Friday, January 26, 2018

resonators 2018 - episode #001 - 'damaged' by black flag - album review

So when I originally proposed the idea behind this new series and the five genres of which I was looking to explore, this was not the one I expected to win out. I figured k-pop would be catnip to the diehard fans, or that 2000s underground hip-hop would win out because it was one of the first genres to really leverage the internet effectively and develop a persistent fanbase to this day. And yet when the votes were finally tallied and we were left with this... well, suffice to say I was intrigued, especially because my challenge was now twofold: not only was it a genre with which my familiarity wasn't quite as deep, but also one to which I've struggled with for some time now. 

But here's where we are, so let me take you all back over thirty-five years to the very beginning of the 1980s - and for many in the underground the situation looks bleak indeed. Punk rock may not have died the fiery death of progressive rock at the end of the previous decade, but it's hard not to see a similar fate on the horizon. Many have pivoted into post-punk and the mutating goth rock scene, another subset has signed to major labels and would become new wave. Still others would embracing tones with more brightness and color and become pop punk, although it would take many years before that sound could truly explode in the mainstream. But as early as the late 70s there was a splinter group away from those bands opting for more polished sounds, wanting to go faster, harder, perhaps not embrace all of the hard-left politics of the anarcho-punk communes but certainly fall more on that spectrum. This was a sound driven out of suburban angst and a recession triggered by Reaganite/Thatcher-era politics, devoted to DIY deconstructionism that would spawn the mosh pit and the straight edge movement, to say nothing of countless clashes with police. A sound that would inspire everything from metalcore to grunge to emo, this is Resonators, exploring 80s hardcore punk - and there's no place to start this series than one of the most critically beloved album in the genre's history: the 1981 debut record from Black Flag, Damaged.

Now before we go on, I need to establish a few things about this series: for as much as I will be exploring the greats of 80s hardcore, this is not a canonization of the genre's greats. That's for music historians, and I'm a critic first and foremost, with my own distinct set set of personal tastes - which means that if I'm giving an album a less-than-great or classic score, it shouldn't matter as the album has already left its mark and me potentially saying otherwise shouldn't matter - I'm not so arrogant to believe that this series will somehow shape the historical perception on the album.

And even before Damaged was made, there was history going into Black Flag. The band had already cycled through three lead singers, two kicked out and the third Dez Cadena shifting more to rhythm guitar. They had brought on Henry Rollins after a few impromptu auditions to replace them, with his reputation already known in the tight-knit punk scene due to his friendship with Ian McKaye and a few live collaborations with Bad Brains frontman H.R., as well as a recording credit for his own short-lived project State of Alert. And while the creation and production of the record seemed fairly straightforward, the distribution turned into a legal nightmare, first with MCA - the much-larger associate of Black Flag's financially unstable distributor Unicorn Records - refusing to have their logo anywhere on the pressing due to the album being 'anti-parent', and then band leader Greg Ginn just choosing to distribute the record himself through his label SST. Unicorn then sued them for breach of contract, and the band wasn't allowed to release new material for three years!

And yet even with that background, I'd argue it's very possible to overthink Damaged as an album, especially given its historical renown. If you're going in looking for a transcendent message or something that wouldn't become beaten into the ground by countless bands that followed... well, you're not really going to get it, because Damaged might be the quintessential example of a foundational record: not precisely simple but so ruthlessly direct and brutal in its guttural, howling intensity that you come to realize that for everything to come after, someone had to make this. And what helps it maintain that foundational appeal is that for a punk record, there isn't any explicit political references - oh sure, some of the shows shouted out on 'TV Party' are long gone, but Damaged keeps so much of its fundamental appeal because its primary focus is inwards and not on, say, the new Reagan administration or the depression that said administration triggered in the early 80s. You might not initially get that impression, mostly because the first half of the record is pretty accessible to anyone young, angry, and bored, hating the cops less because of any anarchist stance and more because they stop our protagonist from running wild. And while songs like 'Six Pack' and 'TV Party' could read as satirical, ripping on gentrified laziness in people staring mindlessly at the tube and drinking themselves into oblivion, it's telling that both songs are written from the first person and could easily stand in for the restless, violent kids in the audience. Of course, by the time you get to the second disc any trace of fun is burned away, the rage curdling with confusion and a deep strain of depressive nihilism - the alcohol on the first disc may have represented a blackout party, but here it numbs just enough to stay coherent or mostly sane in the mingled pain and monotony. It's the sort of record where you might expect the protagonist to wind up in prison or an asylum... until you get songs like 'Padded Cell' highlighting the larger world already feels like that to him - and for so many around him. And it culminates in the howling, borderline incoherent final track, where Rollins blows right past pain and self-destruction to questioning its point, especially when he has the harsh realization that everyone is just here to gawk at it. And from there, he's able to seize some fleeting form of mastery: it's his pain, it's his damage, it's his mind, and everyone else can get the fuck out.

Or maybe I'm just overthinking all of that because at its core, Damaged is more concerned with capturing that dense, claustrophobic experience more than reaching much insight about it, which takes us to the production, compositions, and delivery. Now I'll admit it took me a bit to get used to Henry Rollins' throat-shredding howls - going in I almost expected there to be a little more heft in his delivery in the low end, then I reminded myself he was at least five years younger than me when he took up the mic on Damaged, and the adolescent cracks that do creep in only intensify the atmosphere. But that's not saying I'm entirely wild about the mixing and production on this record as a whole - I like Chuck Dokowski's gurgling chug of the bass when we get it to supplement Dez Cadena on rhythm guitar and Greg Ginn's blistering shredding on lead, but often I was left wishing there was a little more low-end thickness and heft to drive the grooves that are here. What caught me off-guard was that for a debut record of hardcore punks in their early twenties how structured and composed most of the shredding was - yes, there are whiplash transitions and a few points that feel a little slapdash or unstructured, but the speed and stability of the melodic riffs highlight how damn effective Ginn was as a noisier guitarist, especially when you consider how little Damaged relies on studio trickery or mix depth or feedback to intensify the shredding. That's not saying this record wasn't dynamic - especially on the back half the slow build behind 'No More' and to a lesser extent 'Life Of Pain', you can tell they know how to balance a good crescendo - but considering how close and damn near barren everything is at the front of the mix, Damaged is more reliant on the execution of these compositions than whatever post-production is even here. 

Now when you get into the songs themselves, this is where you often encounter a split among Black Flag fans between hardcore purists, those who were a little more patient in seeing the band embrace elements of noise rock that would expand towards metal on My War, and those who got behind Black Flag's often underappreciated knack for melody. And I know by saying this I'll show my inexperience with the genre, but for as much as I appreciate the hardcore shredding of songs like the 37 second long 'Spray Paint' or 'Police Story' or 'Room 13' or 'Thirsty And Miserable', there's a place for the more melodic and accessible tunes like '6 Pack' and even 'TV Party', even as snubbed as they are among some fans and critics. For one, they add a welcome bit of snide brevity to a record that turns extremely dark and some welcome balance - a bit of populism to show the universality of their habits - and for another, they're catchy as sin, and even if songs like 'Rise Above' or 'Gimme Gimme Gimmie' are a better synthesis of their melodic side with the driving hardcore, they have a place. On the flip side, the other consistent complaint about Damaged is that the second half can drag, and I'm of a few minds on this. Yes, the tempos slow, the guitar howls get thicker and noisier, the tones and delivery get more oppressive and that's not even touching the lyrics... and yet for someone's mind collapsing in upon itself into a seething pit of directionless nihilism and then drills deep into it, it fits. On the other hand, I won't lie and say that by revisiting the final quarter of the disc can be punishing in its own right, borderline masochistic, and for as much as it is the point, there's a way of doing this a little better than what Black Flag brings to the table here.

But as a whole... yeah, for someone who was nervous really diving into hardcore punk, I found Damaged by Black Flag really damn potent and likely very deserving of its place in the hardcore pantheon. Would I consider it a classic record to me... honestly, no, it doesn't quite have that deeper resonance that overrides the issues I have with it, but that is not to take away from its intensity or firepower. And thus for me while I'm giving it a strong 8/10, if you're looking for a place to dig into hardcore punk at the ground level, Damaged is a natural place to start and a potent slice of bleak introspection that has stood the test of time beyond just being an origin point and stepping stone. For countless hardcore punks, this was their old testament, a primeval slice of fury in the face of futility, and remains damn near timeless for it. And if breaking the faces of everyone around you including your own needed a soundtrack, Damaged by Black Flag would be it - check it out!

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