Friday, November 30, 2018

resonators 2018 - episode #011 - 'earth a.d./wolfs blood' by misfits

So in my loosely sketched out plans for this show, I was planning on covering this last month. I figured it would fit: the band many people attribute to the breakout of horror punk with a video set for around Halloween, that's almost too easy. But my plans went awry when you all wanted me to cover Husker Du and fair enough, I totally get why, but I still hoped that I'd get a chance to discuss this band in particular, especially as we're dealing with two very unique facets: not only were they band that broke horror punk, but they're also an example of a band that started in more traditional punk rock before shifting into hardcore... which wasn't really common. Normally it was the other way around, with hardcore punk bands expanding or shifting their sound either towards crossover thrash, punk rock, post-punk, or just outright alternative.

But this band was different - in the late 70s in exchange for a trademark with Mercury Records they got enough studio time to hammer out an album that wouldn't see release until the 90s, and like most punk bands around the turn of the decade they saw most of their success off of singles. But they built notoriety in the scene for an increasingly exaggerated and macabre image, along with a reputation for criminal antics and a rotating cast list of members. By 1982 they had managed to push out a proper debut that won some acclaim for solid melodies and a distinctive, schlock-horror theme in their songwriting, but the band was in mid-collapse even then and the frontman Glenn Danzig had confided in his friend and frontman of Black Flag Henry Rollins that he was planning on quitting himself. By 1983, Danzig was even including songs he was intending for a future band on the sophomore project just to push the album through to completion... and it wouldn't be enough. The band would break up two months before this album's release after a disastrous Halloween show and would not reform in any capacity until the late 90s, leaving behind what some have deemed a hardcore punk classic. That's right folk, we're talking about Earth A.D./Wolfs Blood by the Misfits, and this is Resonators!

So I feel there are a few qualifications that need to be made surrounding this album - not excuses, although hardcore punks have given Danzig way more chances than he's deserved over the decades, but the context in which this album was made. Because even if I didn't know that The Misfits were in mid-collapse, the increasingly rushed and slapdash construction of this project will give the impression that at least some people were in a hurry to get out the door. And here's the second major qualification: even at their best it was never wise to take The Misfits all that seriously. They certainly played up the image in their marketing and promotion, but their songwriting was primarily derived from b-movie horror and sci-fi schlock and The Misfits certainly didn't seem all that interested mining any greater insight out of it. But that's okay - this was a band that built their debut off of strong melodic hooks and catchiness, they weren't trying to be edgy or dark like Black Flag was or nakedly provocative in the same vein as the Dead Kennedys or the Dicks. In short, The Misfits made punk rock that you could call 'fun'.

But just because I understand why this album sounds the way it does, it doesn't mean I have to like it, and we might as well get this out of the way now or it's going to overshadow the entire review: even by the standards of hardcore punk that I've covered on Resonators, the best thing I can say about the production is that it's inconsistent. Spot might have been credited as a co-producer along with the band, but little of the wiry consistency, firm basslines, and jagged definition he typically gave his production credits shows up here. Frankly, I'll give him credit for whatever quality in the mix we do get, however spotty that it is - the fuzzy crunch of Doyle's lead guitar propelling the melody to the forefront, Robo's aggressive snare work, and occasionally Danzig's howl can sound credible. And let's not ignore that a fair few of these songs are pretty solid - the sharper grinding riff of 'Death Comes Ripping' which does pick up some misshapen groove, the charging sizzle of 'Green Hell', the more defined hook of 'Bloodfeast', and of course the most immediately recognizable single of 'Die Die My Darling'. But let's not mince words: the basslines are muddy if present at all, the kickdrums sound muffled and buried behind cymbals that are too loud, and you'd think for the cult of personality Danzig built with his lyrical content, you'd be able to make out what the hell he's saying more often! And again, I'm expecting lo-fi tones and rough edges, there's a difference between sounding well-produced for your genre and sounding polished and I'm not asking for the latter. But even when you compare this to their debut Walk Among Us, the production sounds slapdash, rushed, and for the most part just a total mess, compromising many of the better melodic grooves in favour of speed that doesn't hide how messy some of the interplay between the guitar and bass actually are.

So yeah, the production is a problem - all the more glaring given the stronger melodies on their debut - but this album was still critically beloved at the time, so was it something about the content? Well, at first glimpse I was inclined to say that was laughable, but opting for more aggressive, minor-key tones does take The Misfits horror punk direction into slightly different territory where I can see the lasting appeal. Where the schlock that characterized their debut was more pulpy and campy, this is the project where the volume gets turned up, as the first two songs dive straight into a bloodbath on 'Earth A.D.' and rampant sexuality with 'Wasp Queen' and the third is literally about a devil that Danzig himself describes as 'cancer'. Oh sure, you still get old school horror iconography like werewolves on 'Wolf's Blood', but there's more attention paid to the grisly details - which you kind of need to give these songs an edge, so why not commit? And I'll admit the rougher edges and increasingly bloodstained writing does inspire a certain grindhouse exploitation feel that is entirely up my alley, a mood that, say, Discharge didn't quite manage to grab with their apocalyptic gorefest. But at the same time, it's hard to avoid the feeling that some of the writing was just as slapdash and rushed, and this is where we have to mention a larger frustration that comes with this album in particular: structure.  As I said, Danzig has outright admitted that 'Death Comes Ripping' and 'Bloodfeast' were both intended for his future band Samhaim and the sharper production and writing focus definitely stands out in contrast - and that's before I tell you the 'Die Die My Darling' single was not on the original pressing of the album and was only tacked on to the cassette and CD later. Now this was not uncommon in hardcore punk, but it does showcase how much this project in particular was cobbled together in post, a few stronger songs surrounded by messy fragments...

And yet there was an audience that considered this album a hardcore punk classic, or at the very least a cult favourite. Less so nowadays - given how The Misfits have reformed and put out more material of middling quality at best and how much Glenn Danzig has squandered goodwill - but they were there, so we need to ask the question why. And I'm honestly not sure there's a clear and complete answer: probably a combination of limited supply, the punk tendency to ignore sloppy production and instrumentation if the energy was there, and the fact that for this brand of horror punk, The Misfits were charting new territory. And some of it likely came from the lead-in of a great debut, wild live show, and a quickly canonized legacy thanks to breaking up before they anyone got the clue of greater flaws that would pop up in spades in the decades to come. But going back to Earth A.D./Wolf's Blood, while I can appreciate the darker, more aggressive follow-through that does show an evolution from their debut, with the benefit of decades of hindsight it's impossible to ignore the slapdash structure, messy production, and generally rushed experience of this album, a desperate hail mary pass of an album that failed to save its band and won acclaim because it tried. And while I can respect all of that... yeah, this is a light 6/10 and only recommended for the diehard fans or if you're curious about the origins of horror hardcore. Not a bad project, but absolutely a compromised one, that even today leaves open question of what might have been.

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