Musings on music, old, new, popular and obscure. Post punk, metal, hip-hop, funk, and rock in general. A music fan with a desire to lose boundaries on what should and should not be listened to writes about experience in music from a listener's perspective, hopefully unhindered by prior expectation.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

And Now a Big Surprise: We Can Thrive and Stay Alive

About two years ago, I went out to see some friends that I only ever see once a year. Occasionally, we'd exchange gifts, partly because two of them had birthdays right around that time, partly because it was the only time we saw each other. That year, though, my friend Yannick handed me one and said he was looking through my ridiculously extensive Amazon Wishlist¹ and said he could not believe that I did not have the albums he was handing me.

Of course, one of them I did (kind of) already have, that being Death's Symbolic, which was the album recommended to me by the friend who was the most help in expanding my knowledge of metal (introducing me to At the Gates, Opeth, In Flames, Dark Tranquility, Emperor, Mayhem, Cancer, Cathedral, Cynic...that list would take a while to finish, so let's stop there) out of Death's entire catalogue. It's an excellent album, but, as I say, I did already kind of have it--I had the original CD issue, and this was the reissue that included 4-track and 8-track demos Chuck Schuldiner had recorded prior to the album's actual recording sessions.

So that was not any kind of revelation. What came alongside it, though, was Bad Brains' I Against I. My knowledge of Bad Brains came from my best friend in high school and college, Jogn, who knew or knew of a slew of punk bands, as far as I could tell as a relative--almost absolute, to be honest--neophyte. Now, as a result, I knew Bad Brains as a hardcore band. That strain of music that followed on the heels of punk and sped things up to a blur of sound and a wave of aggression in most cases. Some punk bands recorded limited hardcore releases, like the Dead Kennedys' In God We Trust, Inc. EP² or The Misfits' Earth AD, both of which are ridiculously short, as hardcore songs had (and have) a tendency to be very short.

Indeed, Bad Brains, the self-titled debut of the band of Rastafarian punks responsible for I Against I blasts through 15 songs in about 34 minutes, almost half of them clocking in at less than a minute and a half. I have that release on vinyl (though, originally, it only appeared on cassette), but, at the time I received I Against I, all I knew was The Omega Sessions, equivalent to a lot of the cheap-o artist compilations that can be found in bargain bins around the United States for relative chump change, though the prices for "real" (older) albums are rapidly approaching the same. Well, that's not exactly fair: the EP is titled this because it's a set of recordings made at Omega Recording Studios in Kensington, MD, rather than a bunch of random junk live tracks that the "Extended Versions" series throws out without telling people. But demos and live tracks in general are perceived very differently when we're talking about Bad Brains and not Kansas.

Interestingly, The Omega Sessions does include a very early version of the title track "I Against I," but, though it is structurally similar, it is a lot muddier, being a cheap demo recording, and it's played a bit more loose, lending itself more toward the songs on Bad Brains. Of course, these recordings also include the reggae leanings of Bad Brains, with songs like "Stay Close to Me" and the pseudo-dub of "I Luv I Jah."

To give you an idea, if you don't know, what both hardcore and early 'Brains sounds like, here's "Attitude" from their self-titled debut.

So when I started listening to I Against I? Dumbfounded surprise.

For comparative purposes, here are the two versions of that title song, first from The Omega Sessions above, and then from I Against I below.

It's worth noting that the second video includes the intro from the album, which is split into a separate track ("Intro," of course) on the album proper. But the difference hints at the sort of production and playing the band went into on the album. It's noted that a few other strains of music wander into the album, like reggae (of course, as they are Rastafarian, and they have a history with reggae) and soul. But the clear, ringing influence of heavy metal is jaw-droppingly unexpected. While the idea of solos as antithetical to punk is beyond ignorant (if you disagree, go back and listen to London Calling or Nevermind the Bollocks or any of a number of other albums from that era and quietly hang your head), playing this cleanly, clearly and just plain well is thoroughly unexpected from a band originating in a subgenre known its desire for speed and aggression at the cost of whatever is lost in its wake. To be sure, it's not an accurate claim, but there is something to the idea that 80's metal, which the guitar is very reminiscent of, is something in opposition, musically, to the punk and hardcore scenes.

Dr. Know, stage name of the Brains' Gary Miller is astonishing. Inflections of virtuosos like Satriani quietly sneak into and out of songs, but without that flavour of showing off endemic to such artists, even if some of them are indeed good at rendering it tastefully. It's just a blistering, but un-blurred, twist and turn of strings that seem to be turned, bent and pulled toward whatever need the good Doctor has. The tempo, despite this, has slowed considerably for much of the album, and H.R. ("Human Rights," aka Paul Hudson) has vocals that are almost discernible, though sometimes they're still impossible to follow. H.R.'s little brother Earl and Darryl Jenifer are the rhythm section, with Earl no longer pounding furiously at blastbeats, but establishing a groove that Jenifer builds up behind Dr. Know's fireworks and H.R.'s wails and rants.

SST Records, owned by Greg Ginn of hardcore/punk stalwarts Black Flag, released the album. Once upon a time, that label was a signal for quality releases, or, at the very least, interesting bands. Dinosaur Jr, The Minutemen, Hüsker Dü, The Meat Puppets, Soundgarden, and so on. This makes it hardly a surprise that the November, 1986 release of I Against I was on this label. Sadly, though, Ginn has settled into complacency with such a strong catalogue, and has neglected all of the albums on his label, issuing the same discs and packaging for the last twenty years and at absurdly unchanged prices. Exceptions only occur when the bands buy up their catalogues and shop them out to other labels, as Dinosaur Jr, The Meat Puppets and a few others have done.³

I leave you, then, with my favourite song off the album: "She's Calling You."

Go back and, even if you can't stand it, just get a feel for "Attitude." Then come back and listen to this song. Stunning--only four years and two albums later. And a fantastic song, to boot.

¹One of my uncles looked and said it was not that bad, until my dad pointed out that it was subdivided into categories on the left. And I've hidden some of them since then, so what you can see is still reduced.

²"Extended Play," a term that is best described as "halfway between a single and a long-player--LP, or album." There are technical details that have shifted over the years, and become muddled as some people decided to apply the term anyway, maxi-singles became confused from their origins as 12" singles of extended mixes and an extra b-side or two, and generally the whole thing got lost. My definition above gives you the essence of it, though.

³Sadly, not The Minutemen or Hüsker Dü, but considering the death of D. Boon and relentless activity of Mike Watt of the Minutemen, or the horrifically bad blood between Bob Mould and Grant Hart of Hüsker Dü, this is unsurprising.

1 comment:

  1. It's probably criminal that I didn't mention that Dr. Know contributed a solo to Coheed and Cambria's "Time Consumer," from Second Stage Turbine Blade--which he did.


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