Saturday, 24 January 2015

ENCASED IN SOUND (HOW PUNK MET METAL - AND BOTH BEGAT DRONE): 3. DESTROY! ANNIHILATE! INCINERATE!


Our punk/metal/drone comparison timeline reaches the Eighties and even touches on the Nineties. (First part covers the Sixties here while the second recounts the Seventies over here.)

Black Flag: 'My War' (1984)


Black Flag were our man at the crossroads, this is the the point where the streams cross. People argue over who first hit on the phrase “like a cross between Black Flag and Black Sabbath”. But there's no real debate over the first band to do it – and that band was Black Flag themselves. Which makes the crossover more significant. Black Flag hasn't been a hardcore band, they'd virtually been the hardcore band. They were the one who defined the sound – angry, direct, assertive, uncompromising, and above all over inside of two and a half minutes.

Moreover, legal problems had prevented the workaholic and once-prolific band releasing anything for the past three years. (Once off the leash, they released two further albums before '84 was even up.) And in the intervening time their sound had shifted massively, shaving off the punk spikiness for something much more sludgy, more glowering, more ominous – more (you guessed it) Black Sabbath. All of which accentuated the sense that they were not just now slow but anti-fast, like a calculated rebuke to the jock slamdancers. (In that way it also weirdly seems to match the mood of some of the more primal-screamy stuff off Lennon's 'Plastic Ono Band', such as 'God'.)

If it sounds unbelievably bleak, hold it up against their earlier output - it just gets darker. Earlier lyrics slipped into the united third person as easily as the Doors track from the first part (“We are tired of your abuse/Try to stop us, its no use”), this time its all first person versus third. It's like Sartre's 'No Exit' in song form. “You say that you're my friend/But you're one of them” is like the end-point of existentialism, an accusation hitched on the back of an tautology. Notably, Rollins sings as if facing down his audience rather than performing to them. This confrontational interview with him, simultaneously hilarious and excruciating, dates from the same era.

“Destroy! Annihilate! Incinerate!” You have now reached utter nihilism. All change please...


Bad Brains: 'I Against I' (1986)


Followers of Rastafarianism, the band would have been familiar with and probably used the Rasta expression “I and I”. (Used in daily speech, such as “I and I need to sign on next Tuesday”, but to signify spiritual connection - “Jah and I”.) Except of course they invert it to depict modern America as in the most ungodly of states – the war of each against all, which can only serve to bring us all down. In that sense, despite their outward similarities, it's almost the counter to 'My War' - it rails against a situation in which its companion virtually revels. (“I said whose gonna tell the youth about...the rotten stinkin' rackets and the fantasies around the nation.”) Not for the first time HR sounds almost like a preacher as he cries “I tell you the truth is looking straight at you!”

As I often like to point out, great bands are able to straddle apparent contradictions, and Bad Brains could sound heavy at the same time they sounded lithe and nimble. Their roots were as a jazz fusion band and those roots never quite went away.

This was about the point where I'd first left home and was going to see bands. While at school there'd been a virtual Berlin wall between the punks and the headbangers, by then it simply never occurred to me to try and divide up the bands I was seeing into punk and metal categories. Slightly earlier than that other wall, the barriers had been busted down.


More than usual, this next one ain't for the fainthearted...

Swans: 'Coward' (1986)


This is Swans from their early brutal noise era, described by the uploader as “cathartic performance, mountains of sound without melody”. I went a little back and forward about including this, as it could be said to really belong in another timeline. Despite strong similarities to Black Flag's unremitting bleakness, the band came more from the New York noise and art punk scene than from hardcore. Hardcore fundamentalists often nursed an antipathy to 'bohemian' New York, and it may be notable that every subsequent name on this list (with one exception) will be West Coast. For his part frontman Gira despised metal so much he was known to attack audience members for headbanging. (I shall leave it to the reader's judgement whether he himself is headbanging in this clip.)

All of which might go some way to explaining my wondering whether this band actually belong here. But they were perhaps the ultimate in boiling music down to a blunt instrument. Why go for more when you can just have less? The pummelling force denies any concept of release, rock without the roll. (Try imagining dancing to this.) Like the Stooges, its stripped back to such a degree you can't tell any more whether its regressive or avant garde. There's the lyrical parallels between themes of annihilation and transcendence, as can be found in many other places round here. Plus Gira even dedicated a later track ('Just a Little Boy' from 'To Be Kind') to Chester Burnett, real name of Howling Wolf. So the similarities are there, if not the direct links.

(I've written about the current incarnation of Swans not once but twice.)


Nomeansno: 'The Tower' (1989)


The Peanuts character Pigpen was always depicted carrying a cloud of dust around with him. Similarly, Nomeansno always seemed to be wading waist-deep in thick, thick bass. To look at Eighties hardcore and decide what it needed was to be more bass-driven and rhythmic, I'm not sure whether that took an excess of guts or a deficiency of reason. The band have since confirmed that they arrived at that sound simply because in the early days they didn't have anyone to play guitar.


Though perhaps their killer app was to stretch out songs from the standard abrupt hardcore length, and their Bad Brains-like ability to bend the music without breaking the heavy riffing. It was a style described as "Devo on a jazz trip, Motörhead after art school, or Wire on psychotic steroids”. In a scene which too quickly became identikit they were immediately recognisable as hardcore and completely unique at the same time.

I partly picked this track because of the uncanny ease with which they lyrically match punk existentialism to hard rock's dark romanticism. The human figure who narrates and the Tower/black obelisk he encounters are the ultimate irresistible force and immovable object combination. And “The sword is truth is just another weapon/ Let me live for one more second” must be one of the great opening couplets.


The Melvins: 'Boris' (1991)


Though the Melvins formed back in '83, and were important from early on, this may be the point they hit their lumbering epitome. (Even if it officially pushes us into the Nineties.) It sounds like a hardcore punk song stretched out and slowed down, like a single played on '33 with the bottom end of the sound turned up all the way. Rather than sluggish, the result is something remorseless. The way the distortion becomes part of the track is very similar to the Stooges or Motorhead. If Swans were like blows repeatedly pummelling you, the Melvins sound like a landslide slowly but surely tearing up everything in it's path. 

By going for weight not speed they allowed hardcore punk to escape from it's louder/faster corner, gave it a way to hook up with hard rock that bypassed all the then-trendy hair metal bollocks and piledrove a road that led to grunge. Though Flipper were also an important band, they were too arch, too bohemian, too native of San Francisco to truly embrace metal. Whereas the Melvins hailed from Washington state.

If Swans don't quite fit the family tree, the Melvins couldn't be any more in the DNA. Dale Crover drummed for an early version of Nirvana, while Buzz Osborne later introduced Dave Grohl to the rest of the band. Ex-bassist Matt Lukin went on to form Mudhoney. They've made albums with Jello Biafra, and legendary Japanese band Boris are named after this very track. The Melvins are one of those foundations bands, who most people haven't heard of but they made so much possible. (More by me on the Melvins here.)


Mudhoney: 'Touch me I'm Sick' (1988)


There's no doubting grunge rescued punk, ended its self-imposed cornering from the rest of the room and got it back into talking with other genres. (Something it had always done before all that dead-end harder-than-hardcore malarkey.) But while grunge did take up from the Melvins, that band had a definite metal influence while grunge was much more focused on classic rock. (Plus, though no-one ever seems to want to mention it, the fuzztoned Sixties garage punk of those fabled Nuggets and Pebbles compilations. Try playing this against the earlier Electric Prunes track.)

The title, simultaneously engaging and threatening, is pretty typical of punk's agitational engagement of the audience, and the band's black sense of humour. Mudhoney were, as an flue kno, the definitive grunge band, even if they weren't the best-known one. (More by me on Mudhoney here.)


Coming soon! The Nineties to the present day...

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