Meryl Streek's 796 is the angriest record of 2022.
Released on Venn Records (Bob Vylan, Witch Fever, Hi Vis), the independent label owned and managed by Gallows guitarist Laurent 'Lags' Barnard, the album is a searing, apoplectic state-of-the-Irish-nation-address calling out corrupt politicians, rapacious landlords, Catholic church child abuse atrocities, institutional whitewashing and the brutal daily indignities faced by marginalised communities in the wake of the death of the 'Celtic Tiger', offering an unflinching and fiercely articulate dissection of the human cost of spiralling problems with suicide, homelessness, mental health, organised crime and alcohol abuse in modern Ireland.
Mixing electronic beats, TV news samples, punk rock guitar and spoken word vocals, it's a raw, visceral and heart-wrenching debut, an often uncomfortable but utterly compelling listen, with vocals recorded "pretty much in one take" according to the 33-year-old Dubliner who's the face, voice, heart, soul and conscience of Meryl Streek.
Though the Irish music scene, both north and south of the border, is in fabulously rude health - listen to Fontaines D.C., Sinead O'Brien, The Murder Capital, Sprints, Thumper, Just Mustard, Touts, Kneecap, NewDad, Denise Chaila or Cherym for inarguable proof - no-one in the 32 Counties is currently making music as hard-hitting, urgent or incisive as Meryl Streek. Which is all the more remarkable when one considers that the musician, a drummer in garage/psych/indie acts since he was 15, has never fronted a band before.
"There's stuff happening in Ireland right now that needs to be addressed, and I just thought, Fuck it, I'm going to put my head in the guillotine and say what needs to be said," he explains. "The lyrics for the album were written two days before I recorded them and that recording session was the third time I've used a microphone in my life. It's about as real as it gets."
Meryl Streek credits his punk rock-loving father for introducing him to music that matters: 'You told me to listen to Rudimentary Peni when I was 10,' runs one lyric in Dad, the emotional closing track on 796, in which Darragh Broe is memorably introduced as having 'Three mohawks and pink Doc Martens up to your knee.' In the '80s, Broe drummed in Guernica, a Dublin-based indie rock quintet fronted by one Joe Rooney, now an actor and comedian best known for his performance as the rebellious, truculent, chain-smoking Father Damo in the cult comedy series Father Ted: Rooney stars, alongside Molly Vulpyne From Dublin punks Vulpynes, in Meryl Streek's video for Death To The Landlord, a scathing look at the housing crisis in Ireland and a damning indictment of the 'scum' in Dáil Éireann profiting from it.
'If it was up to me, I'd have your head on a fucking plate,' runs one lyric. 'And this song goes out to any two faced prick politician making money off a mother and two kids for a bedsit. Your day is gonna come!'
"The funny thing about ...Landlord," says Streek, "is that since that single came out [in September], I've had messages from the UK, France, Mexico... this isn't just a problem in Ireland, it's worldwide. I moved back to Ireland from Canada about a year ago, and I wrote those lyrics upstairs in my ma's house, based on what I saw when I came back. It's an important subject, and someone needs to be putting it under the spotlight, because people are being burned."
'You've lied so much your teeth have become rotten / yellow and stained from all the shite you've been talking' runs the opening lyric to ... Landlord, and references to liars, hypocrisy, duplicity, deceit and treachery run throughout 796.
The album is titled in grim reference to the 796 infants and children - ranging from new borns to pre-teens - believed to be buried in a septic tank adjacent to an orphanage/workhouse in Tuam, County Galway, run by the Bon Secours Sisters, a Catholic Roman nursing congregation whose motto is 'Good Help to Those in Need', from 1925 to 1961. Following up on the findings of The Mother and Baby Homes Commission of Investigation, the 2022 documentary series, The Missing Children, has uncovered evidence that many children born in the institution were forced into illegal adoptions against their mothers' wishes. Meryl Streek address these horrors on False Apologies and the album's harrowing title track, which states 'No apology, no redress, will ever undo / The state run abuse will never be exhumed.'
"It made me sick that the government and church not only allowed this to happen but have actively tried to erase it from history," Streek stated when False Apologies was released as a single in July. "The album is for anyone that has been affected by the Church’s actions and those that feel that the government not only mistreated them but took away their voice along with it."
"That was the first Meryl Streek song," he says today. "I was watching videos of men and women saying, "I know I had a brother/sister, but I can't find any documents to prove it.' The whole case is one of Ireland's darkest secrets, and then you had the government saying, 'We don't want to talk about this anymore.' False Apologies is my attempt to give the voiceless a voice. And it was a lucky coincidence that Lags is the one person in the world that hates the Catholic Church as much as me.
"When the single came out, I half expected to find the god squad outside my house, clutching rosary beads, waiting to kill me, but I've not had one bad comment from it, which shows that its resonating with people."
False Apologies was released by Venn as a double A-side single, backed with the more tender Yesterday, which Meryl Streek describes as "the only love song on the album." Listening to 796, however, whether the themes explored are alcohol abuse (Demon), gangland murder (No Justice) or suicide (the bluntly-titled Suicide), the album is shot through with the same sort of deeply-felt humanity and empathy you hear in records by Gallows, Sack, Rudimentary Peni and countless punk bands who've informed the musician's art and outlook. The latter track is particularly poignant, written from a place of pure love, and deeply personal to Meryl Streek, as his father took his own life in 2009, aged just 39.
"It's not just written about my dad, you just constantly keep hearing about suicides, and the fucking root of the problem is people not being able to survive in society," the singer says quietly. "It's a huge problem around the world, which again needs focus put on it. Again, someone needs to shout about this, and if no-one else will, that someone will be me."
"You know, it only dawned on me the other day that this album is going to be out there now and people are going to be listening to it and judging it and judging me," he adds. "But fuck it, I'm ready. These are thoughts that have been building up inside me for years. From the day I finished this album I knew it was special. But I reached out to so many people in Ireland - media and promoters and record labels - and no-one wanted to listen to what I was saying: in fact, they're still ignoring me now, because the record is so confrontational. So the song Matter Of Fact is my big 'Fuck You' to everyone in Ireland who had no interest in hearing me from me in my 20 years as a musician."
"And you know what?" the musician says with a smile. "Those people won't be able to avoid listening to me now. I'm not going to shut up, I won't be silenced and I'm not going to go away."
Buy Meryl Streek's 796 here.