Shit-Fi Mixtape #9: Sludge Music
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One of the reasons punk (and hardcore) defies definition, and is thus subject to all manner of maltreatment in the hands of commentators and pseudo-historians, is that it always contains its own ideological and formal negation. For every Crass, there is a GG Allin (maybe not quite in actual numbers, but you catch my drift). And for every Gang Green, there is a Kilslug. Indeed many bands that pushed the sonic envelope in one direction pushed it as far in the other: Siege is the best example. Conserving its energy, seeming to follow the laws of physics, every punk action results in a reaction. This set of forces has almost always kept punk vital and dynamic—but it makes it slippery, elusive, even as one of its seemingly perpetual characteristics is its thudding obviousness. In recent years, sludgy, downer hardcore, influenced by Flipper, No Trend, and Kilslug, among others, has emerged as one of the more unexpected trends. Bands like Pissed Jeans, whom I quite like, capture this influence and push it in new directions. Just as the initial bands of this style were clearly reacting with alacrity to the faster and shorter sounds and exhortations of early hardcore, the resurgence of the early hc sound in the 2000s led to a similar retort. I do not find many of the original bands in this mode a particularly easy listen. That’s the point. They challenged the conventions of the convention-challengers; they were more antisocial than the antisocial. Notably, whereas some strains of punk and hardcore grew to be male-dominated, macho, and misogynist, some feminist women turned hardcore on its head and played uglier, more sarcastic, more angry, and more extreme music in response. Overall, the vibe here is slow, plodding, negative, downer, misanthropic music. It dovetails with one of the strains of hardcore that was prevalent in the US, in contrast to what prevailed in the UK: the “I Hate Myself” school, as opposed to the “I Hate Them” school (them = the system). But the canniest bands, particularly the feminist ones, noticed that the system was inside the myself of legions of hardcore boys. This mixtape is far from exhaustive, and I am tentatively feeling for the edges of this hard-to-identify sound and vibe. Most of the bands are from the US; examples of variations on the sound—though with quite different inspirations I think—from the UK and Australia are included as well.
To start off, Bobby Soxx’s “Scavenger of Death” seems to capture the loner, outlaw, weirdo, misfit stance at the core of Texas punk. Yet no one else sounds quite like this. The live album of his band Teenage Queers is one of my absolute favorite records—punker than punk it is. This version is from his 45. Can you feel the room getting smaller? First incarnated as Sheer Smegma, who in 1980 released a rare 45 with confounding pressing variations, a 12" on Alternative Tentacles, containing that 45 plus one extra track, appeared some years later with the name Teddy & the Frat Girls. This recording predates the macho hardcore movement; it’s clear its anger is directed at sexist men in society at large. Another favorite of mine, all the tracks, which vary in sound, ooze with anger and sarcasm. Still pre-hardcore, Hawaii’s Fuckin’ Flyin’ A-Heads defy categorization. They were inspired by punk, but this slab, recorded live, is a psychedelic experience for sure. In the late 90s, thanks to intrepid Bavarian punk detective Behjan Mirhadi, collectors were hipped to this bizarre record. I spent my lunch money on it. Over the years, it’s continued to grow on me. Unfortunately, skipping meals to buy records as a teenager stunted my growth. Now we’re getting to the heart of the matter: the Bay Area. Of course, the lineage of SST, Negative Trend, and then Flipper is one of permanent marginalization: DIY-weirdness-to-punk-to-hardcore-to-antihardcore, aided by copious substance abuse. Supposedly, Church Police came up with their sound before ever seeing Flipper perform. Nonetheless, they are kindred spirits, though I’d say Church Police is a more unsettling listen. Two posthumous 7"s have increased their popularity, from zero to fewer than a dozen fans, I reckon. Their sole release back in the day was a track on the first MRR compilation, with the title “The Oven Is My Friend,” a phrase that pops into my head at the oddest moments. Subterranean Records, still alive today, was the center of Bay Area nonconformism when it came to punk’s trends. Along with Flipper, Subterranean put out a little-known single by a group of pissed-off lesbian separatists called Wilma. Each of the songs on the record sounds different. This one probably took some influence from Crass, but it has its own sound and motivation. Across the country, many considered No Trend to be Flipper’s east-coast counterpart. For my money, their first 45 is better than any of Flipper’s material. “Mass Sterilization Caused By Venereal Disease” ought to be in the Shit-Fi hall of fame. Too bad about the Steven Blush connection. Back to the left coast, Feederz don’t fit in exactly, but they’re one of my favorite bands and the closing song on their first album, "Fuck You," may be their most angry, acerbic, and blunt—and certainly their sludgiest. A total unknown, NJF (Negro Jazz Funeral) from Toronto released an average hardcore single in 1984. One of the four songs is a dirge, so I’ve included it here. (The other three, which are fast hardcore songs, have a woman singing.) Bizarrely, this record was bootlegged a few years ago. I have previously mentioned my love for the Four Plugs single, a classic of UK DIY. The mixture of tension and lack of affect, combined with its minimalism, makes it stand alone. Perhaps it doesn’t fit in the company of the other records included here, but one can’t listen to it too often. The members of Manchester’s God’s Gift, whose CD is one of the best Messthetics releases, all worked in an insane asylum. Whereas some weirdo US punk bands may have feigned mental illness, God’s Gift knew of what they spoke: depression, hopelessness, listlessness. With music like this, the lines between fan, musician, and patient, between normalcy and social unacceptability, fade—quite an achievement. Although I tend to prefer music not sung in English, for whatever reason, few bands fit this bill from countries other than the US, Canada, UK, and Australia. I’d be eager to hear your recommendations. (Japan's ADK label is a whole 'nother story.) To close, here are a few rarities from downunder. Slugfuckers released two extremely rare singles in 1979. Bridging the nascence of punk, DIY, and industrial, and perhaps with some free jazz thrown in, they are truly unique records (and I need them still!). Here’s the aptly titled “Cacophony.” Until this year, I had never heard of Robert Trimbole’s Hat. Then a copy turned up on eBay and mp3s began to circulate soon after. It has a mid-80s death rock feel. No one seems to know anything about it, but you can be certain that my pals over at Wallaby Beat will provide the details if any are to be had (check there for Real Traitors and the Terse Sampler, which may fit in here). Finally, the Yettis. What can I say? This thing is primo shit-fi fuck-core. It leans more in the Chemotherapy/Psycho Sin direction than the Flipper direction, but it’s about as abrasive and ugly as they come. Enjoy and die.