What strange and tangled legacy of brutality Misfits have bequeathed to their fiends. The split between Glen Danzig and the other two core members, brothers Jerry Only and Doyle, was legendary for its bitterness, and the ensuing years spent in legal struggles over custody of the band’s identity could give The Smiths a run for their money for the most acrimonious rock ’n’ roll divorce. In the 90s, the battle lines were clear: If you were an old-school hardliner, then any incarnation of Misfits without Danzig on vocals was a desecration. If you sided with Only and Doyle, then you insisted that they had every right to carry on in the band’s name and that Danzig was being an obstructionist dick. Things got more complicated in the aughts when singer Michale Graves and drummer Dr. CHUD quit mid-set during a concert in Orlando, and Doyle announced a hiatus shortly thereafter to spend more time with his family, only to show up four years later on tour with Danzig, playing mini-sets of Misfits classics.
Jerry Only quickly pulled together a new all-star lineup in time for the band’s 25th anniversary, including Black Flag’s Dez Cadena on guitar, Marky Ramone on the drums, and Only himself on bass and vocals. The M25 roster was meant to be a stop-gap while they looked for a new front man, but as the years went by and no fourth member was added, the future of the group looked doubtful. From there, it only got worse. In 2009, the entire 90s Misfits line-up reunited sans-Jerry for a one-off performance opening for Danzig at the Starland Ballroom. And then, of course, there was the sordid clusterfuck surrounding the never-to-be-released 12 Hits from Hell record.
In the face of all this drama, as well as some questionable merchandising decisions, it’s easy to cynically write off the re-formed Misfits as a cash-grab or an ego trip on the scale of Billy Corgan and whatever barely legal teen he’s deciding constitutes The Smashing Pumpkins this week. To do so, however, would be to discount the obvious devotion that Only has shown to his fans (I have personally witnessed the man plunk down at the edge of the stage at the end of a show to sign autographs and chat with hundreds of kids). Furthermore, all of this is completely ancillary to the music itself, which, contrary to what those old-schoolers will tell you, was of a consistently high quality. You can question Only’s motives for re-launching his musical career under his former auspices, but tuneful anthems like “Dig up her Bones,” “Shining,” and “Helena” were as fresh and distinctive as anything going on in the mainstream punk universe at the time.
Which brings us to The Devil’s Rain, the first full-length Misfits record since 2003’s Project 1950 and the first collection of all-new, original material by the band since 1999’s Famous Monsters. The current incarnation maintains Only as the band’s center, with Cadena returning on guitars and sometime-touring drummer Chupacabra (née “Goat”) taking a permanent(?) place behind the kit. Given the long silence between albums and the sheer amount of dirty laundry that’s been aired in the meantime, there’s a lot riding on this record. A surprising re-invention or a stunning return to form would go a long way toward rebuilding confidence in the group and quelling doubts about its legitimacy. Unfortunately The Devil’s Rain is neither.
Longtime followers of the band will find themselves in familiar territory. While the early Misfits recordings helped to shape the new breed of heavy metal in the 80s, you could say that those bands returned the favor for the ‘Fits’ later iterations. The Devil’s Rain continues to straddle the line between punk and metal, combining muscular, thrashy riffs with punk punchiness and Misfits’ own idiosyncratic penchant for melody. The best songs on the album still tend to be the ones that shoehorn in those famous “whoa-oh-ohs” wherever they can, with the under-two-minute “Black Hole” being an obvious standout. For the most part, though, those big, sloppy harmonies seem less prominent, often relegated to the background.
The vocals on the album are a weak point in general. Michale Graves caught a lot of shit for not being Glen Danzig (well, that and his right-wing political views), but spinning this record helps you appreciate just how significant his contribution was to the group. Only’s cartoony, stentorian bark that felt so at home on the excellent Project 1950 falls flat here and lacks the dynamism to invest the listener in the emotional core of these kitschy, monster-movie melodramas.
Still, some of the tracks pay off in a big way. “Death Ray” creates a nice contrast between Only’s flat delivery and the song’s surging hardcore rhythm and features some delightfully discordant guitar effects from Cadena. “Sleepwalkin’” surprises with what sounds like a blues standard chopped up to fit a punk rock pallet. The undisputed masterpiece of this album, however, has be “Where Do They Go?” The song reframes a story of real-life violence, the las meurtas de Juarez, as a 50s sock-hop torch song, complete with handclaps and female backup singers. “My baby moved to Juarez/ Down across the line/ And then she never called/ Remains they’ll never find,” Only intones, and later on offers to the listener, as cautionary advice: “Don’t let her move to Juarez/ Don’t be that proud.” It’s a spot-on appropriation of golden age rock ’n’ roll songwriting conventions on a topic that’s in such deliciously poor taste that it recalls similar forays such as Famous Monsters’ “Saturday Night,” or the classic lineup’s “American Nightmare.”
In the end, then, it’s not that The Devil’s Rain is a bad album, but it’s by far the weakest link in the band’s catalog, and coming at a time when faith in the group is at an all-time low. It’s impossible to say what the future holds for Misfits. It’s wholly likely that this record will find its way into the hearts of a new generation of fiends the same way that American Psycho chewed its way into mine back in ’97, but I feel safe to say that a lot of long-time fans are going to have a hard time getting psyched up for another permutation of a band whose development of late has been driven not so much by personal growth as by the material necessity brought about by botched relationships.