So what’s the most shocking aspect of Black Flag’s sudden reunion album, the appropriately titled What The…? The simple fact it exists after two decades of minimal stirring? The shiteous cover art that I think we all want to believe is awful on purpose? My vote goes to the astounding truth that the music within sounds like it’s being played by the real Black Flag, the tank-like ’80s outfit we all hoped would magically appear at our high school and start a police riot with their unique brand of disturbed, violent punk rock.
Not only is What The… better than it has any right to be twenty-eight years after the fact, it comes offensively close to being great in various pockets. Raw, nutty, heavy—these guys roll over the gate like they’ve been locked in a storage closet since In My Head. Founding guitarist Greg Ginn can still warp your mind with his playing, be it with gobs of gluey riffage or pointedly fractured soloing (Ginn also handled the gut-slapping bass lines that lay the foundation for What The…). Similarly, returning Flag singer Ron Reyes can still summon up that angry wayward teen who splattered his vocals across several of the band’s early lynchpin releases.
Unfortunately (you knew that was coming), What The… dampens its fire by handing out too much of a good thing. Forgetting that brevity is the soul of punk, Ginn and Reyes force us through twenty-two angry noodles when an offering a third that length could have comprised one of this year’s more invigorating EPs. It’s never a good sign when the listener needs to take a lunch break midway through an album. It’s even worse when the listener wants to. The contents of your refrigerator are sure to excite on a James Bond level once you’ve been confronted with the malaise that hangs over backend What The… cuts like “Lies” and “Give Me All Your Dough.”
As of this writing, Reyes is already out of the reformed Flag, having been ousted in favor of professional skateboarder Mike Vallely (who can also sing, apparently). Based on the meandering, circular nature of What The…, Black Flag doesn’t need a new singer so much as they need an editor. Of course, this is the band (the punk rock band) that released four albums in one year during their heyday, so I guess in a certain light we were spared the true onslaught. Twenty-two songs—can you imagine how much shit might be cluttering the cutting room floor?
FINAL SCORE: Two pastrami sandwiches on honey wheat (out of four).
- other books may summarize with great aplomb exactly what the music of Nirvana and Mudhoney meant to a generation but nowhere else will you find a more detailed account of the fistfight that ended Cat Butt
- Courtney Love is the Richard Nixon of grunge; can you imagine how powerful she’d be without the pettiness and the insecurities?
- I laughed when Natalie Portman died of a broken heart in Star Wars but I cried in this book when the same thing happened to Layne Staley
- speaking of Layne, the only grunge myth the author fails to bust, prove, or even address is the one where the Alice in Chains singer was ousted from “Celebrity Jeopardy!” for giving Alex Trebek the finger (actually I think this was disproven years ago but I want to keep the idea alive that Staley was an expert on the Dead Sea Scrolls, the alleged subject of the question in question)
- according to Chris Cornell, Kurt Cobain only disassociated himself from Nirvana’s game-changing Nevermind after its release because that was the cool “punk rock” thing to do, but also according to Chris Cornell you should wear breakaway shirts at all your concerts and rip them off dramatically even if it annoys the shit out of all your other band members
- Ben Shepherd is still pretty mad some people used to call his band “Frowngarden”
- the singer from Candlebox (who are from Seattle!) did not sleep with Madonna when he had the chance, something his then-wife admonished him for when Candlebox’s career went down the toilet (this woman and Mr. Candlebox are now divorced)
- Everybody Loves Our Town presents a fairly complete and undeniably engrossing map of grunge from messy start to even messier finish; I only wish the book included a rebuttal from Glenn Danzig regarding the alleged $12,000 guarantee Jeff Ament claims Danzig’s band Samhain had for a show in Detroit in the mid-eighties
Essentially the extended club sequence missing from Tron: Legacy, Yeezus combines the window-rattling throb of that film with the brazen, breathless, and ultimately unapologetic approach of pop music’s touchiest paladin. The results are, as you might expect, gripping and cinematic. At forty minutes the album also retains a focus absent from Kanye’s last meandering effort, 2010′s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. That fairy tale was longer by half an hour, but let’s be frank—it felt like days.
As with many Kanye West projects, the degree of reality within Yeezus is unclear. Is this authentic upper class braggadocio we’re witnessing in “I Am A God” or the deftest of parodies? The line of demarcation is barely visible through the electro-dissonance West has sublet from producers Daft Punk. The rapper’s jaunty/bratty attitude doesn’t help, but when the dust settles ultimately I find myself not caring. When you create music as present and engaging as “Black Skinhead” or “On Sight” I afford you the right to have an asthma attack over tardy croissants (a picture Kanye paints in “God” that joke or not will now surely follow him to the grave).
Even when Yeezus slips into autopilot for a few tracks it’s startlingly good. “I’m In It” and “Hold My Liquor” both hit far harder than your average late night bangers about getting laid and having addiction issues (respectively). The latter is particularly affecting, moving from a jarring structure of West’s chanting between air horn blasts to a back end laden with slippery almost reversed-sounding guitar work. I assume this is one of Bon Iver founder Justin Vernon’s contributions, but I’m not ruling out a ghost appearance from Kanye’s purple pop predecessor (and equal fussbudget) Prince.
Yeezus eventually lowers the stakes on its final track, “Bound 2,” in which Kanye once again contemplates his lousy romantic skills, this time over a reboot of the 1971 Massey/Dukes soul classic “Bound.” The song strolls along with a breeze and comfort, exhaling a sigh of relief for an otherwise tense album. The change is as pleasant and touching as it is unexpectedly cathartic and provides no better comedown for what history will probably peg as one of Kanye’s top three ventures. Is it too soon to ask when his next one is coming out?
FINAL SCORE: Four Tron: Legacy light cycles (out of four).
“Pa never used language like that back on the farm…”
Man of Steel
Starring: Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, Russell Crowe
Directed by Zack Snyder
On paper Man of Steel has lots working against it. Director Zack Snyder, if we’re being polite, has had something of an uneven career (if the gloves are off, the guy’s pushed us through one too many ham-fisted slogs and some of us want our Maalox tab comped). Producer Chris Nolan gave us unexpected pause last year with his messy Batman conclusion Dark Knight Rises. Russell Crowe can sometimes be a walking punchline. Amy Adams has red hair. The icing on the cake? Our titular character, perhaps the most resoundingly American icon of the last century, is played by a Brit. Maybe none of this is as heretical as flames on Optimus Prime, but eyebrows have surely been raised.
The skeptics should let go, however, because Man of Steel delivers as a taught, exciting, and stylish retelling of Superman’s well-known origin. We all know the drill: the alien planet of Krypton is doomed, so a scientist named Jor-El (Crowe) rockets his only son across the galaxy to Earth’s pedestrian confines. Unfortunately, a pocket of Kryptonian crooks bypass their home world’s fate and discover Baby Kal, the last hope for rebooting Krypton’s people, chillin’ in our galaxy. Lead by the testy General Zod (Michael Shannon), these nogoodniks arrive on Earth around the time Kal-El/Clark (Henry Cavill) is discovering his true heritage and they decide to make themselves at home regardless of how many lives or continents it inconveniences.
Other reviews are dogging Henry Cavill for his allegedly wooden portrayal of Kal-El. I saw an actor expressing rather well the complicated emotions that probably come with being a lifelong outcast who has secret messianic powers and is suddenly thrust into his Jesus Christ moment approximately five minutes after meeting his biological father’s intergalactic ectoplasm. Cavill’s Superman is as noble and as strong as he can be in the face of what could be his most abysmal failure. You see fear, you see frustration—this Supes is doing his best. He’s only been on the job for a day. Did you master the deep fryer your first shift at Taco Pete’s? Surely the fate of the world did not rest in your ability to properly brown tostada shells.
Man of Steel plays with the established Superman mythos a tad, yielding some refreshing results. To wit: Lois Lane (Adams) figures out Clark Kent isn’t just another Kansas hick before he throws on the blue and red togs, leading to a pretty great section mid-movie where she hunts him down and he sets up some key flashbacks. Also, Clark literally has the DNA of every future Kryptonian sewn into his rippling body, so General Zod can’t just rocket the guy into the furthest reaches of space if he’s really intent on turning our planet into Krypton 2. There’s no tweak here that’s outright disrespectful to the source material, unless you’re seriously married to Superman’s red y-fronts or that obnoxious geek Jimmy Olson.
Effects-wise, Man of Steel could have been less video gamey, but it nails all the iconic moments (Superman’s first flight, our introduction to Krypton, Lois Lane’s one instance of true peril, etc). Call me crazy but it also feels like Michael Shannon is underplaying Zod at some points, as if he’s unsure of the character’s convictions. Luckily, Mike ramps it up at the end, touching off one of the film’s rawer emotional notes that works wonderfully amidst all the visual action movie candy. It looks great, there are beats of earned humanity, every major character gets in at least one good punchline—what more could you want from a Superman movie?
If you say Krypto the Super Dog, guess what? The Kents have a pooch and while they never say his name the mutt does manage to escape a major calamity with almost too much ease. Don’t be surprised if he turns up in the inevitable sequel.
FINAL SCORE: Four Kryptonian super children (out of four).
Space babes share a giggle.
Battle Beyond The Stars
Starring: Richard Thomas, George Peppard, Darlanne Fluegel
Directed by Jimmy T. Murakami
It’s no secret that George Lucas drew influence/blatantly stole from Akira Kurosawa’s Hidden Fortress when he assembled the first Star Wars in 1977. Not to be outdone, schlock king Roger Corman bankrolled his own gonzo outer space Kurosawa tribute in 1980′s Battle Beyond The Stars, a remake of Seven Samuri that’s about as subtle as any other Corman effort. Case in point: the central planet in Battle is named Akir, its inhabitants the Akira. Film nerd chum is rarely so meaty and raw.
Of course, Battle Beyond The Stars cribs so much from Lucas it’s easy to forget who exactly the film is trying to honor. There are enough specific shots and music cues borrowed from Star Wars to qualify this as a remake of that film and not Seven Samuri. Yet Star Wars lacked the timid charm of Richard Thomas, an actor who makes Mark Hamill look like Marlon Brando. Thomas is the alien redneck Shad who rockets himself into space in hopes of rounding up a few mercenaries to help defend his home planet against militaristic invaders. He’d do it himself, but the kid’s allergic to violence and can barely fire his lasers even when under direct attack. Why the Akira agreed to let Shad lead any kind of mission is beyond me. He must have rich parents.
The first gun for hire John Boy runs across in the stars is Cowboy, a literal cowboy from Earth, played by a shaggy pre-”A Team” George Peppard. Peppard does Han Solo by way of Rat Pack—cocktail and smoke always in hand, slaphappy smile permanently plastered across his weathered face. Juxtaposing that is an utterly lifeless Robert Vaughn as some sort of abandoned space king who agrees to fight for Shad because he’s sad and lonely. Battle probably could have set up a great scene or two between Peppard and Vaughn if there weren’t so many goddamn aliens getting in the way.
This movie has a noseless lizard person, a set of mute twins who emit invisible rays of energy, a council of five eggshell white super-beings who feel each other’s feelings, a horny space viking apparently bereft of nipples, a comely female scientist who somehow has no understanding of how the fuck babies are made, and a sassy onboard computer (think HAL meets Joy Behar) who cannot stop busting Shad’s balls for being a quivering little space pansy. And that’s just the good guys. Don’t get me started on the villains, all of whom have some kind of facial deformity save their leader (who wears makeup to simulate and/or mock his subjects’ facial scarring).
Future Terminator director James Cameron did art production on Battle Beyond The Stars, so while the script and much of the acting is awful the visuals are interesting and intricate. The spaceships are just as engaging here as they are in Star Wars. They explode with the same whallop, too. That saves Battle from sinking into Laserblast territory. Still, it’s hard to watch this movie and wonder halfway through why you aren’t watching a better outer space adventure, one where the aliens aren’t so transparently named (the main villain’s called Sador, fer chrissake) and the music isn’t reminding you of John Williams on downers.
FINAL SCORE: Two nipple-less Sybil Dannings (out of four).
[Flag, the more name-heavy of the Black Flag reunions, treating Moose Lodge 1873 in Redondo Beach, CA to a secret show, 4/19/13]
- thank you, Chuck Dukowski, for bringing a splash of color to this shindig
- I’m surprised the band didn’t institute a “no cell phone” rule to prevent the tangled mess of arms rising up from the crowd; on the other hand, when’s the next time most of Black Flag’s gonna be at your local moose lodge?
- feel like maybe they hung those antlers up for effect
- in a surprise to no one, this reunion performs with a degree of excellence, probably because no robots in sombreros are involved
- the person recording this made some weird cuts, such as editing down the tension-fraught bass/drum opening of “No More” (WHICH IS KIND OF THE WHOLE POINT OF THAT SONG BUT W/E)
- Egerton nails Greg Ginn’s guitar tone; again, not a surprise as he seems like something of a Ginn disciple, but still, I didn’t assume he’d be this on target
- this has no relevance to anything but I met Egerton after an ALL show in 1997 and he was really nice
- Flag hits it out of the park on “My War”
- am I on drugs or does the band look “professionally lit?”
- “My kids are out there!” Chuck says at one point in reference to the crowd, seemingly amused that his children even exist
- I think “White Minority” has always kinda spoken for itself and doesn’t necessarily need further defense, yet Keith offers one any way (something about his grandma sexing Native Americans)
- when Dez Cadena takes over on vox for a few songs his stage patter makes him seem like a “down to Earth bro” I’d “like to have a beer with” (I’m actually being sincere)
- Dez gets a little Vegasy in “Thirsty & Miserable” and I ain’t mad at that!
- closing with “Louie Louie” hit this brother hard in the heart for some reason, maybe because that seems like a true Black Flag move, in the true spirit of the orig band
- DUDE NO “TV PARTY” WHAT THE FUCK THAT’S A “FALSE FLAG” IF I EVER HEARD IT LOL LOL LOL
The Fear Record
The End Records
Fear’s 1982 debut The Record eschewed the standard Ramones blueprint of punk for a more obtuse, syncopated sound that pushed the guitar back while simultaneously pushing forward the antagonism and social apathy that marked the genre. To this day there’s honest fright to behold in the album’s grooves as the jarring barbs of singer Lee Ving fly by in operatic style beside a band that sounds like some kind of malfunctioning machine. Alas, The Record can no longer stand alone proudly in its own field: Ving and his latest version of Fear re-recorded the entire album last year as The Fear Record for reasons that were never made entirely clear.
The Record was originally released via L.A. punk label Slash; Slash was bought up years ago by Warner Bros, and if I were a betting man I’d say Lee Ving probably attempted to buy back the original tapes at some point before this and gacked on his own tongue when WB slipped him the price. There could also be some legal red tape with Fear’s other original surviving members, inventive guitarist Philo Cramer and hyperactive drummer Spit Stix. On the other hand, considering Ving’s propensity for re-recording Fear oddities and b-sides in the past, maybe he simply decided 2012 was the right time for a do-over of his most ballyhooed creation. Whatever the reasoning, it was faulty. This endeavor is the underground equivalent of Gus Van Sant’s Psycho.
The Fear Record brings a meaty NOFX-style sound to the material, which of course never needed those kinds of sonics to come across punk. Philo Cramer’s frayed guitar work was enough to convince you Fear were no normies. A Cramer solo is a spine-bending affair that projects an acute sense of odd; here, we get half-hearted wanks sitting atop of Xeroxed Johnny Ramone pounding. Speaking of pounding, original drummer Spit Stix was the best reason anyone had to take Fear seriously as musicians, circling around in strange time signatures and playing with such fervor Dick Dale famously accused him of “goosing the beat.” Fear’s current drummer Andrew Jamiez does an okay Spit Stix impression on The Fear Record but ultimately makes you yearn for the real mccoy.
Of course, most Fear boosters will probably be focused on Lee Ving’s voice, which by this point has become a phlegmy shadow of its former self. It was a bad move to start The Fear Record off with Lee croaking out the famous “I Love Livin’ In The City” refrain—more of a lozenge commercial at this point than ironic rallying cry. Sadly, there are several spots throughout where you can apply the same put-down. At least Lee gets through the album’s faster numbers like “We Destroy The Family” and “Gimme Some Action” without losing his place.
Whatever other good things you can say about The Fear Record (the songwriting itself retains some of its original magic, there are no kazoos, as far as I know no pets were maimed during its recording) are outweighed by the massive pointlessness of the endeavor. What did Lee Ving and his latest Fear cronies (Jamiez, Paul Lerma, and Dave Stark) stand to gain by giving us a take two on one of punk’s greatest entries? Who knows. The only thing we gain from this lark is a sharp reminder that the original version of The Record is an amazing relic that cannot be improved upon.
FINAL SCORE: One Xeroxed Johnny Ramone (out of four).
Into The Future
If I’m supposed to be comparing Into The Future to the explosive, game-changing Bad Brains of yesteryear, then the album is an embarrassment, an outpouring of lukewarm slurry sorely absent the thunderclaps that made this band riveting a million lifetimes ago. Independent of the towering Bad Brains legacy, Into The Future is at least something different, an exercise in rasta-tinged traditional hardcore with aggressive power metal flourishes. Still, there are few (if any) transcendent moments here, the best tracks being so merely because they offer a little more pep or energy than the rest.
Instrumentally the Bad Brains’ execution is tight, and singer H.R. gently coos over the shifting reggae-punk sands like the space cadet everyone’s made him out to be. It’s almost hypnotizing to hear how calm the vocalist remains even when the music behind him is raging several decibels into the red. That said, H.R.’s melodies sometimes clash painfully with the music, and the man’s lyrical creations leave a bit to be desired (“Music is fun, school is fun,” he chirps in “Fun,” and the list doesn’t end there). I don’t fault a fifty-something guy with apparent mental health issues for not coining the next set of revolutionary slogans, though. Based on all the things I’ve seen and read about the poor fella it’s an accomplishment that they squeezed performances out of him that are this entertaining.
Into The Future includes a full-on tribute to Adam Yauch entitled “MCA Dub”; the late Beastie Boy produced Bad Brains’ previous effort, 2007′s Build a Nation, which I recall being a very similar affair (alright for a bunch of nobodies but depressing for genre legends). To that degree, this band is being consistent. Alas, this album’s title is a misnomer; Bad Brains are not going into the future so much as treading water in the shallow end of a pool they helped fill. Passing another kidney stone like this will only yield more painful waves of “remember whens?” and “back in the days” from disappointed fans.
FINAL SCORE: One rasta lions (out of four).