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The first shall be last

Southern California punk stalwarts Strung Out flip the recording process and come out on top

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Strung Out's Jordan Burns is usually in the dark when it comes to how his punk/metal outfit's albums will come out sounding. As the band's drummer, he's used to his parts being recorded early in the process, while the vocal melodies, instrumental arrangements and overall mix are still in flux.

But things worked out differently when it came to recording Agents of the Underground, Strung Out's seventh album over the course of 20 years. For the first time, Burns knew exactly how everything would sound before he got down to business.

"I never know if a record is good," says Burns of the band's usual approach, "because I don't usually hear the vocals until the album is done. But this time I had to record my part of the album at the end, so I got to listen to the entire thing before I really started recording."

The change in routine wasn't the result of artistic experimentation or at the insistence of a new producer. Instead, it was brought about by a particularly exuberant live performance.

"I broke my thumb playing," Burns says, wincing. "I hit the snare really hard and it cracked my thumb."

The accident threatened to sidetrack a band whose relentless sonic assault can be eerily reminiscent of Bad Religion — minus the Ivy League sneer. Rather than lose momentum, the rest of the group decided to record the album with a studio drummer and let Burns record his parts after his injury had healed. For Burns, whose machine gun-drumming perfectly meshes with Strung Out's two-guitar attack, watching his band mates play with another musician was a disconcerting experience.

"The band wanted me down at the studio when they were recording, but it was a weird feeling. I almost felt territorial watching someone else play drums with the band; it was like watching someone else with your girlfriend — unless of course you're into that," says Burns. "There were times I was really pissed off, when I thought things were supposed to be a scratch track, but the band was really working these tracks like they were the finished product. So there were mixed emotions for me, but in the end I am really happy with my playing and the album."

Burns had basically reached a boiling point by the time he was ready to record, but that pent-up frustration — combined with the opportunity to view the rest of the music in perspective — further strengthened what may be Strung Out's best album.

"When it was my turn," says Burns, "I thought, 'This is good, and I'm going to fucking rock it.' Everything I did just accented the songs, and it worked out well."

Agents of the Underground is a bruising album full of shout-along choruses and air guitar-ready hooks. But it also has a focused songwriting approach most younger bands couldn't hope for. While the group makes it all seem effortless, Burns sees it as the result of hard work and perseverance.

"You don't want to lay any direct pressure on yourself to do good work," says Burns, "but when you do it, it's a nice feeling."

scene@csindy.com

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