On its 10th anniversary, Propagandhi’s Supporting Caste remains a powder-keg of a record that explores potent ideas with wit and calculated vitriol.
The only reason I ever gave Supporting Caste a listen was because of Kent Monkman.
Monkman is a Cree mixed-media artist whose 2007 painting, The Triumph of Mischief, graces the front cover of Propagandhi’s fifth LP, which turns ten years old today. Like so much of Monkman’s work, it’s a thrilling clash of visuals: the idyllic “New-World” landscape — representative of so many Romantic 18th and 19th century works that imbued the land with eden-like qualities — foregrounded by a chaotic scene that upends the high-minded narratives and hierarchies that European settlers brought to this land. It’s a humourous, provocative melee in which Monkman makes a mockery of the self-aggrandizing colonial attitudes that still manage to wreak havoc on the country today. The composition draws your eyes into every meticulous nook. It’s one of those rare, visceral pieces of high art that inspires deeper analysis instead of simply relying on it.
The thrill of seeing The Triumph of Mischief for the first time still sticks in my mind — not at the National Gallery where its permanently housed, but on the cover of a CD in an HMV. I had obviously heard of Propagandhi at that point and had dabbled with 2005’s Potemkin City Limits, but a die-hard fan I was not. The band vaguely hung around the edges of what I was listening to at the time. That day, though, Monkman’s artwork was all the convincing I needed. I picked up Supporting Caste, put it on, and to my relief, fell hard and fast. Everything clicked.
Supporting Caste was my gateway to discovering Propagandhi’s unique positioning in the Canadian musical landscape: anarcho-activist punks from the Prairies who despise nationalism, reject the myths of nationhood, and sing fondly of Rush’s Grace Under Pressure and the Maple Leafs (among other things). In this way, they embrace aspects of the Canadian cultural conversation while not being swindled by its more questionable tenets. They’re unwavering in their beliefs and principles, yet highly attuned and empathetic to the plights, voices, and ideas of the underrepresented and the marginalized. From this foundation, Supporting Caste explodes like a powder-keg. It’s as much an expression of solidarity, mortality, and love as it is a dismantling of petty ignorance, hate, and capitalist greed. Like Monkman does with The Triumph of Mischief, Propagandhi explores big, potent ideas with wit and calculated vitriol.
Take, for instance, “Dear Coach’s Corner”, the epistolic banger that will inevitably go down as one of the band’s best, most beloved songs. The lyrics find vocalist Chris Hannah writing directly to Ron MacLean, co-host of CBC’s Coach’s Corner and friend to everyone’s favourite bigoted, crotchety asshole, Don Cherry. Hannah’s main concern is the how the frequent displays of militarism and nationalist propaganda during hockey games will affect his young niece. It’s a letter that appeals to MacLean’s more rational sensibilities (it’s hard to miss the blank look he gets on his face as Cherry goes off on one of his batshit-crazy tirades about toughness, or whatever else), asking him to explain the morality behind men like Cherry who use hockey as a platform to spread malformed opinions about militarism, masculinity, and what a “real” Canadian should be. The genius of “Dear Coach’s Corner”’s approach lies in its bluntness and dire seriousness. It’s often easy to write off men like Cherry as comedic caricatures or products of a simpler, bygone era, but Hannah lucidly sees something far more nefarious and concerning at play. He uses a familiar cultural touchstone to undress commonly cherished myths that Canadians tend to hold dear. The problem lies in the fact that Cherry’s views have not only become mainstream but are also seen as folksy and harmless. Turns out it was a prescient concern. As we’ve seen over the last three years, there are few things more dangerous and damaging than insane bigots with a platform appealing to a warped sense of national pride.
Its best song aside, Supporting Caste is still a standout record in every single way. None of the previous four Propagandhi records better displayed the band’s diverse technicality, songwriting chops, the acerbic lyrical wizardry, or the sheer cathartic power of their music. From the opening beatdown of “Night Letters” to the closing invitation to the Sabbat on “Last Will & Testament”, Supporting Caste never ceases in its urgency. The band is also careful not to cater to any one pillar of their sound. The pop-punk leanings of songs like “Human(e) Meat (The Flensing of Sandor Katz)”, “Without Love”, and the gut-wrenching “Potemkin City Limits” trade-off with heavier, thrashier numbers like “This is Your Life”, “Tertium Non Datur”, and “Incalculable Effects” to create a swirling, unpredictable listening experience. Major credit must go to Bill Stevenson of the Descendents, whose production gives the album its tasteful sheen. No bit of music is ever lost on the ear and the effect remains all-encompassing throughout. Heavy music should always sound this good.
With all due respect to the songs fronted by bassist Todd Kowalski — which all deliver in their own way (especially “Night Letters”) — the most impressive aspect of Supporting Caste is Chris Hannah’s lyrical and vocal performances. It’s hard to comprehend the lyrical gymnastics needed to get his free-form prose to not only fit over these songs, but feel like an essential component. Hannah’s brilliant use of cadence and internal rhyming allows him to stretch his conceits out over long patches of music. He constructs his lines with a key understanding of where certain syllables should lie in correlation with the movement of the song. Where lines begin or end isn’t as important as how certain words are drawn out, slurred together or punctuated. It’s how he turns a passage like “The human impulse to explain hijacked: a controlled flight into terrain to ensure no passenger ever makes any connection between the proscription of mystery and their malaise. Tidy pairings of inverse binaries,” into a blinding series of intuitive hooks without missing a beat.
Supporting Caste sounds as fresh and invigorating as it did back in 2009. And that’s great, in a way. The only caveat is that we’re living in a society still fundamentally plagued with the same issues Propagandhi were (and still are) railing against: the bitter asshole Kowalski describes on “This is Your Life” still exists, but he now has Twitter and calls them “snowflakes” instead of “bleeding hearts”; The “worst story ever told” detailed on the title track is still being told, and it’s still ignoring the plight and sufferings of millions; Don Cherry is still on fucking TV. It’s not like punk rock was never going to change the world on its own, but it’s endlessly discouraging that the record’s call for peace, understanding, and justice — echoed in so many other artistic works and human acts before and since — still largely fall on deaf and apathetic ears. I suppose the silver lining is that we have works like this one to remind us that we are capable of being better and that pleas for basic human decency won’t sound stale any time soon. At a time when the deluge of shit can numb our senses and humanity, Supporting Caste continues to be a catalyst for raw feeling.