The first thing that jumps out while listening to Stalin’s War is the disparate vocals—female lead Moana Strom’s rich, melodic tenor is offset with just as much authority from the screaming vocals of guitarist Matt Cleaver. The fact that Strom is one of few female leads in a traditionally masculine genre—despite her harmonious contributions, the band still considers itself “screamo”—is an obstacle the band has had to contend with since starting in 1998, particularly when it comes to people’s preconceived notions about hardcore.
“It really is a male-dominated industry, especially the closer you are to a hardcore or metal sound,” says Cleaver in a recent telephone interview. “Every [heavy riff] that you put in the song they expect you to be that much more ‘Tough Guy,’ and she didn’t back down. She’s there every step of the way.”
What often gets lost behind the Santa Cruz-based band’s vocal arrangement is their lyrical content, which covers the traditional political dogma of hardcore and punk, but slants more toward the practice of personal endurance. For instance, in “This World Has No Heartbeat,” a song written by Cleaver for their last release, A Split of Nightmares, the lyrics begin, “In this nightmare there are no survivors/Every heart beats in vain.” The imagery is an abstract commentary on society, but also, according to Cleaver, a literal story of bodily plight.
“It’s about the last red blood cell carrying oxygen throughout the body, rushing to get essentially nowhere,” he says, “and all around it, all it sees are dying cells until that last bit of oxygen runs out.”
Regardless of biological accuracy, the concept of cell survival lends itself to the name Stalin’s War, which Cleaver says is a way to symbolize triumph over adversity.
“My relatives emigrated from the Ukraine so they escaped Stalin,” he explains, “and, I mean, if you had to pick one figure that embodies adversity that would be a pretty good choice. Every day there are forces around us that appear to be keeping us from our goals.”
Stalin’s War plays an all-ages show with On the Last Day, Fall From Grace, The Sharktopus and Post Boredom Riot at The Raven Cafe Sunday, March 26, at 6:30 PM. $5.