By Bill Adams
Hardcore punk has mutated into a multitude of monsters since the music first careened inland from both U.S. coasts thirty years ago. The initial germination of the genre was simple; bands like Black Flag, The Minutemen and The Descendents (to name only a few) appeared seemingly from nowhere on the southern West Coast while Agnostic Front leached out of New York and Minor Threat crashed out of Washington D.C., and both factions began making inroads (or trying to) toward the middle of America almost immediately. Because all of those bands were doing and managing everything they were doing themselves (tours, releases et cetera), and the music appealed to a wide variety of rebellious sensibilities, it didn’t take long for little pockets of hardcore bands to start appearing all over the U.S. and Canada but, because there were no hard-and-fast (forgive the pun) rules regarding what was “permissible” and “abhorrent” when it came to songwriting, things starting changing rapidly. As hardcore began to spread, an increasing number of sounds started getting absorbed or incorporated into the genre; the Meat Puppets threw a bit of country into the mix, the Butthole Surfers dosed the music with acid (and dozens of sounds along with it), The Replacements and Husker Du added pop, skateboarders added still more speed and, eventually, bands like My Chemical Romance, Thrice and The Used would somehow introduce glam and metal into the mix [although those new bands suck – Da Ed]. Thirty-some years after the genre’s first appearance and “hardcore” has now become the umbrella term under which myriad bands operate. Some say the term has become diluted or meaningless but, really, the problem with “hardcore” is that it has simply lost its’ focus.
Losing focus or losing sight of an idea’s original intention is always frustrating to watch, but it also leaves the field wide open for the sort of revival that OFF! is spearheading with the release of their First Four EPs. Even right on the surface, the First Four EPs set and every aspect of it bellows a return to the earliest days of SoCal hardcore orthodoxy: recorded in just two days several months apart, the four discs of seven-inch vinyl are collected together with an additional booklet of photography, artwork and an essay by SST staple personality Raymond Pettibon. While that sort of history will spark some familiarity of form for some listeners, even those unfamiliar with Pettibon’s work will begin to get a sense for what they might be able to expect before the music even plays; the stark, monochromatic photos and the pen-and-ink renderings of grainy, noir-ish scene simply a sense of resigned but barely contained frustration that may make some listeners anxious, and they may almost feel compelled to scream or act out on behalf of those individuals frozen in a moment by the arts.
Those feelings of anxiety and frustration are fleshed out and driven home right away by “Black Thoughts,” the first song on the first side of the first EP in this set. Not only that, but the vintage vibes first honed by SST’s original roster of artists springs out big as life from the music and slaps listeners right in the face right away, and remains the driving force behind all four EPs; the urgency of that first song becomes the rule that endures consistently here, is the driving force behind every moment and the adrenaline generated every step of the way proves to be infectious as all four members of the band just pour themselves into every micro-tone of every song. Selections including (but certainly not limited to) “Upside Down,” “Now I’m Pissed,” “Panic Attack,” “Crawl,” “Blast” and “Peace In Hermosa” will all just burn new paths through the minds of listeners as singer Keith Morris (ex-Black Flag, Circle Jerks), guitarist Dmitri Coats (Burning Brides), bassist Steve McDonald (Redd Kross) and drummer Mario Rubalcaba (ex-Rocket From The Crypt, Hot Snakes) ignore every single “novel improvement” made to hardcore since 1984 and just play their music old-school in that adrenaline-fuelled and plainspoken, reactionary songwriting is the rule (check out lines like “Your high social caste/Privileged friends/You lure me in/But I can’t be your friend/Hit on Miss Liberty/Under the cherry tree/Drunk on hypocrisy/I’m standing in the shadows/And I’m pissing in the punchbowl/I don’t belong” from “I Don’t Belong”) and artifice-free passion is the norm. While every song is short (the longest in the set’s entire run-time is “Poison City,” which clocks in at a minute and thirty-three seconds) and fast, no listener runs the risk of inadvertently blinking and missing anything; no one who starts listening to the First Four EPs will be able to do anything other than flip/change the vinyl while they listen, they’ll be held as frozen as Pettibon’s pictures are, captivated by the music. It is raw and impossible to turn away from. Such a sound as that on the First Four EPs is not something a bunch of clever professionals could just phone in ad it could not be faked. This is the kind of punk rock that makes a fan for life because the sentiments are real, relatable, accessible (for the right kind of mind) and genuine; no punk will be able to miss any of that. This is not music to buy jeans to, it’s music to live by.
Bill Adams is editor-in-chief of groundcontrolmag.com