By BIll Adams
With all the lawsuits, controversy and other such nonsense surrounding the name iconography of Black Flag bubbling up to the surface lately (the short version is that guitarist and SST Records owner Greg Ginn recently has tried to sue the members of FLAG, then he threw singer Ron Reyes out of his reconstituted version of Black Flag and replaced him with skateboarder Mike Vallely) at the same time this new album has appeared, it’s tempting to pick a side and either promote or condemn the efforts of this band and this album, but doing so would be totally pointless. The finer points of the vanity and ego trips obviously in play here at the moment (come on – what punk lawyers up and tries to claim ownership over four rectangles?) are irrelevant – or they should be. The music is what should matter – not the name brand – so that’s what this review is going to focus on: the music, not the bullshit.
Whether or not fans really want to accept this band as being the new face of Black Flag really doesn’t matter. In fact, the best way to get the most out of What The… is to treat it like its own entity, not like “the first Black Flag album since 1985” or “the new album from the band who brought you Damaged, My War and Slip It In.” To be blunt, it’s not that band because only one member of THIS band played on any of those records – so calling this group Black Flag would be fundamentally erroneous at best and a crass half-attempt to cash in on a name at worst.
On its own, with no comparisons to the band many fans knew as Black Flag in mind, What The… isn’t a bad record at all, really. In fact, it has more than a few positive points; songs like “Blood And Ashes,” “Slow Your Ass Down,” “Go Away,” “The Chase” and “Lies” all take the rich sonic history of old school hardcore (that which utilizes lean, minimalist production, needs-first composition and performance and raw, unflinching aggression) and successfully revive the spirit and DIY fury just as it blasted out of SoCal circa 1982–1984. The rock-solid rhythm supplied by bassist Dale Nixon and drummer Gregory Moore builds a perfect base from which Ginn’s livewire lead guitar fires like a series of electric bolts and listeners will have a hard time not just sitting awe-struck by the raw power of the experience. Likewise, Ron Reyes’ performance and styling begs positive mention for performance alone; true, Reyes’ performance is not as instantly incendiary as Henry Rollins’ was back in the day and not as good as Keith Morris has proven he’s still capable of TO THIS DAY (see his performances and albums with OFF!), but the effort is there and a few performances (particularly on “Sit Your Ass Down,” “The Bitter End” and “Lies”) qualify as the genuine, incendiary article and at least deserve to stand next to the most recent releases from Gallows and Pennywise as far as ‘contemporary hardcore quality’ goes.
But is that really enough to call What The… a genuine return for Black Flag? Probably not, no. The fact is that, while What The… isn’t a bad album, it’s not a good Black Flag album. Black Flag was out of circulation long enough that a mythos built up and expectations inflated as that mythos grew. Because of that, while Black Flag once sought to conquer the world, now they have to conquer the world’s perception of who the band is/was/could be before anyone hears a note of new music. That is, in a word, unreasonable. That’s why this album falls short: it would have been wiser to leave the past alone and call What The... a new Good For You album instead.
Bill Adams is editor-in-chief of groundcontrolmag.com.