Album Review: Soul Glo – Diaspora Problems

[Epitaph; 2022]

Diaspora Problems begins with the sound of a bong rip – but a very gentle one. Soul Glo need to save their breath for the rest of the breakneck ride that’s coming up, in which they outrun or confront everyone coming for their necks, whether it’s themselves, their therapists, racist cops, the music industry or society at large. The quartet’s urgency is unmistakable from the first caterwauled cries of “can I live?” and “who gon’ beat my ass?” in opener “Gold Chain Punk”, and it doesn’t let up for the rest of the album. This is Real Ass Life for a group of anxious yet outspoken (mostly) Black men in modern day Philadelphia, and it’s unfiltered.

The first guitar strums heard on the album make it instantly apparent that this is cleaner and clearer than anything the band has previously committed to tape. It’s the benefit of having a bigger recording budget afforded by signing to Epitaph, of being able to draft in superstar producer Will Yip to polish up the exemplary production by bassist Gianmarco “GG” Guerra. Not that Diaspora Problems is a sanded-down version of their snarling post-genre clusterfuck; the grit, sweat and blood is all still there, we can just see it in high-def now – and it’s gloriously gruesome. 

The other advantage of having a bigger budget behind Soul Glo is that now they can afford to print Pierce Jordan’s lyrics in full – and you’re going to need them. That’s not just because the famously rubber-lipped vocalist is hard to comprehend through large sections, but just because it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the sheer volume of words he injects into Soul Glo’s barrage of brutality. The key thing is that you’ll want to spend your time diving into the words; even in the moments when Jordan is rapid firing bullets of phlegm so clipped that they barely sound like words, you get the feeling that everything he says is worth a closer inspection – and you’d be right.

Combine all these upgrades together, plus the fact that Soul Glo have been working on this set of songs for five years – even while they’ve been releasing multiple other EPs and singles – and the result is a band that has not just levelled up but is like Mario on five mushrooms: too big to fit whatever frame you try to squeeze them into. Sure, it’s easy to still pigeonhole Soul Glo as a hardcore band, and the scythe-like guitars and rampant rhythm section prominent on most songs would back that up, but there are embellishments throughout Diaspora Problems that take it beyond that unnecessary restriction.

The majority of songs here stretch to between three and four minutes – lengths at which regular hardcore songs would have long run out of steam. With Jordan in this form, you need at least three minutes to even fit in everything he needs to say, and the rest of the quartet is more than amply armed to back him all the way, switching gears on a dime and diving through thickets of riffs fearlessly – pivots that are more audibly hair-raising than ever here.

These mode-shifts help to maintain momentum, ensuring that Soul Glo’s unrelenting fury doesn’t become exhausting; many of the songs unfold in distinct segments, even within the relatively short runtimes. Sometimes Soul Glo are just shifting through different gears of their established sound, as on the unforgiving “Fucked Up If True” where they segue from grinding to to ghoulish while Jordan ruminates on the rotten state of the Capitol. There’s also “Jump!! (Or Get Jumped!!!)((by the future))”, where Jordan descends into a spiral when considering the way that Black artists have been perpetually left to die while their art is utilised for maximum commercial gain, wondering if he’s going the same way.

In all instances, the band augment the vocalist’s mania with frenzied playing that zooms in tight like a choker before swirling out to become a sonic tar pit into which he’s being dragged, literally kicking and screaming. In combination, Jordan, Ruben Polo, GG and TJ Stephenson move with a chaotic fluidity that pins you to your chair (but will provide ample fuel for mosh pits in the near future). 

Even more thrilling are the songs where they shapeshift between different stylistic approaches. After a blissful electronic opening, “(Five Years And) My Family” bounces forward on romping stomping drums and jaunty guitar that could be a popular indie song. That is, except for the fact that it features Pierce unloading his history of abuse and serious mental illness in a maniacally shrieked torrent – a force so great that it pulls the whole song into a vicious whirlpool of sound by its dive-bombing end. “John J” is perhaps the best example of Soul Glo’s segmented approach, as it bounces wildly back and forth a couple of times between breakneck hardcore and demented hip-hop verses from Kathryn Edwards and Zula Wildheart, before winding up in a cacophony of shrieks and airborne guitars that approaches the magisterial sound of black metal. It’s a fucking wild ride. 

There are some breathers interspersed in Diaspora Problems – although that is very much a relative term. “Thumbsucker” toils in hardcore sounds but then elevates into a scrappy bar-room rock jaunt replete with a brass trio, making Jordan’s unforgiving self-examination sound downright heroic. Soul Glo tip more or less entirely into hip-hop with “Driponomics”, which employs a seismic bass bump and creeping atmospherics while Jordan yelp-raps before Mother Maryrose hops in for an ice cold verse. It’s a shift in style that feels so natural that it’s evident that GG should be offering his production services to the likes of Danny Brown.

Following an unforgiving second half, Diaspora Problems once again allows you to catch your breath with the closing “Spiritual Level of Gang Shit”. The song lapses into a stylishly rough-edged hip-hop song, where guest rappers Lojii and then McKinley Dixon both shine as they dial straight into the vibe and unload about rampant racism among the police. Once they’re out the way, Soul Glo clear the runway for landing, revving up the guitars and bringing back the brass for a fiery fanfare behind Jordan’s chant-along send off.

Perhaps the biggest advantage of all of Soul Glo signing to Epitaph is the whole new level of exposure they’ll get – and the incalculable good that will do for representation in a genre that is often assumed to be for young white punks only. The fact that Diaspora Problems is an essential and enlivening record from start to finish will only amplify the fact of Soul Glo’s importance in the modern music landscape.