Thursday, 23 June 2011

Fugazi - In On The Kill Taker

While Steady Diet Of Nothing was more dextrous and intricate than the largely anthemic 1990 release Repeater, or the Fugazi, Margin Walker and 3 Songs extended players that came out between 1988 and 1990, the 1991 album didn’t fully take the shackles off, held back further by the flat self-production. Thus, as Repeater remains regarded as an essential punk rock album, the more ambitious Fugazi was borne out in the years following, as more songs were crafted for their next album.

In On The Kill Taker caused an initial furore before consumers even cracked open the disc. The band were big enough for larger stores to sell their records, but, barcodes being a requirement, most record labels integrate one into the back cover. Helped by the fact that guitarist Ian MacKaye happened to be co-founder and co-owner of Dischord records, band and label had the same viewpoint that the band’s art package was not to be disturbed, and managed to wrest a compromise. An external sticker with a barcode on was to be used so that SoundScan could do its thing. With the long list of ethical stances and confrontations Fugazi accumulated in their time, this one was largely lost in the din of the record itself, although it’s nice for me to have an album with no barcode sitting on my shelf. Having said that, all the barcode would have covered is some incoherent rambling. The artwork is pale pastel blues and yellows, with old style typewriter font and messy scribbling in amongst lined paper and the Washington Monument, with some black in the inlay and a rambling letter, a plain blue disc, and a bit between the CD and the back cover that resembles one of those newfangled post-it notes with lines on them. I’m sure they didn’t exist in 1993, and it’s just some yellow lined paper worked into the booklet, but I like the way that it looks as if the band stuck a personalised post-it note under the CD, even if it does just repeat “I will not lie” a dozen or so times.

Anyway, about the music that had to cut through this. A bleeping guitar fades in, and then another high-pitched guitar joins in, followed by the rhythm section. Bassist Joe Lally and drummer Brendan Canty manage to sound ominous and yet funky, which they do so often and so well. All give way to a snarling guitar, and then, on the minute mark all come in, joined by a noticeably venomous MacKaye bellowing out social critiques. The only weak point in the quite brutal onslaught of “Facet Squared” is the pace, which sounds quite pedestrian once the song gets going despite the guitar thrashing, which is exaggerated primarily by some uncharacteristically dull drumming. The same can’t be said of “Public Witness Program”, introduced by a rapidfire snare. While “Facet Squared” was like being slowly clubbed to death, Guy Picciotto’s first contribution is nimble and incisive. Piercing vocals puncture a song delivered at a blistering pace that leaves everything from the previous record in its wake. A simple but vicious guitar solo is punctuated with… hand claps? “On a Fugazi record? It’ll never work”, you might say. Yet, despite being one of the last sorts of cheery things you’d expect on any Fugazi record, let alone this cutting track, it actually works quite well.

Suddenly everything goes very quiet. Some very subdued guitars intertwine. MacKaye is whispering, and the music sounds very threatening, and it occasionally erupts briefly. A loud snare, a shouted word, or a few rising notes from rising guitars, but it always pulls back. We’re brought back to the less disturbing guitars intertwining. Two minutes in, “Returning The Screw” appears to come to a quiet stop, but then the guitars come in again, gently building up, until the band suddenly explodes into life. MacKaye is again full of bile, sounding more like himself from his Minor Threat days. The song abruptly ends, and some more subdued guitar noodling builds itself in. This isn’t “Returning The Screw” anymore though, and “Smallpox Champion” starts charging at full tilt soon enough. Picciotto delivers what is perhaps his most directly political Fugazi song, a trait usually aligned with MacKaye’s writing, and cuts into the treatment of native American tribes with gusto, preferring to associate the actions with the America he lives in rather than, as the nationalist way of thinking would rather have it, foreign colonists that don’t represent the star-spangled banner. The music cuts out briefly, save for some downplayed drum clicking, but starts roaring forth again after a couple of seconds. The final minute sees some slightly more palatable guitar, some much funkier bass, and some catchy chanting, although the aggression isn’t shelved.

After another sharp stop, “Rend It” begins straight away with clattering instruments. Picciotto gets a second track in a row, in the first part of a three track segue, but the songs continue to be unpredictable. “Rend It” perhaps represents In On The Kill Taker as well as anything on the album. Complete instrumental silence follows the end of the descending instruments, cut only by Picciotto’s searing vocals. The guitars wince in the background after a verse, and then everything winds up for the chorus of jagged riffs and harsh vocal harmonies. Some MacKaye screams followed by Picciotto wails see out the song. Before the track can fully fade out, some clean sliding guitars are followed by quietly spoken vocals for MacKaye’s “23 Beats Off”. Some distortion gets added in and MacKaye clears out his lungs to build up the track, but the other aspects are kept in check. A more menacing guitar with some bending strings comes in, and the second windup is more penetrating. The song gives way to feedback and a solitary drum. However, there’s nearly four minutes left on the track. It’s all feedback solos, and not particularly crafty or tuneful ones at that. What was a great track has more or less been ruined, and it’s no surprise that this was truncated to about a minute on the rare occasion that it was played live. The feedback dies away almost enough, but another segue is made into “Sweet And Low”. Although he’d provided backing vocals in the earliest days of the band before Picciotto joined, Lally’s vocal debut for the band wouldn’t come until 1995, with “By You” featuring on Red Medicine. “Sweet And Low” almost was, but Lally couldn’t find the right words for his composition. It’s got a nice bass sequence to it, but overall it’s a bit boring, and very placid.

Canty introduces Picciotto’s “Cassavetes”, which brings back scratching guitars. Apart from the drumming, the track isn’t particularly special, but brings us back into more familiar territory, and sees Picciotto reminding us that he hasn’t forgotten how to roll his an R like he like on “Dear Justice Letter” on the previous album. “Great Cop” sounds almost like a hybrid between the opening two tracks, with MacKaye’s anthemic vocals and the directness of “Facet Squared”, but with a little more urgency, and less screwing around. “Walken’s Syndrome” gives us another dose of raw feedback, but less than thirty seconds in, the song announces itself. Picciotto continues his cinematic theme, referring to the car crash described by Christopher Walken’s character in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall (if memory serves me correctly, Jawbreaker added soundbites from the very same soliloquy to the beginning and end of “Jet Black”, released a little later on 1995’s controversial Dear You). Following from the previous track, “Walken’s Syndrome” is unflinchingly relentless and acerbic, and ten songs in, the first-time listener is completely drained.

After an exhausting effort, Fugazi finishes with a couple of heartfelt radio-friendly love ballads, with the one exception in that they don’t actually do that. The violent nature is gradually reined in, but MacKaye and Picciotto each sign off in style. The former provides “Instrument”, full of gloom, extended, strangled vocals, a belittled groove, and a supreme final minute as quickfire guitar noise gives way to powerful riffs and strong vocals. Picciotto has the final say, and his amazing vocal performance on the album (I don't like his voice, but it's been on top form throughout) finally seems to be tiring, dying amongst the classy string picking of “Last Chance For A Slow Dance”. But it’s not to be. Despite the slow tempo, the instrument power comes in during the chorus, only to be beaten by the vocals. A lonely guitar piece closes out the album with a hush.

The sheer catharsis of this record is unrivalled. Many good records manage to balance flow and juxtaposition well to give you a sense of dynamics, but never as Fugazi did it here, so absolutely. Even the weakest section between the wall of feedback at the end of “23 Beats Off” and the calmness of “Sweet And Low” only serves to highlight the extremities that this album achieves, and these overindulgences seem not just forgivable, but almost necessary ingredients to achieve the phenomenal listening experience of it.

It may come as no surprise that there was trouble making this record. The band attempted to do some recording with Steve Albini, but remarkably couldn’t achieve a sound they were happy with, so they went back home to record in the Inner Ear, and it’s hard to conceive that this was a mistake, despite Albini’s reputation. It may not be my absolute favourite album, as I don’t see anything wrong with going for ones that work for me. However, of all the albums that I would ever have considered in my top ten, or even top twenty records, In On The Kill Taker is perhaps the most poignant definition of a boundary-pushing unit at its creative peak. While Steady Diet Of Nothing was at times carried through weaker moments by the rhythm section, the entire band is on the money for almost this entire album.

Personal picks: Public Witness Program, 23 Beats Off (first half), Smallpox Champion
Picks for others: Smallpox Champion, Last Chance For A Slow Dance, Instrument
Relative weaknesses: Sweet And Low, 23 Beats Off (second half)

01 – Facet Squared
02 – Public Witness Program
03 – Returning The Screw
04 – Smallpox Champion
05 – Rend It
06 – 23 Beats Off
07 – Sweet And Low
08 – Cassavetes
09 – Great Cop
10 – Walken’s Syndrome
11 – Instrument
12 – Last Chance For A Slow Dance

Thursday, 16 June 2011

Hüsker Dü - New Day Rising

You’ve just produced a pretentious double album, where do you go? If you’re The Beatles, keep producing crap, because you’re The Beatles and you suck. If you’re Bob Dylan, keep singing like a drugged cat on a chalkboard, because that’s your thing that you do. But if you’re Hüsker Dü, you rein it in a little and produce some happier songs. Zen Arcade was a dual petroleum slab combining their earlier brand of ineffective thrashy hardcore with psychedelic instrumental posturing, giving us a few good songs, a number of okay songs, and plenty of cheap filler. Nevertheless, it was praised for its invention, although it didn’t make the top 500 album list from Rolling Stone, which drools over The Beatles, Bob Dylan, token credibility-grabbing nods to the spheres of other genres and other types of rock, and double albums (evidenced by Minutemen’s Double Nickels On The Dime making the back end of the list, four double albums in the top ten, and of the top ten, twelve of them are Beatles and Dylan records). The presence of The Clash’s Sandinista! seven places above the Minutemen double LP can only be attributed to the fact that the people who compiled the list were aroused by it being a triple album, because it was a triple stinker in terms of quality.

However, being regarded as influential on rock as they apparently have been, those boneheads had to fit Hüsker Dü in somewhere. Scraping in at 495 on the list, compiled in 2003, at the opposite end of the list where the captains of the industry were voting on the records they wanted to keep selling, was the follow-up single disc New Day Rising. The fuzz remains, but the ambitious sprawling influences on Zen Arcade have been replaced by straight rock, and hardcore was instead blended with a strong dose of melody and familiarity.

Having said that, this is no flawless frisbee. For what is essentially a much more concise record, we’re given something of a soundpiece to start with. Pounding drums, an upbeat guitar and a positive mantra (literally the album title, over and over) give us the signal that the band’s in a different mood. However, it just keeps on going. The mantra becomes gradually sort of howled and screamed by the band members, which is probably supposed to be symbolic of how they’re still hard, or giving us false hope, or painting an aural picture reminiscent of Edvard Munch’s “The Scream”, or something else we don’t care about. Anyway, it gets boring after a while. “New Day Rising” is followed by Grant Hart’s “The Girl Who Lives On Heaven Hill”, which has a long title because the chorus is a longer line than Hart usually challenges himself to repeat during most choruses. For a track with a reasonably aggressive guitar, it’s quite a fun track, except for the vocals. Whether you like his voice or not, having it so low in the mix really messes with your ability to listen to the song.

A poor start. Have the media moguls screwed up again, even on their attempts to claim some integrity? Bob Mould strikes back with what would become a trademark. “I Apologize” has the fuzzy guitar and occasional strangled scream of the Hüsker Dü of old, but more pop melody than their entire double album from the previous year. And there’s plenty more to come. “Folklore” lasts all of ninety-six seconds, Mould’s vocals are rushed, the guitars are rushed, Hart is screaming in the background, and it’s not as sugary as the previous track, but it still smacks of a band getting a more palatable sound, although they were still some way from 1987’s Warehouse: Songs And Stories. So they’ve even picked a transitional record as their favourite Dü record?

“If I Told You” sees a rare writing collaboration between Mould and Hart, with the latter providing lead vocals. This is more or less unheard of, given the infamous friction between the two. Hart clearly wrote the chorus, and some of the vocals are garbled, but it’s still got plenty of friendliness to it. The album’s promotional track appears even more so, but “Celebrated Summer” is a bittersweet summer anthem. Greg Norton’s buoyant basslines and cymbal-heavy percussion courtesy of Hart that are pretty consistent throughout the album are here as strongly as anywhere. Mould’s ambivalent ode to summer contains plenty of half-shouted vocals and aggressively played guitar, albeit with brighter chords, but once in the middle and at the end, everything’s stripped away bar a picked guitar and a couple of whispered lines. The band gradually builds back in along with the tempo after the first respite, and we get a good chunk of extra song before the second one closes the song out gently.

After closing out an accessible song so quietly, you’d expect to be kicked in the nuts with a more aggressive stomper of a track. Judging from instrumental rehearsals, that’s exactly what they were planning to do. Instead, we’re served up with “Perfect Example”, which sounds like the outro to “Celebrated Summer” being recycled, given a gentle band backing and a touch of distortion. Mould rambles and is barely audible, and while it’s not horrible, it’s a shame to end the first half of the album with it, especially knowing that a different track was going to appear in that spot.

The second half kicks off in a jaunty mood, despite the track being called “Terms Of Psychic Warfare”. Hart sounds like he’s gloating, there are some high-pitched backing wails, and the guitar and bass riffs are cheery to the point of being quite irritating. On the plus side, not only is the title not the chorus (can you imagine having that line repeated at you and not hating it?), Hart manages not to utter it in full a single time. Outrageous! Mould gets back at the helm and gives us a song with bipolar disorder. Nervous, scattered drums, anxious guitars, and incoherent mumbling make up the verses. The music winds up into faster tempos with a howled choral refrain that recalls Zen Arcade and the Metal Circus extended player, leaving us a song that may not be a highlight, but has a very interesting character.

Following in the footsteps of “59 Times The Pain” is “Powerline”, a shorter and more level-headed song that has a more hypnotic quality to it, with its metronomic snare and relatively smooth guitar, and Mould’s vocal delivery subdued slightly in volume, but not to the damaging extent of “The Girl Who Lives On Heaven Hill” or “Perfect Example”. The frenetic, rising guitar solo at the end is almost in danger of being too low in the mix as well, which sees Norton’s swirling bass surprisingly high up, but it holds its own, and a relatively straight song garnished with plenty of small unusual nuances becomes something much more interesting. Some old-time feel-good piano prances above the mix in Hart’s final offering, “Books About UFOs”. He espouses his infatuation with a girl who’s obsessed with astronomy. Sweet occasional backing vocals, a charming guitar solo dated not too dissimilarly to the piano tinkling, and a sort of spoken verse section make “Books About UFOs” stick out like a sore thumb, and while it may not be representative, it is quite infectious.

From here, the album sounds like it’s gradually regressing into Zen Arcade mode. “I Don’t Know What You’re Talking About” hybridises melodic choruses with an aggressive chorus, and isn’t especially memorable. “How To Skin A Cat”, on the other hand, is memorable, if perhaps for the wrong reasons. Mould’s amusing but slightly disturbing business proposition for skinning cats for free is backed by an incomprehensible din. For an album that has pushed songs with structure consistently since the opening salvos, you can’t help but feel that there’s no place on it for this steaming pile of sonic gloom. “Whatcha Drinkin’” sounds quite generic, although a nice tempo change gives it a little bit of flavour. It’s passable as a back-end-of-an-album track, but needs better support than “How To Skin A Cat”. “Plans I Make” is the closer, and it’s a fast rager that almost recalls Zen Arcade in its most aggressive moments, brighter chords being all that separates it from “Indecision Time” or “Pride”. It descends into another din, with some anguished screams from Mould. Nevertheless, it too is easier to forgive than “How To Skin A Cat”, having some sort of song structure in the first half, and its descent into chaos doesn’t disrupt the flow of the album, bookending it as it does with the other acceptable mess of a track, “New Day Rising”, which was inexplicably included in Rolling Stone’s top 100 guitar tracks list, once again scraping the bottom, indicative of credibility-searching.

So what of the two tracks that didn’t make the cut? “Listen” and “Erase Today” are fine, powerful Mould rockers that fall under the two minute mark. “Listen” is bright and punchy, but was substituted for “Perfect Example” for reasons which can presumably only be explained by artistic licence. “Erase Today” is a little more reserved, and was cut in favour of “Powerline”, which makes sense at first glance, and would be easier to swallow if “How To Skin A Cat” had also been cut out.

Despite all of its shortcomings, the one thing Rolling Stone did right in this scenario is pick New Day Rising as the Hüsker Dü representative. It contains enough of the ear-shredding distortion and aggression of their old days, and the melodic songcraft of their final years. It even has a cover that violently assaults retinas less than most of the band’s catalogue. However, in part because of these reasons, it’s hard to visualise many people actually picking it as their favourite album, but a second favourite is more feasible. If you like their smarter compositions, there’s Warehouse, if you like their more experimental hardcore, there’s Zen Arcade (how many times have I referred to it here?), and if you want music to throw chairs to, there’s Zen Arcade again, or better yet, Metal Circus. As is the way with Hüsker Dü review, a “should have been” tracklist is provided. I’ve even put my neck on the line and explained the logic (or lack thereof). “If I Told You” is swapped in position with “The Girl Who Lives On Heaven Hill” to make the album more accessible before waiting for the third song, “I Apologize” moves below “Folklore” to ensure that “…Heaven Hill” is surrounded by clear catchy songs. “Listen” takes its rightful place closing out the A-side, and the B-side begins with “59 Times The Pain”. “Books About UFOs” is brought up the list a bit, “Erase Today” comes in, and “Terms Of Psychic Warfare” is dropped further down to prevent the album sound like it’s tailing off into the past.

New Day Rising is nevertheless a good hardcore experience in its current form, and I’d recommend it to anyone who listens to punk or altenative rock (are they the same thing now?). There’s no point recommending it to hardcore fans because they will already have heard it. Don’t do it because it’s in a Rolling Stone list, because taking that list seriously means that you like The Beatles. Having said that, don’t check it out on my say-so either, there’s no such thing as too much research, unless your sources are trying to sell you the Capitol Records catalogue.

Personal picks: Powerline, Celebrated Summer, Listen
Picks for others: Celebrated Summer, I Apologize, Books About UFOs
Relative weaknesses: Perfect Example, How To Skin A Cat

01 – New Day Rising
02 – The Girl Who Lives On Heaven Hill
03 – I Apologize
04 – Folklore
05 – If I Told You
06 – Celebrated Summer
07 – Perfect Example
08 – Terms Of Psychic Warfare
09 – 59 Times The Pain
10 – Powerline
11 – Books About UFOs
12 – I Don’t Know What You’re Talking About
13 – How To Skin A Cat
14 – Whatcha Drinkin’
15 – Plans I Make

Author’s recommended tracklist
01 – New Day Rising
02 – If I Told You
03 – Folklore
04 – I Apologize
05 – The Girl Who Lives On Heaven Hill
06 – Celebrated Summer
07 – Listen
08 – 59 Times The Pain
09 – Books About UFOs
10 – Powerline
11 – Erase Today
12 – I Don’t Know What You’re Talking About
13 – Terms Of Psychic Warfare
14 – Whatcha Drinkin’
15 – Plans I Make