January 2009 Review Compendium
Here are some short reviews of reissues released in the last few months. I tried to write something quick and informal, inna fanzine style, but I’m not sure I succeeded. 2008 was a banner year for shit-fi reissues (and current bands too); my pithy top-ten lists will be published in Maximum Rocknroll #310.
I hope this LP collection of Animals & Men heralds a new era of vinyl reissues of classic UK DIY material. First archived on a Messthetics CD, Animals & Men seem as good a choice as any for the vinyl treatment, with their understated humdrum homemade music about the travails of their quotidian lives. They managed to balance an ambition to create a wholly new genre (what I might call “wave-a-billy”) with painful shyness, too. Unusually, they had opportunities to “make it,” or at least to get a foot in the commercial door, but they chose not to pursue them. This LP has great sound quality, top-notch liner notes, and an attractive visual presentation (I really like the front cover). Most fans of UK DIY will appreciate the at-times claustrophobic and sparse sound of their early tunes and ironic lyrics delivered with aplomb by singer Susan, like “Don’t Misbehave in the New Age.” But the new sound they later attempted to invent, which apparently did not go over well, mixed the drab feelings of suburban UK life under Thatcher with a soulful bluesiness. At first thought, it seems a paradox, but its ingredients are not terribly different from those of the Southern Californian deathrock sound that Rikk Agnew typified. Spain’s Desechables offer another apt comparison, minus, natch, their lasciviousness. Animals & Men are English after all.
Archenemy was one of a triumvirate of California metal bands that more or less invented death metal. The details of the rise of this musical form are better left to someone else who will surely point to Death and Possessed, but what’s incontrovertible is that, alongside Fatal Catastrophy Demolishing Noise Tormentor (no shit; aka, FCDN Tormentor) and Insanity, Archenemy was one of the fastest and most brutal metal bands circa 85/86, to my ears way more impressive than Death or Possessed—or Slayer for that matter. They were reckless teenagers who were pissed off and wanted to play at extreme velocity. They were listening to metal but also to ultra-fast hardcore and early crossover like DRI. Their 86 rehearsal tape has been circulating among maniacs for two decades now, and this LP finally puts Archemeny on vinyl, which they never managed while around. The flipside here is a throw-away 85 rehearsal tape with some of the same songs in inferior versions and no vocals. Completeness is cool but no one will ever listen to the B side. But the A side is essential because that 86 rehearsal tape is mind-bogglingly urgent, violent, raw, and energetic. As I have only crapola mp3s to compare, the sound quality of the vinyl mastering seems not to interfere with the immediacy of the original (it was a rehearsal tape after all). Also, cool-looking vinyl. Essential listening for fans of extreme music!
Portland’s Final Warning don’t crack the top five US Discharge-style hardcore bands of the 80s, and, as a band from Portland with their EP released by Fatal Erection, the inevitable comparison with “Pick Your King” seems a bit unfair. But I must say that this record is better than I had remembered. Herein phasered guitars mine the GBH/Varukers/Discharge songwriting seam. Something about the vocal delivery calls to mind Upright Citizens, too. The reissue’s gatefold sleeve and spot lacquer printing on the insert poster (or whatever it is) are a bit over the top, but whereas I often find these sort of appurtenances to be masks hiding otherwise mediocre records, in this case, the music speaks for itself. And get this: the mastering of the reissue is crisper and louder than the original vinyl. Astounded am I. This record isn’t shit-fi per se, but it’s a good bridge between the typical US and UK hardcore sounds circa 84. Oddly, there’s a CD reissue of this record with bonus live and compilation tracks out on a metal label—for some reason, latter-day bangers seem to think Final Warning was a crossover band. Nice try, dudes.
The Shit-Fi project is premised upon the notion that traditional punk historiography is fundamentally not punk. It focuses on the stars, reproducing the dichotomy between artists and fans against which punk militated. Most likely, anyone reading this has already faced real conditions (with or without sober senses) and defenestrated Lipstick Traces, along with a hundred other more-or-less inferior but less philosophic attempts to tell punk’s history. Now, was John Henry Timmis IV punk? I suppose one’s answer relates to another premise of Shit-Fi: historiography conditions the way we listen to music, even if unconsciously. Context is everything. In the end, most will say that music is music and it has objective qualities that render our judgments of its value timeless. Of course I don’t believe that to be the case, but whether JTIV was a punk rocker is something we can answer from thirty years’ distance in a way he, and the handful of people who heard him back then, probably could not. This distance allows us to appreciate how Timmis’s outsider status, from punk and from society at large, reveals the stories punk often tells itself about itself to be artifice.
Anyway, this is supposed to be a short review, so I’ll cut to the chase: JTIV is the Henry Darger of punk. The person responsible for this release called him an “antisocial megalomaniac,” which is quite apt. (Most punks, I think, probably display some degree of this paradoxical quality.) Timmis fancied himself a film-maker—his one claim to fame was his Guinness record-setting 85-hour film, much of which consisted of him reading a 4,080-page poem or sleeping, as far as I can tell—which meant that, as totally forgotten no-count sociopaths go, he managed to document what he was up to pretty well. This LP includes a DVD that confirms his status as an outsider artist; you probably won’t watch it often, but it’s welcome as a piece of the puzzle. Still, the real reason we’re here is the music. And, oh my, the sublime fuzz. The music…
“Death Trip,” from his impossibly rare first 45 turned a few heads when it appeared on v/a “Staring Down the Barrel” LP a few years back. (The longer version of this review, if I ever finish it, includes a disquisition on how JTIV could not have appeared on a “Killed by Death”-style compilation until the stock of rarities was exhausted even though the compilers had been aware of him for almost 15 years already—exactly because he didn’t fit in snugly with the revisionist history of punk the rarity compilations offered.) This one is the most traditionally punk tune here inna Detroit/introspective-thug vein, but with guitar heroics galore. What a riff, man. “Death Trip” was the B side of JTIV’s first single; the A side, “Waiting for the CTA,” is a satire of “Waiting for My Man.” If I may be permitted to wax philosophical for another moment, I would say that JTIV, who struggled with addiction, in this song quite rightly pointed to the addictive aspects of mundanity and predictability in everyday life. We crave the means to keep our lives smoothly regulated and get annoyed at the failings of those means instead of focusing on the poverty of such a regulated life. A very few of us create art that transcends that impoverished everyday life. A number of these transcendent artists, who not coincidentally often struggle with drug and alcohol addiction, are labeled insane, like Timmis.
Timmis’s brutal honesty makes his songs highly compelling. Though he may have thought that the character his songs portrayed was a fiction, his own antisocial tendencies, reinforced by an unhappy stay in a sanitarium (chronicled in the songs “In the Can” and “Out of the Can”), show that he was actually revealing quite a bit about his inner demons. “Destructo Rock,” a 7-minute fuzz epic, is particularly unsettling, as it recounts a homicidal/suicidal fantasy. One begins to wonder if, as I believe happened to GG Allin, JTIV’s performing persona took over and erased whatever residue of his private personality existed. That he did so in utter obscurity, often performing (and filming himself) in front of a few close pals and folks he had hired rather than in front of fans, makes the whole affair seem even more deranged—and intriguing. And yet, this sort of thing—playing for oneself and one’s close friends—is what we punks do. Punk has always been concerned with the destruction of the falsity inherent to the construction of a persona for the sake of performance—it’s just that in this case it seems that destruction proceeded in reverse, so the performance persona subsumed, overwhelmed the individual. So, in the final accounting, most will say that it doesn’t matter what one labels a record like this, but, concerned as I am with the perpetuation of punk, warts and all, it does matter what a record like this says about punks. That we seem to have found room for Timmis in our annals some three decades later commends us.
While seemingly no one was looking, Peru’s early hardcore punk scene became one of Latin America’s most well-documented. With vinyl releases in recent years of Autopsia, Ataque Frontal, G-3, Kaos (just in the last month!) and Descontrol and Kaos General on CD, few others remain, with one big exception: the most popular Peruvian punk, Leuzemia. Now, Lengua Armada has reissued their classic (and rare) LP, with an excellent insert and jacket and faithful sound quality. Unlike Lima’s raw hardcore bands, Leuzemia had a snotty, poppy punk sound, clearly influenced by the Ramones. A handful of early and very rough Leuzemia tracks appeared on a cassette compilation in 1985, but the actual LP is relatively polished. Still, it is powerful and punk to the bone. With lyrical topics ranging from teenage gross-out (“Diarrea”) to the harsh realities of life in a city emerging from dictatorial rule (“Astalculo”), Leuzemia covered all the bases. Had this LP emerged from, say, Belgium in 1977, it’d be considered an indisputable classic today. I hope this reissue will garner Leuzemia many new fans, as this LP surely deserves to be a fave among party punx 4 life.
You wanted to look back fondly on the day when you came home from the record fair, reeking of stale armpit, dust mites, the gingivitis of a hundred other men, and a cold slice of pizza, bearing a jewel. One platter in your pack stood apart. To the frosty silence broken only by what you perceived was the sound of her eyes rolling, you rattled off the rarities you had scored. And for your significant other, you saved the best for last. This significant slab, you held aloft. “The Performing Ferret Band?” she said. You smiled more than you would usually. You know because you felt the air on your back teeth. She wasn’t convinced. “Not that much,” was your pitiful lie about its cost. She’s heard that one before. And will again. The earnestness of your explanation trailed off with your voice after something about Kugelberg and unplayed vinyl. In your daydream about this moment on the subway ride home, she said something like “But what about the LP, isn’t that way rarer than the single?” Alas, no such question was forthcoming. You didn’t mention that you’d never even heard the Performing Ferret Band before because you knew that the first listen, as it always is with UK DIY, rarely helps explain why you had been seeking the record, much less spent money on it. Growers, the lot of them.
Some years later, the Ferrets’ CD, released by Messthetics, showed up unexpectedly in the mail. Who knew they had so many tracks? And who would’ve suspected the tracks on the EP would be far from their best? Not you. The EP tracks had hinted at the playfulness you would’ve expected from a band with that name, but their true playfulness—one thread of UK DIY; dour, morose, and bombastic among the others—did not become clear until hearing upbeat tunes like “Nudes.” Is that a melodica, you wonder? Certain songs’ guitar work even hints that the Ferrets were listening to second-wave ska or reggae. Of course, it turns out the best tracks were on the LP. Time to update the wantlist, you think. The liner notes, as you expect with any Messthetics release, are ample. And, as usual, you wish the CD’s order wasn’t random. You also wish the first track on it weren’t some sort of Christmas carol. WTF, you think. Nowhere to go but up, you guess. How is it that listening to UK DIY, you wonder, always manages to make the beginning of the Thatcher years, England’s most awful period after the blitz (maybe even worse than the blitz!), sound exciting? Do you really wish you had a time machine? You convince yourself that all you’d find would be grey council estates, boredom, gangs of gluesniffing skinheads, and more boredom, right? And yet those ingredients contributed to the milieu that produced some of the most incredible music you’ve ever heard. Luckily, she agrees.
Suck (or Fuck, as they had considered naming the band) from South Africa played in-the-red priapic prog for just a few months in the early 70s, reminiscent of Australian drug-rug cromagnons Billy Thorpe and the Aztecs. Naming themselves Suck was no minor matter under the highly repressive regime; even honkies were subject to censorship in those days. Suck’s album, “Time to Suck” has been reissued before on vinyl and CD; as one expects, this release on Shadoks is of high quality and outrageous price. There is only one original on the record, but if you know as much about prog as I do, which is to say zero, you probably won’t mind. That original tune is powerful and catchy (great drummer!). The two other best tunes are King Crimson’s Deleuze et Guattari-ian “21st Century Schizoid Man” and, here on a bonus 1-sided 7", Sab’s “War Pigs,” in a tribal-boogie rendition. Although most cover bands, well, suck, Suck used covers as a kind of ventriloquism, approaching topical issues for South Africa obliquely. Sure, some of the songs are about getting laid, but others, like the two I mentioned, and Grand Funk Railroad’s “Sin’s a Good Man’s Brother,” with the line “We need a revolution,” must be appreciated in context. Heavy, man. Heavy. If you don’t feel like dropping half a bill on this LP, here’s "The Whip," the lone original for download. Now who’s going to reissue Wild Youth and Leopard, the greats of South Africa’s first wave of punk?
As with its punk and hardcore, Spain’s late 60s and 70s hard rock and psych has lately been garnering greater attention outside its borders in recent years among the collector cognoscenti. The previous two volumes of “Andergraun Vibrations” were handsomely produced eye-openers to records few outside Spain would ever have heard otherwise. This volume is no different, but its purview seems stretched a bit wider than the typical long-haired flower-power sound, to include what might otherwise be considered garage punk along with general weirdness that would fit in with the outliers of the US Acid Archives sound. The highlights of this volume are surely three tracks in a row on the A side, by Los Crich, Prou-Matic, and Vibracion. These records are among the rarest from Spain. (Flexis? Check. Two known copies? Check.) Los Crich, based in the Canary Islands for a time, represents the garage end of the spectrum. “All Strung Out Over You” definitely sounds like it came out after the psych explosion, but for anyone who isn’t a purist, this is no criticism. Prou-Matic defies categorization, but it is overbrimming with enthusiasm and ineptitude. The drum solo must be heard to be believed. Finally, Vibracion—collectors’ love comes in spurts for this sort of thing. It’s shit-fi to the max. Crude, raw, strange, out of tune…it has it all. The late Velvet Underground comparison in the liner notes is not an exaggeration, but these dudes were clearly thousands of miles, in mindset as well as geography, from Warhol’s lower Manhattan. Worth the price of admission for sure. (Check S-F radio to hear this track.) My only (needling) criticism of this nearly flawless compilation, which includes an incredible bilingual booklet insert, is that fonts on the labels and sleeve are impossible to read: psychedelic fatsos meet corpse-painted black-metal dorks using freefonts.com personal ads.