that form Among Criminals’ music, I always felt that the songs translate just as well to an acoustic setting as to the high-decibel rock that characterizes the majority of the trio’s shows. In any case, Among Criminals is a band that tours tirelessly, and spares no expense in their continuing quest to make a name for themselves. As mentioned above, the group is currently shooting their first music video for a single from what they hope to be their breakout album (an album which, by the way, can be purchased for just seven dollars on the group’s official website). The self-titled Among Criminals is currently available to stream in its entirety on the band’s facebook page, and members of the trio still regularly communicate to fans through social media. If nothing else, this is one of the most endearing aspects of Among Criminals’ life as a band: in addition to writing and performing good music, the group makes an effort to be responsive to those who follow their music. Nobody is listening to Among Criminals much right now, but hopefully the hard work that the band has put into both connecting with fans and producing a powerful sound will soon pay off with appropriate success.