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December 1997 – album reviews – Cynical Smile’s ‘Stupas’ (“it’s what’s firing off underneath the distortion that counts”)

1 Dec
Cynical Smile: 'Stupas'

Cynical Smile: ‘Stupas’

It often occurs to me, while watching a punk band play or having my ears pinned back by the roar of a punk record, how much drive is vibrating within such narrow confines. Such motivation compressed into such a rigid structure, number balls clattering in violent frustration in the rigged rock lottery machine. How there’s so much rebellion and desire for expression nailing itself down to fast 4/4, power chords and punishing speed when it should be expanding outwards.

Hearing Cynical Smile‘s debut album brings this idea back to me again. Southend punks they may be, but rattling around in “Stupas” are the seeds of something far more interesting than another moshing four-piece crammed into a Transit van. They’re usually compared to Rage Against the Machine, which is about equal parts helpful and bollocks. All right, they’re multi-racial (singer Ed is black, the other three white) and they have a similar luxurious, lunging approach to their in-your-face riffing. But though Matt Shears’ bullscraper guitar does test the edges of the envelope, there’s little in it to suggest the punk-Belew experiments of Tom Morello, and Ed’s spitting vocal is less brattish and polemical than that of Zack de la Rocha. Cynical Smile have less texture than Rage Against the Machine; their big advantage, though, is that they’re a lot less irritating. Both bands have a broader reach than most of their contemporaries: but Cynical Smile’s is, crucially, born of instinct rather than craft. It’s what’s firing off underneath the distortion that counts.

This Cynical Smile isn’t a smirk: it’s a snarl, “the grin on a shotgun.” The thrumming didge-drone on The Circle builds up into a roar – “You got to make a stand as they try to control ya… / I get ripped off again… / Let the ritual begin” – and they stalk out of the garage to test themselves against a harsh, booby-trapped world; whether it’s illustrated in Stitch’s aggressive con-man swagger, the way When Friends Become Enemies waltzes around Ed’s paranoid suspicions (“Enemies will get straight to you / when friends become enemies. / Your hopes won’t bring them back… / and if you die they’ll kill you again”), or how Killing Bugs growls “why am I trying to make sense out of things you don’t believe? / Don’t even think of wanting me to go – ‘cos I was leaving. / …I know you and see through you: your ignorance is my shield.”

This time though, fighting the fight leads the band out onto further musical limbs. Gunga Din’s basic bolshiness sounds like a junior Bad Brains (“move! move aside!”), and the eye- rolling power-riffing and punk-funk bass pops of Scum throb and crash like Living Colour’s hardcore experiments on the neglected ‘Stain’. Live 4 mixes hip hop (in the voice and rhythms) with Nirvana squalls, making the most of Matt Russell’s growling Billy Gould bass boings, Dan’s swat-splash of drumming and Shears’ sneaky bit of jazzed-up guitar. Even Feeling Retarded (with Tony Maddocks’ sea-monster backing vocals upping the hardcore) switches rapidly through a series of quick-change modes.

At the peak of Cynical Smile’s battling, their music is at its most balefully triumphant. On Methadone, Ed frothes and sneers against junkie delusions, as the riff yells like an alarm – “you justify; you wanna lie. / You justify to die. / “No, these things will not change me” – you feel it take control” – and finally, witheringly, he sketches a junkie death in broad slashes. “I can’t feel my body, I can’t choose my eyes, I don’t hear them screaming, my brain starts to die. / Left on the block of pain, someone else to take the blame. / You think you’re all different / but you’re fucking well the same.” Shear’s bizarre solo kicks the song into a Van der Graff Generator-shaped finale: a melange of voices, sounds and murmurs swarm around the life support bleeps that inevitably stretch out into the long continous goodbye tone.

With a whine of lonely data, Limbo follows Cynical Smile’s battling logic to a philosophical extreme, locking Ed into an existential battle. “I try to touch, I try to grasp, / …feels like nothing there, a vacuum of air. / …Book me in young, before you kill me: / tear out my soul before you leave me, / make sure I don’t get up when you knock me down – / build yourself a condo in limbo…” The guitar drops out, letting the hushed bass and drums etch a bleak picture on their own.

But they finish with a battered victory. Give Up the Ghost struggles valiantly against the draining of life from fighting bodies, as Shears’ guitar rings out like Keith Levene’s: “They called… / No, the time is not today! / I know it’s killing me…” Though ‘Stupas’ will probably be just the ticket for those in love with the sweat and flail of the moshpit, it drops hints of something greater.

Cynical Smile: ‘Stupas’
Org Records, ORGAN 035CD
CD-only album
1st December 1997
Get it from: (2022 update), Tidal, Spotify, Amazon Music – CD best obtained second-hand.
Cynical Smile online:
Homepage,, Spotify
Additional notes: (2020 update) This was Cynical Smile’s only full album.


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