Review Summary: Q: What is assertive, cacophonous, no-nonsense, uncompromising Punk Rock?
A: Full Circle by Pennywise.
Pennywise get a lot of crap. "All their albums sound the same
"; "They can’t do anything new
" etc. etc. etc… Here’s something for nothing: Full Circle is one of the best Punk albums of the '90s
. This is 40 minutes of harsh, abrasive, inspiring and brilliant Punk Rock. Full Circle
is probably Pennywise’s best album.
was released a year after the suicide of Pennywise founding-member Jason Thirsk. The band contemplated breaking up, but decided to finish the album that was underway at the time of Thirsk’s death. Randy Bradbury stepped in to become the permanent bassist and Pennywise-post-Jason was born. Tragedy can inspire and unite like few other things.
For a band lambasted as much as the Hermosa Beach foursome, Pennywise have a surprisingly large and loyal fan base. Many wonder why. This album is why. This is how Punk should be. Fast, aggressive, forceful and honest. Fletcher Dragge’s guitar work is blistering throughout the entire album. He leads from the front and combines with Jim Lindberg’s vocals sublimely. Bradbury and Byron McMackin form a remarkably solid and dexterous rhythm section, as McMackin confirms his reputation as one of the best drummers in Punk. Lindberg’s lyrics are inspirational, commanding and uncompromising, while the delivery is unwavering in its tenacity. The combination is as fast, powerful and compelling Punk Rock as you’ll hear.
The album begins with the authoritative call-to-arms Fight Till You Die
. The scorching main guitar/bass riff is the driving force of the song as it flies through at a million miles an hour, adeptly supported by McMackin’s dynamic and express drumming. The message couldn’t be more straightforward: Never give up - Fight Till You Die
. Going straight back in to the verse following the sudden pause after the second chorus only enhances the energy building towards the final chorus - and the roars of the song title. Hardly having time to take a breath, Date With Destiny
rolls on and keeps the blistering pace going. This has a certain About Time
feel to it. Dragge’s guitar glides over the drums and bass in the intro, and Lindberg’s lyrics continue the positive yet forceful message so pivotal to this album and its success.
Get A Life
offers up possibly Bradbury’s best bass line on a Pennywise song. The riffs are as blistering as the opener and the pace is as frantic as any PW track. Like so many tracks on here, there is no break from the relentless pace and power. I remember one of my best mates - who doesn’t like/listen to Punk - was really in awe when he heard this album. "How can you drum like that? It’s ridiculous." Take that as a positive or a negative, whatever, but it only confirms that this is some of the fastest and most powerful Punk, certainly of Pennywise’s catalogue. And so we come to the only song to be released as a 'single' from the album - Society
. The lead riff is instantly recognisable as Pennywise, and the formula has been used before and since many, many times. But it works here as well as any PW song. The lyrics are non-specific, the vocals can get monotonous and there is little variation in the guitar and bass work. But put it all together and you have one of the iconic Pennywise songs and a genuine Surf- and Skate-Punk classic. The highlight is probably the mesmeric bass guitar intro over the tribalistic drum beat.
If you asked me to suggest one song that I define as "Punk Rock", there are a few that come to mind. The Decline
is probably the one. But then again, NOFX are
Punk Rock. But Broken
by Pennywise would be up there. Fast, relentless, a scorching guitar solo and a lyrical message. The message is yet again maintaining a positive outlook when faced with adversity, and the chorus is as catchy a song as any on here: "I’ve been used, I’ve been bruised, I’ve been broken, And I’m backed up against the wall. But my will to survive can’t be stolen. And you can’t make me fall.
An undoubted feature of the album is the coalescence of the drums of McMackin and the bass of Bradbury. The break on Go Away
sounds as if the pair have been playing together for 10 years. It was almost a statement of intent from Bradbury - "I’m Pennywise’s new bassist, and I’m good". The little bass fills and licks are spread throughout the album, making this without doubt the bass guitar highlight of the Pennywise discography. But McMackin’s performance arguably outstrips all others. His rapid-fire drumming gives Full Circle
a tangible musical dimension not found on many other Punk albums. His fills, speed and general beats are truly something for the untrained ear to behold. To me - certainly not a drummer - it just sounds amazing. On almost all of the tracks the drumming can hold your attention like no other Pennywise album.
For me, this album is Californian Surf-Punk. This is probably best described by the intro to Every Time
. Maybe it’s because I heard this song on a surf video a number of years ago, but that intro just says Surf-Punk to me. And these intros are certainly a feature of the album, but it is here where monotony needs to be mentioned. In an album that is unwavering in its pace, unrelenting in its energy and untiring in its forcefulness, there is little room for variety. This intro to Every Time
could easily be mistaken for the intro to Broken
, and likewise Final Day
has marked similarities with What If I
. Even so, the latter is one of the highlights of the album. Lindberg’s meandering vocals walk us through the verses before the assertive pre-chorus “Hey! Die! You want an alibi?
” leads deftly in to the rolling chorus. What If I
certainly rehashes the scent of About Time
without detracting from Full Circle’s
own distinctive flavour.
. It had to be. The song Jason wrote. A song about brotherhood, friendship, and the poignant line "Life is the most precious thing you can lose
". Bro Hymn Tribute
is probably the best version of the song the band has done. Not because it’s played flawlessly (it's sloppy and not everyone's in sync at various points) or the recording was brilliant, but because the feeling in the song is unmatched. When Justin Thirsk (Jason’s brother) gets on the mic, you can hear the emotion being stuffed down the microphone and out of our speakers. He is half-screaming half-crying when he roars “Jason, my brother, this one’s for you…
”. And of course there had to be an encore. Then another one. Dragging on for five minutes, it’s a legendary Punk song and certainly the most recognisable Pennywise song ever. It’s the perfect ending to an album that is in many ways a tribute album to Jason.
Ah, but it doesn’t quite end with Bro Hymn Tribute
. Give it a minute. Wait… Ah there it is. That famous piano part we know from Unknown Road
and the start of Live @ The Key Club
. On those recordings, we get about 30 seconds of the piano. Here, we get the full 14 minutes of one of the most emotional pieces of music heard on a Punk record. Kind of out of nowhere comes this pensive, depressing and yet at times uplifting piano piece that truly caps of the album. You won’t hear this blaring from the stereos of Pennywise fans' cars, but if the album is left playing and this comes on, well it’s quite the surprise. And a truly fitting final tribute to Jason Matthew Thirsk.
Full circle. The band had come full circle. They’d formed nine years prior, lost a member, and now produced their best record. If you want no-bullshi
t Punk Rock, this is the album. This came at a time when Punk as I
know it was dying out and it’s a fitting record to encapsulate a lot of the '90s Punk scene. Brett Gurewitz’s ability in the mixing studio helped produce the only Pennywise album to chart in the Billboard 200. Not a bad effort. (It got to #79.) But it’s no surprise it charted - it’s a great album.