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Sunday, June 23, 2024
The Observer

Bethlehem Steel returns with fiery EP


A geeky looking, yet incredibly famous musician from Long Island once wrote, “We’re living here in Allentown / and they’re closing all the factories down / Out in Bethlehem they’re killing time / Filling out forms / Standing in line.” The cheery tune by Billy Joel chronicled the bittersweet nostalgia that accompanied the demise of the steel industry in Bethlehem and Allentown, Pennsylvania.

That was 1982. Since that time, the manufacturing hubs of the United States have stumbled and stagnated; meanwhile, the seeds of class resentment planted in the “Allentown” era have germinated.

In 2017, a Buffalo, New York, band call themselves Bethlehem Steel out of tribute to all cities that just ain’t what they used to be. Places like South Bend come to mind. Bethlehem Steel imbue their music with the resentment and pride that come from living in a forgotten city where opportunities evaporated long ago, leaving puzzled people behind. This quality is palpable on the new EP/album “Party Naked Forever,” which tempers punk-rock anger with empathetic tenderness.

The album begins with a slow and quiet interlude that suddenly explodes into a loud punk sound. “Fig” is a standout track, with a melody carried by stabs at crunchy, minor guitar chords. The track is passively haunting until the guitar’s volume picks up and front woman Rebecca Ryskalczyk cries out, “How old were you when you stopped sleeping in your mother’s bed?” After that, you know that things are going to get a little weird. Then, when you hear Ryskalczyk answer her own question, you immediately wonder what you’ve gotten yourself into. Hearing Ryskalczyk get disturbingly personal (possibly even surreal) is refreshing. Men have monopolized hyperbolized, hyperemotional personal songwriting for too long. Bethlehem Steel is, for better or worse, Rivers Cuomo-esque here.

Bethlehem Steel owe a great deal to the many iterations of punk and post-punk acts that have preceded them. Sometimes they are as simple as The Sex Pistols or The Ramones. Other times they resemble the more refined punk sound of 90s acts like Sleater-Kinney. The group’s energy and potential are most obvious on “Finger It Out,” the punchiest track of the entire album. About halfway through the song Ryskalczyk lets out a “Yeah!” so full of disgust and grit that it almost sounds like “yuck.” There is a lot of anger on this album; Bethlehem Steel make their social justice critiques particularly clear on “Untitled Entitlement.” The spoken verses are snarled over an intimidatingly spare bass guitar and half-time snare drum. The breakdowns and choruses adopt and at sometimes mimic the menacing sound Black Sabbath perfected in their prime.

Despite their hardness, Bethlehem Steel is agile, delicate. Ryskalczyk flaunts her voice’s startling range on the sweetly melodious track “Donnie.” Not since Frankie Cosmos’s track “Is It Possible/Sleep Song” has anyone sung “the f-word” with with such loving aplomb and tenderness. “Deep Back,” the most subdued track on the album, is so sweet and smooth that you could slow dance to it at prom. “Deep Back” and “Donnie” demonstrate Bethlehem Steel’s extraordinary talent to embed beautiful kernels of emotion into abrasive packaging.

“Party Naked Forever” is not subtle, but it’s not pretentious or polite either. Ryskalczyk is brutally honest, to the point of uncomfortable idiosyncrasy. The refreshing record is not only delightfully weird, but also delivers on some of its serious risks. This band is not perfect, but they are young and definitely have their best work in front of them. Authentic emotion and gorgeous singing are reason enough to pay attention to these industrial misfits.

Artist: Bethlehem Steel

Album: “Party Naked Forever”

Label: Exploding in Sound Records

Tracks: “Donnie,” “Fig,” “Deep Back”

If you like: Angel Olsen, Big Thief, Ratboys

3.5 out of 5 Shamrocks