Sunday, September 9, 2018

resonators: #008 - 'hear nothing see nothing say nothing' by discharge

So for this episode of Resonators, we're going to switch things up a bit, because while I've discussed at length the burgeoning hardcore punk scene across different parts of the United States, I haven't really delved into what was going on in punk in other parts of the world. And you'd think that since the U.K. was one of the main drivers of punk coming out of the 70s, they'd have a significant hardcore presence, at least in the underground at the time...

And this is where things get complicated, because in the early 80s in the U.K., punk was in a weird place. Sure, post-punk and new wave were laying the foundation for what would become the second British invasion, and anarcho-punk was curdling in its own artsy, far-left corner, but that didn't mean hardcore punk didn't have its own unique foothold, but it came from a different source: Oi! I've mentioned this style before in its adaptation of folk sing-a-long structures and working class populism, but by the late 70s the genre had gotten co-opted by skinheads and right-leaning white nationalist groups, which tainted the genre in the media discourse for decades to come despite the protests of some of the bands. But there was an offshoot of this, adapting a distinctive cymbal-snare-bass drum pattern and more blunt lyricism, that would later lay the groundwork for additional offshoots like crust punk and street punk to come in later years and even cross the Atlantic. This was d-beat, and while bands like The Buzzcocks had sparked initial interest in the sound, the band for which it was named would break onto the scene after a string of well-received EPs in the early 80s with what one could argue is one of the most influential releases of the time. And even if the band wouldn't stay in pure hardcore for long, it's important we talk about it all the same: the debut album from Discharge, Hear Nothing See Nothing Say Nothing, and this is Resonators!

Now full disclosure: even if I hadn't ventured to the U.K. for a few weeks in August, I was looking to cover Discharge regardless - while the band didn't exactly stick around in hardcore punk, making a glam metal pivot on their second full-length that infuriated everybody, they were foundational in laying the groundwork for so many subgenres and offshoots that I had to speak on them. A few critically acclaimed EPs may have primed the pump, but this was the chaotic and noisy breakthrough that many have hailed as their best work...

And yet with every listen I gave Hear Nothing See Nothing Say Nothing, I found myself a little baffled at that. I understand that in the era of digital distribution that it's much easier to sketch out contemporaries and draw comparisons within a genre - this is the early 80s, the Internet sure as hell was not a thing for punks scattered around the world, and punk zines only had so much reach, which meant that isolated subcultures of subcultures would germinate in their own space. Hell, even critics of the time would not always get underground tapes if the band originates on the other side of the world, even if the record would wind up notching critical acclaim. What I'm trying to say is that with every listen I gave this debut, the more I was convinced that Discharge and this album specifically falls into the category of acts that might have pioneered a specific sound or style, but were far from the best to deliver it - in other words, this might be the rare Resonators episode where I'm less than impressed with the 'classic' record I'm covering.

And what's a bit exasperating is that I fully know the things I'm about to criticize are what many Discharge fans have excused or even praised for decades. Yes, the bass is muddy and barely distinct in the mix, and the d-beat drum pattern doesn't quite excuse how sloppy some of the percussion can feel, but that doesn't matter because those walls of noisy guitar and the bellicose vocals from Cal Morris more than compensate, all punched up with production work from Clay Stone, and besides, it's all supposed to sound crude and primitive and riotous, raw energy and firepower compensating for any refinement across the board - hell, that's the appeal of punk, after all! So what if you break down the chord structures of the songs they can feel alarmingly basic, often using minimalistic progressions that will inevitably repeat themselves song over song, to the point where individual tracks will blur together in the seething cacophony, music that's designed to be a blunt punch to the face doesn't need complexity or insane solos, just get in the damn pit and rock the fuck out already! And sure, on some level that's all true, for certain brands of punk it just needs to be aggressive, belligerent, and catchy... and that's where I feel Discharge stumbles a bit right out of the gate. Critics of the time savaged Discharge for how their guitar mixing could sound like an inarticulate wall of noise, especially with limited foundations in the bass to add complexity, which wound up being the biggest hidden weapon that Spot's production over at SST emphasized for that brand of hardcore. And sure, some of this was inevitably coming from critics who didn't know how to process the extreme aggression and speeds that would later become adopted by the infant thrash metal scene, but I have to wonder that if Discharge was more willing to construct an actual hook or add a broader array of chords to individual compositions, or let a bassline actually cut through, the dynamics would have stood out and Discharge's critical acclaim wouldn't have wound up as retroactive.

And the proof of this working is that when Discharge does embrace meatier riffs or lets their bass build some muscle or builds an actual hook, we get some killer tunes, from the chugging crunch of 'Protest And Survive' to the howling minor key crunch of 'Drunk With Power' to even the heavier kickdrums trying to punch through 'Free Speech For The Dumb' - hell, when the sample of the clinical nuclear educational film is cut into 'Cries Of Help', it deserves to be noted if only for breaking up the sound, which I'd like to say guitar solos do, but they're often too much of a blur midway back in the mix to really stick in the memory. And yeah, the bass is still barely audible and the less attention paid to how on tempo the drums are the better - hell, the mixing of any instrument that's not the lead guitar can feel messy and not given the effective bite they could use - but there are individual cuts that could stand out. But then we have to flip over to the lyrics... and look, I get that Discharge was never known for nuance and for this brand of hardcore doesn't exactly need it, and Cal Morris was an imposing enough frontman to make anything he roars sound intimidating... but it's hard not to see the same apocalyptic obsession that could run dry in early thrash feel undercooked here. And it starts to feel really one-dimensional the deeper you get: nuclear annihilation, a neo-fascist state, and hell on earth aren't just the main topics of conversation, they're the only topics, and while the band sells the urgency and keeps the language broad enough to avoid tying it to any one event or time, it doesn't really stand out beyond a few gory details that would come to be driven into the ground by so many metal bands that would come after. And really, it's not like Discharge was willing to vary their sound to emphasize tension or really give these tableaus some menace by contrast - which the increasingly muddy back half of the record could desperately use.

But here's the thing: I get why so many folks consider this a classic to this day, despite my issues with it. There's a single-minded art to such a relentless formula that lays an effective foundation for everything to spring out of it, and if this album hadn't existed in the U.K. in the early 80s, somebody would have made it, laying groundwork for thrash, crust punk, and even grindcore. But when it comes to records that I'd brand as classics, a record that only serves as foundation doesn't really get there, especially when there are choices that could have been made across the board to further hone the band's fundamental appeal and message. So yes, there is absolutely a place in hardcore history for Hear Nothing See Nothing Say Nothing by Discharge, and while I personally am giving it an extremely strong 6/10, if you're curious about the origin point of a lot of sounds and styles, it's absolutely worth the listen. Again, I'm not sure if it's for everyone - maybe more of a footnote for a scene that didn't quite click for me and would go on for better things - but a worthwhile one all the same.

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