2009: The Jesus Lizard - Pure; Head; Goat; Liar; Down

In the often rarified world of noise rock, there are few acts as powerful or galvanizing as The Jesus Lizard. Combining the gut-wrenching ferocity of The Birthday Party with Led Zeppelin heaviness, and topping it all off with a twisted, occasionally juvenile sense of humor, The Jesus Lizard created some of the most terrifying sounds ever committed to tape without sacrificing a single iota of fist-pumping, stage-diving, in-your-face immediacy. Now, ten years after their dissolution, Touch and Go has given the band’s back catalogue a much-needed facelift.

As with many independent albums recorded in decades past, the original pressings sounded quiet by today’s standards. The remastering brings each wet slice of nastiness to its full, ear-shredding volume. Even more important than making the albums louder, the reissues shine a spotlight on Steve Albini’s production. Along with Surfer Rosa, Albini’s work with The Jesus Lizard has long been considered some of his finest engineering, and it’s never been easier to hear why. From the chittering locust-swarm of crashing cymbals that rises at the end of “Slave Ship,” to Yow’s gargling-piss-through-a-mouthful-of-wet-leaves tirade in “Starlet,” every detail is lovingly laid bare for the listener to admire. Each release comes with an assortment of singles, B-sides, and live cuts, some of which (like “Pop Song,” “Panic in Cicero,” and the “Boilermaker” demo) have not been previously collected.

Listening to these albums all at once, I got a powerful sense of how rapidly The Jesus Lizard developed in the five short years they were signed to Touch and Go. Just two years after the split of their Austin noise-punk band Scratch Acid, David Yow and bass player David Wm. Sims teamed up with guitarist Duane Dennison to release the Pure EP. It contains some of the most unhinged vocal work of Yow’s career. Whether he’s croaking obscene, inflectionless threats in the Ministry-esque “Blockbuster,” unleashing a torrent of harrowing shrieks in “Bloody Mary,” or squealing and snorting his way through “Rabid Pigs,” Yow makes clear that there isn’t another singer in the industry quite like him.

The band's decision to use a drum machine, as well as their association with Albini, is probably responsible for the Big Black comparisons that dogged them early on. But the addition of drummer Mac McNeily on their first full-length, Head, brought a living, organic touch to the music, and lent an even greater propulsive force to songs like “One Evening” and the album’s awe-inspiring centerpiece, “7 vs. 8.” One can hear echoes of Scratch Acid’s “Mary Had a Little Drug Problem” in Dennison’s grinding guitar tidal wave, but the pacing and dynamic control in "7 vs. 8" speaks of a maturity never quite attained by Yow and Sims’ earlier act.

It’s Goat, however, where The Jesus Lizard reaches the perfect balance between theatrical, nightmare-inducing noise and hard-hitting rock. Lurching, sub-rational eruptions like “Seasick” sit comfortably next to tighter, riff-oriented assaults like “Mouth Breather.” Moreover, the two approaches combine in ways only hinted at in previous releases. “Monkey Trick” is a shining jewel in The Jesus Lizard catalogue. The rhythm section takes center stage through much of its four-minute running time. Dennison wraps his shimmering, intermittent guitar figures around the edges of Sims’ portentous bass line and McNeily’s measured poundings. The tension builds towards a moment of sweet release as Dennison seizes the lead back from Sims with a shredding burst of noise followed by a series of staccato notes timed in unison with Yow’s wild shrieks.

Liar only continues Goat’s triumphant rampage. The band kicks the door in with songs like “Boilermaker” and “The Art of Self-Defense,” making room for the spry Texas punk of “Rope” and the brooding, epic “Zachariah,” both of which stand alone amid the band’s early work. Perhaps the highest point of the album is the single “Gladiator.” Yow snarls, keens, and hisses through every shift and contortion that Sims and Dennison can muster, and the lyrical juxtaposition of marital infidelity and gunplay only enhances the song’s oblique sense of foreboding -- an unshakeable feeling that something bad is going to happen.

From Pure to Liar, The Jesus Lizard had been on a steady upward climb; Down finds the band reaching a plateau. While Yow’s vocal performances remain captivating, he doesn’t push himself quite as far. His lyrics come across cranky more often than scary, and the humor -- typically ambiguous on previous releases -- is more overt (although even when Yow is being funny he says things like “I’m gonna cut little gill slits in the side of your neck and blow in 'em with a straw”). Down generally lacks the psychotic energy that characterized the band's prior work. Yet when viewed apart from its fore-bearers, the album still has plenty to offer. Fine moments like “Fly on the Wall,” “The Associate,” and “Destroy Before Reading” show that, though this beast may have mellowed, it hadn’t lost its teeth.

The Jesus Lizard had plenty of contemporaries in the early 90s who sought to reconcile their esoteric punk leanings with heavy metal’s big, dumb gut-punch, but few (if any) made music so simultaneously thrilling and threatening. If you’re discovering the band for the first time, then these reissues are a no-brainer (I’d recommend beginning with Liar or Goat). The improved sound quality and bonus tracks should make each disc attractive to longtime fans, though they’ll probably want to start upgrading gradually. In any case, one can only hope that the buzz surrounding these reissues and the band’s current reunion tour will introduce the scariest gods in Chicago’s rock pantheon to a whole new generation of young minds just waiting to be warped.

Pure:

1. Blockbuster
2. Bloody Mary
3. Rabid Pigs
4. Starlet
5. Happy Bunny Goes Fluff-Fluff Along
6. Bloody Mary (Live)

Head:

1. One Evening
2. S.D.B.J.
3. My Own Urine
4. If You Had Lips
5. 7 vs. 8
6. Pastoral
7. Waxeater
8. Good Thing
9. Tight ‘N Shiny
10. Killer McHann
11. Chrome
12. Killer McHann (Live)

Goat:

1. Then Comes Duddley
2. Mouth Breather
3. Nub
4. Seasick
5. Monkey Trick
6. Karpis
7. South Mouth
8. Lady Shoes
9. Rodeo in Joliet
10. Sunday You Need Love
11. Pop Song
12. Sesick (Live)
13. Lady Shoes (Live)
14. Monkey Trick (Live)

Liar:

1. Boilermaker
2. Gladiator
3. The Art of Self-Defense
4. Slave Ship
5. Puss
6. Whirl
7. Rope
8. Perk
9. Zachariah
10. Dancing Naked Ladies
11. Wheelchair Epidemic
12. Dancing Naked Ladies
13. Gladiator (Idful Studios Sessions Demo)
14. Boilermaker (Idful Studios Sessions Demo)

Down:

1. Fly on the Wall
2. Mistletoe
3. Countless Backs of Sad Losers
4. Queen for a Day
5. The Associate
6. Destroy Before Reading
7. Low Rider
8. 50 Cent
9. American BB
10. Horse
11. Din
12. Elegy
13. The Best Parts
14. White Hole
15. Glamorous
16. Deaf as a Bat
17. Panic in Cicero

DeLorean

There’s a lot of good music out there, and it’s not all being released this year. With DeLorean, we aim to rediscover overlooked artists and genres, to listen to music historically and contextually, to underscore the fluidity of music. While we will cover reissues here, our focus will be on music that’s not being pushed by a PR firm.

Most Read