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Joy on Fire “Thunderdome”

Nick: The New Jersey-based punk-jazz band Joy on Fire released a new track and video titled “Thunderdome” this week on NPR’s All Songs Considered. The song features spoken word lyrics written and performed by poet Dan Gutstein.

Like much of the band’s catalog, “Thunderdome” crackles with energy. The song is anchored by an infectious bass guitar riff that is often doubled on baritone sax. On All Songs Considered, bassist John Paul Carillo relates that he was inspired to write the bassline after Gutstein shared a song called “McFlurry” by the band Sleaford Mods. The two songs have a lot in common, most notably sharing prominent basslines and declamatory aggressive lyrics.

While the first stanza of the song is repeated later in the song, there is no chorus to speak of. Instead, each stanza ends with the refrain “what’s love but a second-hand emoticon,” a play on a line from Tina Turner’s “What’s Love Got to Do with It.” Gutstein’s lyrics and delivery add a layer of menace to the song, especially when they’re paired with the dark and distorted timbres of Carillo’s bass guitar. Comparatively, saxophonist Anna Meadors’ playing feels a lot more playful, even when she is playing the similarly dark bari sax.

Turner also inspired the title of “Thunderdome,” which is inspired by the Mad Max sequel in which she had a starring role. The song would fit well in the movie, as its churning bassline and chaotic energy would be a nice fit for a death match-based dystopia.

After the repetition of the first stanza, the song ends with an exhilarating final section. The band slowly crescendos for the final two minutes of the song. At the beginning of this finale, the bass largely drops out for the first time in the song, only playing three notes per measure after being omnipresent to that point. The band then begins layering on several elements, including the return of the full bassline, Meadors soloing on alto sax, the introduction of some delay and other subtle effects, and Gutstein exclaiming “what’s love?” The tension that results from this layering continues to build until the very end of the song.

“Thunderdome” is the first single from a forthcoming album collaboration with Gutstein. I’m excited to hear the rest of the album when the time comes, because I think that the first product of their collaboration has been a success.

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