Note: NPR's First Listen audio comes down after the album is released. However, you can still listen with the Spotify playlist at the bottom of the page.
Anyone who's seen the recent Descendents documentary Filmage knows how tumultuous and poignant the band's 39-year, on-and-off existence has been. After forming in 1977, the Southern California group helped craft the template for what would become known as American pop-punk — a warp-speed amalgam of adolescent angst, snotty attitude and championship melody. It also began, in just a slightly tongue-in-cheek way, to advocate excessive caffeine consumption as a method of playing faster and living better.
No one's accusing Descendents of maturity, even as the band gears up for the release of its seventh studio album (and first in 12 years), Hypercaffium Spazzinate. As its title screams, the record does not tackle the tranquilizing benefits of meditation. Instead, singer Milo Aukerman — along with guitarist Stephen Egerton, bassist Karl Alvarez and drummer Bill Stevenson — quadruple down on everything that makes Descendents eternally youthful. In "Feel This," haywire riffs and careening beats get hurled against the wall; in "No Fat Burger," the group's obsession with fast food (which dates all the way back to 1981's "Weinerschnitzel") rises up again. Undimmed by the decades, Aukerman and his crew thrash, crash and blaze gloriously.
For all of Descendents' nerds-with-chips-on-their-shoulders antics, the band has always pinned a certain amount of reflection and sensitivity to its sleeve, and Hypercaffium is no different. While filled with fire and fury, "Feel This" comes from a poignant place; the words were written by Alvarez after the death of his mother and address grief as a thing that ought to be confronted rather than suppressed. "Fighting Myself" and "Victim Of Me" put introspective spins on emotional baggage and the pitfalls of self-sabotage. In "Comeback Kid," Egerton's chunky guitar and Alvarez's effervescent bass mesh to form powerhouse hooks that are as bittersweet as they are pummeling.
Descendents' members have long been advocates of classic, sophisticated songwriting buried under blankets of distortion and snottiness, and Hypercaffium Spazzinate does not disappoint in that regard. The album's rawness befits Descendents' grizzled status — it's one of the band's least polished albums, in the best way — yet it feels equally spry, scathing and vein-bulgingly desperate. Being rock pioneers and elder statesmen never sounded so frenetic.
Even more gut-punching is "Smile." As documented in Filmage, Stevenson — who's also served as a member of Black Flag, The Lemonheads and Descendents' Aukerman-less sister band ALL — experienced life-threatening health issues a few years ago, and "Smile" is Aukerman's rallying cry to his stalwart bandmate. "Turn away, and at the end of the day / You can look back on a game well-played," goes the song's shout-along refrain, delivered with fist-pumping, heartwarming euphoria. Not that Stevenson and the rest of Descendents, on the joyous strength of Hypercaffium Spazzinate, seem to be turning away anytime soon.