Monday, May 28, 2018

resonators 2018 - episode #005 - 'out of step' by minor threat

Well, we're finally here: the topic that I've danced around a fair bit with hardcore punk but one that really is quintessential for understanding the scene - and like with most things hardcore punk it got chronically misunderstood and stigmatized by organizations and systems not willing to see nuance, and partially consumed from within by complications at its core. Yes folks, we're getting political here again, because it's time we talk about straight edge. 

And with this comes a huge disclaimer: I'm not straight edge, and I probably never will be. I don't smoke because lung cancer and heart disease killed my grandfather and I don't do drugs mostly because I'm not really interested or have the time or money to get into it, but I do like craft beer and good wine and entirely too much bourbon. I know folks who are both edge and ex-edge, and I've got no room for judgement for either group - not only is it emphatically not my place, the choice to go edge is an individual one, and one for the record I do respect. Also keep in mind that in the early 80s when straight edge began as a true grassroots movement, it was on some level reactionary but that does not diminish its power or relevance - coming out of the late 70s and very early 80s, a lot of punks died from drug and alcohol abuse, and when you factor in that most of the hardcore punk scene was in their very early twenties, it's completely understandable if broad action was taken without a lot of consideration for what straight edge would become throughout the rest of the decade and into the 90s. If we ever talk about Earth Crisis on Resonators I'll weigh in more significantly on the more complicated activist side of the movement, but the early 80s, it was a movement to help protect a lot of kids from substance abuse that most weren't prepared to handle and provide them a space where they weren't marginalized for not partaking, both in the bands and outside of them. And as such, when edge advocates say that straight edge probably saved a lot of punks' lives, I tend to agree with that.

So today we're going to talk about the artist that coined the phrase 'straight edge' in a 1981 song of that title: Washington D.C. native Ian MacKaye, and his band Minor Threat. Now I do not have enough time to go into a full history of Ian MacKaye - again, if we get to Fugazi I'll speak more on him - but in 1981 he was gaining traction with the second of his bands Minor Threat. Also worth keeping in mind he was nineteen at the time and was running his own DIY label Dischord Records, where Minor Threat released two EPs in 1981 and almost by accident started the straight edge movement. He also racked up some negative publicity for a song called 'Guilty Of Being White', and if you remember some of the conversation about race from the Bad Brains episode, you might understand why this might have been controversial. To MacKaye's credit, I do buy that it's not intended to be read as racist, but man it has not aged well, and when you factor in how straight edge was already starting to become more of an activist movement, it's no surprise Minor Threat went on hiatus while founding guitarist Lyle Preslar went to college. But the band reformed after one semester and started recording the record we'll be talking about today - the only full-length record released by Minor Threat, and nowadays widely touted as one of the most influential records in hardcore punk. That's right, we're talking about Out Of Step by Minor Threat, and this is Resonators!

So let's get this out of the way first: of all the hardcore punk records I've covered on Resonators thus far, this is probably the one that I like the most - it's incredibly lean,  tight and well-played, and manages to step up to the plate with a level of refinement and nuance in the content I can really respect - even if at first listen most of the straight edge business I referenced entering this review doesn't quite come into play until the title track. And even then, Ian MacKaye is far from militant on the subject, which ties into one of the big reasons why I can argue this record holds up so well: universality. Like with Black Flag, Minor Threat doesn't link themselves to the politics of the day - and hell, given at how many points MacKaye wonders how detached he feels from the passage of time on this record, it makes sense - but it also adds the benefit of populism and relatability, balanced by the brutal pragmatism and maturity that came to characterize a lot of his later work. Take 'Betray', the opening song: it almost seems like he expected the double-cross, but instead of playing into the game of it, he's confronting the issue and ending things, and when you follow it with 'It Follows' highlighting the drama that has stuck around within the scene, you can taste his raw exasperation. Hell, go to the closing track with 'Cashing In', where he focuses his rage on those who think Minor Threat reformed in '82 to 'sell out', when in reality a.) a lot of this complaints seem rooted in local jealousy that really made little sense even at the time, b.) hardcore punk didn't sell huge numbers in the early 80s anyway, c.) Minor Threat would only ever release this full-length record before breaking up, and d.) those complaining would all show up at the shows anyway!

But what really helps is that MacKaye is fully aware some of this is his fault - he knows something changed with those friends left behind on 'Look Back & Laugh' and he hopes they can resolve things, but he's willing to own it if it's him, and while he might hold onto that stubborn pride on the indecipherable conflict of 'No Reason' because that pride is all he feels he has, he knows how immature and stupid it all seems. And when you pair it with those who'll look down on hardcore punk for having 'all been done before' on 'Think Again' - ironic, given this project only dropped in 1983 - MacKaye might accept some of the blame, but he sure as hell is not going to take those who dump on his scene and sound under airs they haven't earned. Now this does lead to the one slightly weaker track for me with 'Sob Story' - basically calling out somebody whining at never getting the lucky break and telling them to pull their shit together - but it makes sense given how ruthlessly pragmatic this record feels, even if that can be an isolating feeling as referenced on the title track and 'Little Friend'. And that title track is where we get the most explicit straight edge reference... and really, it's more an acknowledgement of the confusion that somehow by not indulging he can't keep up with the larger world... but at least he can think, and for him, that's good enough!

Oh, and the music is pretty damn kickass too! And for a record running around twenty minutes there's not a moment to spare and Minor Threat make the most of all of it: killer kickdrum rhythms from Jeff Nelson driving chugging, borderline thrash riffs off Brian Baker and a lead guitar that might give Lyle Preslar a lot of time or space to flex on solos but opens many of the songs with a sweet melody that ensures the majority of these tunes find a real anchor point. And that focus on melody should not be overlooked: 'Think Again' and 'Cashing In' might have monster hooks, but 'Look Back & Laugh' gets a lot of stability out of that slower melody building in, or the jagged rattling riffs that spark into 'Little Friend', or into the sparking elements between chorus and verse on 'It Follows'. Hell, they even find time to ram a tonal shift into 'Betray' that slows the rhythm line a bit but still perfectly fits together. But what you'll remember most from Out Of Step are the basslines, and while I'm not sure if that's more linked to influences from fellow D.C. natives Bad Brains, I cannot deny how much Steve Hansgen's meaty basslines anchor so many of these songs, from punching up beneath the melody on 'Betray' and 'It Follows' to how much curdled, surging energy it gives 'Think Again' and 'No Reason', to how it even anchors behind Ian MacKaye's vocals on the title track. And this is where I do have one nitpick about the production: while I do like his delivery, his mix placement could have afforded a bit more multi-tracking, if only for the hooks - 'No Reason' and 'Cashing In' do this wonderfully, and it really could have made even more songs stand out all the stronger for it here!

But again, that's nitpicking on a record that thus far on Resonators most easily deserves the term 'classic' to this day. It was only just over twenty minutes, but it doesn't waste a moment with insanely catchy hooks, terrific playing, solid production, and writing that hit the righteous balance between fervor and nuance that only the best hardcore punk could deliver. And it made sense that MacKaye may have felt out of step with his scene - his writing had a foundation of pragmatic maturity that has coloured his entire career, and the alienation at this epicenter provided a resonance that has lasted to this day. For me, this is a solid 9/10 and absolutely essential to hear if you're into hardcore punk, straight edge or otherwise - I've yet to hear much that is better than this!

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