Familiar Strangers: Institute’s Salt EP is Anti-Nostalgic Art

by Nick Hanover


Austin’s music scene is pretty heavy on nostalgia when you get down to it. We’ve got burgeoning superstar hobo folkies, enough psych to exhaust all of San Francisco circa ’67 and so many Stevie Ray Vaughan throwbacks I can’t even. Austin also has an exceptionally vibrant punk scene so the surprise here is that the punk Austin churns out tends to be pretty futurist– whether it’s the electro-tinged punk of BLXPLTN or Feral Future’s metallic rage or the frequently punk-leaning ATX Chip scene– despite the genre itself being pretty damn nostalgic on the whole. Institute’s Salt EP (physically released in October) is a bit of an outlier on both fronts, nostalgic for an era that really isn’t en vogue, clad in the muddy production and shadowy tones of late ’80s SST acts with hints of Touch ‘n’ Go’s early catalog. Salt is a work that stands squarely out of time and out of place, alienated by sonic fashions and the disappearance of the regional scenes it takes inspiration from, but that alienation is also what drives it, making it a release that wants you to feel alienated along with it.

The EP’s titles even state as much, ranging from “Nausea” to interactions with a “Familiar Stranger” before closing with “An Absence.” The lyrics of the songs are basically impossible to make out since they’re delivered in a blunt but murky fashion, not so much declarations of language as ominous vocalized anger, further alienating listeners. When words do filter through, they skew hostile, like the anti-chorus of “It don’t mean shit!” in “Salt” or the opening “You were ashamed/Of what you knew” refrain in “Immorality.” Classic-era hardcore bands always made sure you knew where their rage was targeted– Reagan, adults, bros– but Institute deals in the kind of rage that builds inside you without explanation and pushes you away from people. These are songs as primal scream therapy, the specifics mattering less than the overwhelming feeling.

That isn’t to say that Salt is an experience that’s too difficult to enjoy. The purity of the expression is itself addictive, but the band’s sonics are what really pushes Salt into the great sphere– from the pulse-quickening tom-focused drumming to the juxtaposition between the brittle, angular guitars and the moody but melodic bass, Institute arrangements and instrumentation are on point. The surf-y drum fakeout at the start of “Salt” even indicates Institute could be a more straightforward punk band if they wanted to be, but that song is a standout on the EP because of how well the band sustains a sinister mood within, the glassy texture of the guitar’s lead line sounding alarms for what’s to come, building to yet another fake out as the guitar follows the bass more closely and then those psychotic vocals emerge. The guitars on “Familiar Stranger” take on more of a psych quality, like a Byrds cover band comprised of lunatics, the rhythm section contradicting that element with a driving punk rhythm to create an air of confusion, never letting your ears get their bearings. True to Austin form, there’s even a Sun Records train rhythm on “Immorality,” and there the hook comes from a filthy anti-boogie music riff before everything crashes, cymbals and distorted vocals pushing the analog mix to its red line limits.

Where Salt shifts the most dramatically is at its end, with the fittingly named “An Absence.” Driven by swellings of noise and a jerky rhythm, “An Absence” is also notably clearer vocally than the rest of the EP. Not that that means everything is discernible, but the vocals are spoken rather than shouted, and rather than viciously unhinged they’re situated somewhere between the mumbly heroin junkie tones of Sid Vicious and the casual disdain of David Yow. For the bulk of Salt, the guitar’s glassy angularity is a constant presence, driving the songs along, but in “An Absence” it’s hollow and clanging, coming in rising rumbles of chimey sustain. When the guitar does change gears, it’s to provide an insistent, nagging riff that antagonizes the vocals, pushing that delivery over the brink into frothing regret. Is the absence control? Lose love? Humanity? It doesn’t really matter, does it?

Maybe it’s not so much that Institute are nostalgic for a sound as it is they’re tortured by past events, incapable of moving on, only able to wallow and wail and pick at the wounds. The alienation they’re decked out in is an absence of connection, an inability or unwillingness to connect with the Now, and it’s hard to disagree when the Now is so shitty anyway. But what Salt reveals is that Institute are aware that the past was just as shitty, that there’s no refuge in any time and you can only embrace the hurt and rage and frustration and twist into something hideously artful.

Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he’s the last of the secret agents and he’s your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Ovrld as well as Loser City, where he mostly writes about comics. You can also flip through his archives at  Comics Bulletin, which he is formerly the Co-Managing Editor of, and Spectrum Culture, where he contributed literally hundreds of pieces for a few years. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd .gif battles with his friends and enemies on twitter: @Nick_Hanover