Writing a punk anthem is a fundamentally communitarian act. The idea is that anyone — whether they think they can sing or not — can and will be screaming along in one joyous voice. If only for 20 sweaty minutes in a darkened basement, everyone can participate, everyone is equal, the crowd is the band.
Night Pits’ music is anthemic to the core.
Night Pits’ self-released debut record, Last Night Forever, is a sharp, catchy and pounding set that easily blends pop-punk, rock and roll and power pop tendencies into a quick, addictive listen that is pure pleasure but is ultimately bracing, too.
Set within distorted tones and attitude-laden delivery, the tracks often deliver surprisingly tender, vulnerable lyrics. That sense of sincerity is nicely mirrored by tight, melodically-coherent guitar leads by Dominic Rabalais and a pocket rhythm section in drummer Jason Burkhardt and bassist Miles Billington.
Rabalais, also the Fairfield-based trio’s lyricist and singer, is a prolific musician, filmmaker and visual artist, and veteran of numerous iconic Iowa bands since his teens—including Coyote Slingshot, Utopia Park, Little Ruckus and Real Dom. If you’ve been going to shows in Iowa in the last 10 years you’ve probably seen him jump off a speaker stack or hang upside down from the rafters. Maybe he’s even sweated or vomited on you at some point.
Confronting demons, apologizing for past wrongs and coming to terms with mental health struggles are recurring themes early on the album. On the tune “I Get It, I Get It Alright,” Rabalais wails, “Woe is me from morning to night/I won’t be alright anymore./I get it, I get it alright, but I cannot change!” This sets up avant saxophonist Curt Oren for a brief, wild guest solo that ties into the tune’s rock’n’roll feel before taking it over the top.
The addictive track “Again and Again” features a brightly-toned, earworm guitar melody that recalls the manic hook-mongering of Rabalais’ classic synth-punk act Little Ruckus. The climactic gang vocals that close the song provide one of the record’s most galvanizing moments.
But the album really reaches a peak on the standout song, “True Thunder.” Here we see the band transitioning from the empathetic early songs to a fist-raising sense of solidarity that echoes Springsteen. “When you say you’re giving up, that’s the only thing that makes me scared,” Rabalais sings. We’re led to a rallying cry: “Gotta fight for something and it’s always you!/Gotta fight for something that I know is true!”
Last Night Forever feels classic but also directly relevant, even important. We hear the band continuing punk’s storied history of using music to cement a sense of community. Though not explicitly political in their lyrics, Night Pits are a band that rallies live crowds between songs to stand up for one another and transfer the magnetic energy of the pit into a sturdy fellow-feeling. They back it up by donating a portion of their merchandise sales on tour to Planned Parenthood and the ACLU. Their anthems carry their message: We’re in this together no matter what.
In this new era of daily governmental attacks on rights and equality — as well as the rampant crackdowns on DIY spaces nationwide in the wake of the Ghost Ship disaster — Night Pits feels like a necessary antidote. American punk acts since 1980, from Minor Threat to Beat Happening to Against Me! among countless others, have always activated the power of punk rock to liberate, educate and mobilize. And they’ve continuously been combating a competing trend of hate in the underground (as Dead Kennedys epitomized with “Nazi Punks — FUCK OFF!”). Textbook punk actions like DIY touring, zine-making, booking all-ages shows and celebrating amateur and outsider talent are all methods oriented toward breaking corporate structures and building equitable, welcoming communities.
Knowing that bands like Night Pits are out there screaming that they’re gonna fight for something true should give us hope that deep underground — and right here in our community — punks are carrying on a tradition we need as much or more than ever.
This article was originally published in Little Village issue 215.