When Charles Darwin sat down to write On the Origin of Species I’m going to hedge my bets and say that he didn’t anticipate the figure described in ‘Modern Man’, the first track from Death By Unga Bunga’s raucous new album, Heavy Male Insecurity, out today (12 February) via Jansen Records.
As frontman and guitarist Sebastian Ulstad Olsen details, there are so many things that define the ‘Modern Man’. He’s a great listener, he will stand up to prejudice. He enjoys baking—after all, he’s been nursing a sourdough starter since lockdown 1.0. This tongue-in-cheek portrait of contemporary masculinity is a synthesis of pretty much every dating app bio I’ve ever read, set to a scuzzy rock soundtrack. Feminism has made great strides since Darwin was writing in the 19th century, clearly, but this record shows there’s still a lot more that can be done in the quest for genuine equality of the sexes.
Norwegian rockers Death By Unga Bunga showcase the problematic stereotypes and conditions that allow toxic masculinity to thrive. ‘Egocentric’ is a power pop track that opens with the sound of a can being cracked open before the listener is doused in hipster ale. Released back in December, this is a “dude, hold my beer” anthem for the selfish incel trapped in his parents’ basement angry at the hand the world has dealt him. The band says: “The egocentric mind has no empathy for others and their opinions. Something you’d expect from a child, but it’s often still the case for an insecure grown man. It’s OK to be selfish sometimes, but it doesn’t mean you have to be a complete dick all the time”.”
The dissonance that comes from placing Howler-esque ‘My Buddy’ next to ‘Egocentric’ serves to highlight the lack of recourse modern man has for sincere self-expression. This is a genuine and even somewhat cheesy ode to male friendship with chugging riffs and a saccharine chorus: “Everybody likes you / and you’re my favourite pal / I locked up my heart but I gave you a key / my buddy and me”. So infrequently do I hear platonic celebrations of male camaraderie that I had to consciously try not to read homoerotic subtext into this song.
Next up is radio-friendly rock offering ‘Not Like The Others’ that will please Thin Lizzy fans, and speaks to the contradiction at the heart of the social group: we all want to fit in, but we all want to be unique, too. The ‘outsider’ trope is one Death By Unga Bunga have been rehearsing since 2007 when they started releasing music; the band played garage rock back when all the other anaemic kids were playing so-called indie, and they transitioned to arena rock when garage and psych became all the rage.
Certainly rockier than 2018’s effort So Far so Good so Cool, Heavy Male Insecurity has been snorting creatine powder and doing pushups, even if the band themselves condemn macho performance culture in ‘All Pain No Gain’. The track takes the endurance refrain of ‘no pain no gain’ that we’ve all seen emblazoned across fitness icons’ Instagram feeds and asks what it’s all for.
It’s hard not to think of social media again at the album’s midpoint when we get ‘Like Your Style’, a hotbed of heavy male insecurity where a reply guy offers to change his style for the girl he admires: “Do you like my style? I’ll try and change it up for you”. There’s a thrumming insistence to the melody, a relentlessness that lends itself well to the doting but overbearing presence of men who won’t stop leaving heart-eye emojis on selfies of women they really don’t know that well. Social media breeds overfamiliarity—but do any of us really say what we’re really thinking or feeling? Absolutely not.
With riffs that could have been peeled right off one of The Strokes’ LPs, ‘Live Until I Die’ is a frenetic carpe diem ode “about living your life to the fullest/max and not caring too much about making a complete fool of yourself in the process. A pandemic rock anthem about not forgetting that no matter what, you’ll have to live until you die”. It’s a fitting reminder that there’s definitely more to life than what your Instagram grid looks like.
The siren in the intro to ‘Trouble’ is a warning sign—an auditory red flag if ever there was one—as the band describes a relationship that you know is bad for you, but you keep going there anyway, out of boredom if nothing else: “You’re breaking me down / just for the fun / I don’t really mind / so carry on”. In 2021 I think we can collectively agree that we can do better than guys and gals who send “u up?” texts at 3am. Next time you hear those sirens, run, run away.
The intro to ‘Faster Than Light’ borrows from the Bowie ‘Heroes’ playbook; the bravado and hyperbolic exaggeration from the early days of an online flirtationship give way to a lack of commitment to concrete plans: “Don’t wait up for me / ‘cause baby I’m useless”. After all, there are better options out there and our ‘Modern Man’ might be so busy telling another woman what he thinks about third-wave feminism that he forgets to text you back.
Thematically, the Norway rockers’ album is focused on the differences between interiors and exteriors: we each have a self we present to others, and often this ‘persona’ is at odds with who we really are on the inside. We tell each other ‘White Lies’ every day—whether that’s on dating apps, social media, or on stage. The album’s closer is about one of these contrasts between internal feeling and external projection: “Being a traveling band you often find yourself telling a polite lie or two about how much we enjoyed your shitty venue, and how we’d love to come back ASAP. [‘White Lies’ is] about that and that one time someone tried to stab us in Bristol, England.”
You heard it here first, folks—even if there wasn’t a global pandemic, Death By Unga Bunga may or may not be coming to a venue near you soon.
Heavy Male Insecurity is out via Jansen Records today (12 February 2021).
Words by Beth Kirkbride