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Sunday, December 21, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 35.0° F  Overcast
The Daily
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The United Sons of Toil are darkly political
Everyday power struggles
on
The band's sound has morphed into something heavier, more
epic.
The band's sound has morphed into something heavier, more epic.
Credit:Michelle Damitz

It's not fair: Russell Hall's Google results are way more interesting than mine. While I find camera lenses and Craigslist bargains, the front man of local math-rock-meets-post-punk trio the United Sons of Toil unearths stories about colonial regimes that are metaphors for everyday power struggles.

The man has a gift for the epic, and it extends beyond music, into the realm of storytelling. One of Hall's web searches yielded an old African proverb that became the title of the group's 2008 album, Until Lions Have Their Historians, Tales of the Hunt Shall Always Glorify the Hunter. Though these words don't exactly roll off the tongue, they spark a lot of questions from listeners.

It makes you wonder what their next album, which is almost all written but whose recording date has been pushed into early 2010, will be called.

"I Googled 'rape of the Congo' and that's what I found," Hall says of Lions. "I was writing lyrics for one of the songs on the album, 'White King, Red Rubber, Black Death,' and [discovered] how King Leopold of Belgium created a security force from another tribe that was charged with terrorizing the rest of the [Congolese] population to get them to keep producing rubber. If you didn't meet your quota, they'd chop off your hands. These guys would deliver baskets of hands to their supervisors."

The line that resulted from this research - "Forces Publique removed their hands" - probably doesn't ring a bell for most, but that's not really the point. The point's more about using sociopolitical turmoil to explore the violence and anxiety that lies within.

"The lyrical content isn't the most important thing for the band, but I can't get on that stage if I don't believe in what I'm singing about," Hall explains. "I've had it with good-time party rock 'n' roll music about boy-meets-girl relationships. This is about trying to take personal relationships and politics and compare them to bigger issues, the kind of thing Gang of Four did so brilliantly."

The band's aggressive-yet-precise, overtly political approach owes a lot to English post-punk progenitors and the cultural melting pot of the UW dorms, where Hall spent a lot of time in the early 1980s, when the genre was still earning its name.

"I moved into the dorms and met these people who were listening to the Clash and the Cure and Gang of Four and Joy Division and the Sex Pistols, and I was like, 'Okay, this is it!'" he recalls. "I went to this awesome, awesome record shop, Paradise Records, and bought the first Clash album, the Beat, the Talking Heads, the Specials - about eight albums. Then I went through my record collection and put half of it in the closet - the half with Styx and REO Speedwagon - and was like, 'I'm never listening to this again!' It was a watershed moment."

And it was in the lounge on the 13th floor of Ogg East that he did some of his first performances, including one of Gang of Four's "Armalite Rifle."

"I still have it on tape. I forgot the words halfway through. Some things haven't changed," he says.

Other things have changed, though. Over the past three years, the band's sound has morphed into something heavier, even more epic and less scrappy, Hall says. Some of this has to do with adding a new drummer, Jason Jensen, a year ago - plus the fact that Hall and bassist Bill Borowski have played together for "eons" - but at least as much is a product of the band's limitations.

"We're not making any decisions to evolve and grow creatively," Hall admits. "We're just trying to paint the biggest picture we can with the limited palette we have." 

United Sons of Toil aren't trying to drown out war, famine and other tragedies of the modern world. Instead, they take a close look at problems that are not only hard to solve but hard to think about, sharing their own fear, anxiety and rage as they decide what to do next.

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