2001: Fugazi - The Argument
I’m sick of reading the same things about Fugazi, characterizing them as a one-dimensional. Yes, we all know they have never “sold out,” that they changed the face of hardcore, that one in every five persons thinks Ian MacKaye is a hypocrite.
But Fugazi were in constant motion, growing both artistically and philosophically throughout their career. One of the cornerstones of the band was their supposed austerity, exemplified by both their ability to express different moods and sounds without changing or augmenting their basic instrumentation, and their ever-present “question everything/no violence/anti-consumerism” stance. But if their first two EPs and Repeater were propaganda to some — releases that commanded the listener to do or not do certain things — then The Argument was a question mark to all, inviting listeners to hear the band’s point of view and get them to think for themselves.
On the album’s inner sleeve, there’s a picture of a memorial plaque for Sandra Scheuer, victim of the Kent State massacre. The picture reminds us of the price of speaking out against war. Released a mere month after 9/11, the band asks big questions about freedom, protest, and multinational corporations, with the ghost of war lingering throughout, much like it does on the video of them playing “Turnover” on an anti-Iraq demonstration more than 10 years before. But the greatest lesson Fugazi imparted was that punk meant anything was possible, as long as you stay true to your convictions while remaining independently critical. In fact, they taught us by example to the point of ridicule, but one thing no one can deny is that have thus far lived by their own sword.
1989: Happy Flowers - “I Said I Wanna Watch Cartoons”
Mr. Anus and Mr. Horribly Charred Infant — Happy Flowers, that is — were responsible for a whole series of disturbing and demented songs enacting childhood misadventure, fear, and ill intent, all set to the noisy backing of creatively mistreated instrumentation (and occasional riffs). And for a band operating almost entirely on the basis of this one joke/concept — as far I’m concerned the two are pretty much interchangeable here — they certainly managed to cover a broad spectrum of the misery and foolishness of children, from misplaced curiosity and frustrated desire, to powerlessness and unexpected victimhood (some sample song titles, for illustration: “Bobby Made Me Eat a Frog,” “I’m the Stupid One,” “Why Didn’t You Tell Me You Were Bringing Home a Baby,” etc.). They had a particular talent for capturing precisely those moments when reality starts to fall cruelly short of childish demands in a highly entertaining fashion. But even though Happy Flowers’ output might have almost always been amusingly grotesque and exaggerated, it was strangely sympathetic too — there’s always something to identify with, no matter how surreal the situation. We’ve all been children at some point, I suppose (and some of us still are, despite our advancing years).
“I Said I Wanna Watch Cartoons,” off 1989’s Oof, is a perfect example. Some of their songs might have been a bit more noisily deranged, others perhaps kinda more “sophisticated” in their bizarre storytelling. But none captured the moral deprivation of childhood, none expressed the child’s sheer uninhibited, undeveloped bundle of desires and the terrifying confusion of want and need — so easily transfigured into rage — with such a perfect combination of menace and recognizability. (Also noteworthy: voices are pitched up to heighten the demonic child factor; Mr. Horribly Charred Infant apparently “played” a guitar lying on the ground with his foot, in addition playing to bass the usual way.)
So are children by nature good, pure, innocent? Doesn’t seem much like it if “I Said I Wanna Watch Cartoons” is the least bit accurate. But then again, there’s no TV (or mittens, or lawnmowers, etc. etc. — corrupting influences all, I’m sure) in nature. I’m certain, though, that according to Happy Flowers’ comically dark vision of infancy, “innocence” really means not understanding consequences, to horrible and funny effect (some more song titles: “Mom, I Gave the Cat some Acid,” “There’s A Soft Spot On The Baby’s Head”). They know not what they do, but damn, what they do really can be pretty fucked up.
1989/1993: Helmet - “Born Annoying”
Helmet occupies a crucial, if somewhat controversial place in rock history. Signing to Amphetamine Reptile in 1989, they represented a new level of punk penetration into heavy metal. By merging crushing riffs with scalding waves of feedback and packaging it all in an everyman presentation that eschewed some of the genre’s more bombastic trappings, they patched into an audience that might have had trouble relating to a Slayer or Obituary album. The buzz that surrounded their debut Strap It On was such that Interscope (allegedly) wound up signing them for a million-dollar contract in the wake of a massive bidding war. Despite moving a boatload of units with Meantime, they never achieved the superstar status that had been projected upon them, and they gradually faded from view before disbanding (temporarily) in 1999.
But the key to Helmet’s thorny legacy (and the reason so many people write them off) is the shadow they’ve cast over heavy music in the 90s and early 00s. Like a heavy metal Velvet Underground, Helmet was never a household name, but their records found their way into the earholes of a lot of angry kids in bands. Helmet were pioneers of drop-D tuning and staccato, groove-based riffs, both of which would become ubiquitous in the decade following their earliest releases. While there were a fair number of bands who took elements of this sound and ran with them in interesting directions (Pantera, Tool, and, hell, maybe even The Jesus Lizard), this also means that Helmet had a hand in birthing nu metal.
My first exposure to the band came in high school when my buddy John gave me a mix tape with their 1993 reprise of “Born Annoying” on it. (Still my preferred version, although the only standalone video I could find on YouTube was the original 1989 demo version, below.)
“Born Annoying” was pure Helmet, pivoting between verses built around a repetitive, frustratingly compressed riff, and a totally headbang-able hook for the chorus, and climaxing with a solo that gradually devolved into shrieks and wails. Best of all, though, are the lyrics. Paige Hamilton bellows, in his angriest, most throat-rending-ist snarl:
I open my mouth
I talk about me
I follow you around
I talk about me
The goofiness of the song’s subject matter cuts a pretty stark contrast to the ruthless construction of its melody. So much so that going on 15 years later, this sad sack narrator still elicits a chuckle from me.
“Born Annoying” is a perfect illustration of why it’s wrong to throw baby Helmet out with the nu-metal bathwater. Regardless of what they helped give birth to, Helmet wrote the kind of funny, catchy, and utterly brutalizing songs that the Korns, Limp Bizkits, and Static Xes that sprang up in their wake could only dream of. Helmet was a mutant gamete swimming around in alt-rock’s uterus, an abrasive genetic suicide bomb stuffed with a stew of punk and metal chromosomes that somehow gave rise to a new breed of commercially accessible heavy music. Check ‘em out for the history lesson. Come back to them for the riffs that’ll take the top of your goddamn head off.
1990: Pantera - “Cemetery Gates”
What the hell is this? Seriously, have you stopped to think about what kind of a song “Cemetery Gates” is in the context of Pantera or even metal in general? It’s a weird fucking song, yet not a headbanger bats an eyelash about it. I also can’t stop thinking about the relationship between this song and “Cemetery Gates” by The Smiths (it turns out, Pantera vocalist Phil Anselmo is a huge fan)
Essentially, “Cemetery Gates” starts off as a power ballad. It has the same kind of theme, structure, harmony, vibe, and rhythm expected of the style, performed by a rock band in a 4/4 rhythm. But when the main distorted riff kicks in, the track becomes something else: a half-sludge/half-traditional metal mutt that later takes a speedier route versed in the lexicon of thrash, before tumbling back into ballad territory.
On the vocal front, Anselmo does everything a good metal frontman does with a song like this: he croons emotionally, does his standard tough-guy power singing, and even throws in some harmonies in the chorus. And just when you think you’ve figured out what they’re up to, the last sequence of the song enters, which is when we bear witness to a guitar vs. voice duel. Anselmo does some Rob Halford-worthy falsettos, each answered by Dime’s guitar, egging each other to see who can go higher. (Spoiler alert: Darrell’s guitar reaches dog-whistle status before Anselmo.)
After the release of Cowboys From Hell, the album on which “Cemetery Gates” can be found, Pantera became one of the biggest and most influential bands in metal. While “Cemetery Gates” wasn’t influential like their other more well-known, identity-forming material, one can only hope that such an anomaly will at least inspire somebody out there to take a similar left-turn into writing a weird-ass metal ballad.
1997: Pentax - Das Album
Pentax was an alias — as best I can tell, now dormant — of the prolific Cologne-based producer Reinhard Voigt; Das Album should probably be considered a classic of the more uncompromising end of minimal techno. Music so pure and obdurate is hard enough to find.
Das Album seems to be constructed entirely in the unfolding of its own endless undulating surface, its rhythms — sometimes with a brutal (Schaffel-ish?) swing — all but stripped of reference to any approximation of acoustic instrumentation. Especially at the right volume (loud!), the whole thing feels like it’s occupying every available space with an almost-oppressive presence, wholly opposed to the crisp precision of certain other strands of techno. As tracks progress, they are often interspersed or overlaid with sounds reminiscent of malfunctioning, decomposing machinery, introducing an unpredictability that has nothing to do with human impulsiveness and that does nothing to disperse the immediacy of it all. Even as it feels as though its lack of clear hooks, melodies, track titles, etc. might render it remote and inaccessibly abstract, Das Album is utterly concrete in its unadulterated devotion to the pulsing mechanics of its sound.
It’s slightly surprising, then, to find that, in the briefest of one-line descriptions typical of the sparseness of information available about it, Kompakt’s website suggests that Das Album is a concept album. For my part though, I’m damned if I can figure out what the concept actually is — there’s barely a concession to the cerebral or emotional life of the listener (not that this means the majority of the time it gives the impression of being geared toward dancefloor euphoria!). But maybe, rather than being in conformity with some misplaced stereotype of “Teutonic” directness, the amusingly blunt title of the album might be the best clue. Perhaps the concept is simply that it is an album at all — a coincidence of form and concept, so to speak, noteworthy in a genre that often might seem to revolve around 12-inch singles intended to be slipped into someone else’s mix. But I speculate. And, mysterious concept notwithstanding, Das Album certainly does feel like an album — if that implies the coherence of the tracks, and particularly if it implies their progression from one to the next. Das Album develops in its own peculiar and arresting way, from its leaden, almost inert beginnings, through the unremitting throb of the second untitled track — a personal highlight, the mechanistic heartbeat of the album — to the slivers of atmosphere and hints of depth and layering that breach the endless repetition later in the album.
It may be that the reason for Das Album’s relatively unsung status is its having been overshadowed by more celebrated contemporaries. It came out, after all, on Profan, a label founded by Wolfgang Voigt prior to the important Kompakt label. Reinhard Voigt is also, of course, brother of and collaborator with Wolfgang Voigt, whose work as Gas, as Studio 1, as M:1:5, among numerous others, is (rightly) acclaimed — in fact, Profan’s entire catalog is pretty much composed of releases by one of the two. Das Album shared a place with a number of projects that laid down a template for German minimal techno — a template in my view barely surpassed inside or outside the constraints of the genre. Yet Das Album strikes me as being at the very least the equal of any of these in its stark single-mindedness.
1993: The Verlaines - “Heavy 33”
The No Alternative comp was a big deal as far as I was concerned at 14, and going back to it, I find it still resonates. The live rendition of The Breeders’ “Iris” has long been the definitive version (“just gotta start real slow”), and the experience of watching Kim sing it on the MTV special pretty much cemented her rock & roll essence into my music-junkie bloodstream. Of course, I played the Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins tracks over and over, and even enjoyed Soul Asylum’s take on “Sexual Healing.” I bawled listening to Bob Mould’s heart-wrenching “Can’t Fight It” and sang along with Buffalo Tom’s insanely catchy “For All To See.” I was a bit green yet to grasp Pavement, but it put a bug in there.
While I’ve forsaken a good deal of the “alternative” 90s music I listened to, revisiting this comp proved fortuitous, as it led me to the brisk gloom rock gem that is “Heavy 33” by a New Zealand band I know little about called The Verlaines. Not sure why this one was absorbed in the folds, ‘cause I hear it now accompanied with all the alarm bells and firecrackers associated with thrilling discovery. The chorus is not only infectious but sports some of the best lyrics I’ve ever encountered in a despondent anthem:
“I’m striving to coax or wrench you - I can’t even reach you
You’re starving for something - I’ve got nothing to feed you
And renegade good intentions turn to scorn
All the clouds keep hoarding
All their airborne oceans won’t fall”
Sung in a rich, menacing tenor by front man Graeme Downes, these lines feel like something etched in the firmament. The frustration of butting our heads against recalcitrant lifeforms in the hope that they’ll open themselves up to us is conjured with such poise as to render every other angsty 90s anthem hopelessly moot. This is a great song that should be played as a replacement every time some alterna-DJ is about to queue up “I’ll Stick Around” or “Everything’s Zen” from here till the end of radio as we know it (while there’s still time). As for my lil’ corner, I know it will be something in the rotation for many mixes to come.
(Turns out the fine S.F. Seals cover is also a Verlaines tune and it is not too shabby either.)