Album Stream: Via Stereogum
One of my aims with my reviews has been to help promote music I like; much of it is pretty obscure, few (if any) of the musicians are making a living off of it, and it’s a small way of giving some support beyond just buying records/merch and clicking “like” on social media. Sadly – and I do mean sadly, because I fucking love Black Flag’s back catalogue and their approach to punk rock as an art form – I don’t think this review is going to live up to that ideal. And that’s OK. Sometimes, fans need a heads-up that an album is not worth their time or money.
Black Flag should need little introduction for anyone familiar with American punk and/or hardcore. Their back catalogue is one of the most diverse, creative, and best that can be found. It’s for good reason that their four bars logo is so recognisable and often paid homage to. Yet, if anyone new to the band listened to What The…, they’d be very hard pressed to understand why anyone would think so highly of the band. I’ll try to ignore the law suit, the lame drama between guitarist Gregg Ginn and a host of former members, the fact that this comes so long after the release of their last album, and the horribly messy way that vocalist Ron Reyes was fired from the band whilst on stage, and just assess this as what it is: 22 tracks of rather confused punk rock that seems to lack direction, conviction, or creativity.
It’s that last part that is possibly the most damning. Take a moment to consider even the early Black Flag records, on their First Four Years compilation. The evolution over that time is obvious listening back to the songs, which took another leap with Damaged, and then the releases after that were all over the place, taking in punk rock, jazz, poetry, and doom metal, amongst other influences, yet succeeding all the while. But on What The…, it seems that Ginn has gone back to the punk rock core of their early output for influence, and forgotten what made it – and the best punk rock – so special. Instead, we have something chasing past glories, and falling very far short.
It begins with promise. Opener My Heart’s Pumping isn’t too bad at all, and brings to mind the band’s more straight-forward tracks towards the end of their 80s output, and raised my hopes that this might be worthwhile. But somewhere in the middle of second track Down In The Dirt, it begins to drag, and never really recovers. It’s all downhill from there. It soon becomes clear: these songs lack bite. They lack drive. They sound like they exist simply because they do, and mostly serve as a vehicle for Ginn to play guitar over. Granted, he can play – his soloing and leads are as jazzy and avant-garde as ever, and some of the riffs aren’t bad either, though mostly they just get played into oblivion and boredom. But mostly, it all just sounds lazy. The drumming is nondescript and barely noticeable, as if new drummer Gregory Moore couldn’t work out what to do with the music Ginn was throwing at him (or wasn’t given guidance), and so just went for something basic, hoping just to keep up. Likewise, the bass – played by Ginn under his Dale Nixon pseudonym – is largely unremarkable, save for the odd moment such as the chorus of Lies. There’s some theremin and organ on the album too, again played by Ginn, but you’d be hard pressed to tell what it adds to the songs.
The vocals fare no better. Even if I disagree with the idea that a Black Flag without Rollins is a Black Flag not worth having, I doubt that even he, as great as he was, could have done much with these songs. Ron Reyes was never a great vocalist during his original tenure in Black Flag, and he fares no better here. Despite co-composing almost all of these songs with Ginn, he sounds as if his heart is not in it, and is not aided by some truly dire lyrics. There is none of the wit of TV Party or Drinking And Driving; none of the bleak desperation of Nervous Breakdown or almost anything off of Slip It In; and the anger that drove along tracks such as My War and Police Story is utterly absent. There’s a few spoken-word moments that recall what Henry Rollins did on tracks such as What I See (rather than the actual spoken word tracks on Family Man), but it’s not a favourable comparison at all.
And that’s to say nothing of the cover art. If anything sums up Black Flag circa-2013, it’s that. Is it trying to be ironic, or did the band sit around and decide “yup, this represents the record”? I don’t know. Either way, it’s a mess, and the same could be said about the music contained within. It’s a perfect example of how to piss all over your own legacy; though perhaps that’s being unfair to all the ex-members of Black Flag who have had nothing to do with this record, as most of them have done far more to carry on the true spirit of Black Flag than Ginn has. Ironically, it makes what other ex-members have achieved with bands such as Flag and Off! all the more worthy of praise.
I could spend all night picking out examples of what’s wrong with this record, but I don’t want to spend my time doing so, and I’m sure you, dear reader, wouldn’t want to read all of it. There’s a few moments of decent music on the album – the opening track is OK, the chorus of Lies is decent, and the opening guitar to You Gotta Be Joking is pretty awesome. But that’s about it, really. I genuinely had hopes that this might be a decent album, that the band would rise above the past (no pun intended) and make something worth listening to, and show that the resurrection of Black Flag under Ginn was a good idea. As it is, it gives me absolutely no joy to say that What The… is best avoided. Most of the album is lazy and forgettable, utterly lacking in drive, energy, and enthusiasm. And on an album that is so clearly trying to recapture the past glories of the late-70s/early-80s era of punk and hardcore, that is a very damning criticism indeed. Maybe I’ll come back to this album in six months, or a year, or a decade’s time and change my mind, but right now? I’ll listen to the Off! records and pretend that In My Head was the last studio album Black Flag released. It’s probably better that way.