Free LSD LP
(Fat Possum Records)
To say that the last few years have been marked by difficulty and upheaval for OFF! would be an understatement. After Wasted Years was released in 2014, OFF! kept excitement levels up with the announcement that they were working on a feature film project (to be entitled Watermelon) as well as an accompanying soundtrack but, when their Kickstarter campaign proved to come up short, trouble seemed to be on the horizon. That trouble came into clearer view when bassist Steve McDonald left the band and joined The Melvins and drummer Mario Rubalcaba went back to work with Earthless. On top of that, OFF! left label Vice Records and picked up with Fat Possum (which, while it came off as a far better and more potentially stable arrangement, did not immediately see a new release – choosing instead to reissues of OFF!’s back catalogue) which, while heartening, also left a lot of very large questions looming.
Simply said, a lot of strings have been left hanging in OFF!’s story and catalogue, and there’s no question that tying them all up without a new release to help move everything along would be a tall creative order. Free LSD doesn’t try to do all that [Watermelon evolved and was re-titled as Free LSD off-camera, and this album is its soundtrack. The film will be out next year -ed] but it does attempt to move forward from the ground on which OFF! has spent the last three releases.
As soon as “Slice Up The Pie” opens the A-side of Free LSD, listeners will immediately be able to register a difference between how this first song sounds and everything that preceded it. Those familiar with the band will be a little confused when the first thing they hear is an extended synthesizer drone which just drags on. This is a band who built its name on songs which played in a minute or less when they started, and the drone at the beginning of “Slice Up The Pie” alone is almost thirty seconds in duration. Granted, the drums supplied by Justin Brown (of Thundercat) are nowhere near as heavy as Rubalcaba’s were, but they’re just as propulsive and listeners will find an easy way in between those drums as well as the guitar/bass wall erected by Dimitri Coats and bassist Autry Fulbright (formerly of …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead). It isn’t the same as the form that fans have come to expect from OFF! (in fact, the song is about twice as long as most of the songs on OFF!’s first three albums), but it’s still pretty solid. “Time Will Come” follows that opening pretty well by assembling a similar pattern to its predecessor, but some listeners may notice lines like, “Interstellar messages/ Ancient astronauts” and, “Walk through walls/ To a different place/ The evolution of the human race” and wonder where they could possibly have come from. This is the band who modeled itself after the short, simple, street-level onslaughts of Black Flag and began with songs which featured such lyrics as, “I’m standing in the shadows/ And I’m pissing in the punch bowl” – this is a pretty significant departure from that.
The distance between where OFF! started and where they are on Free LSD grows even larger as “Kill To Be Heard” brushes against political dissension (lines like, “False flag rapture sham/ At the children’s prison camp” ring as talking points from the Trump administration), but the real surprise comes when “Invisible Empire” plays a lot like a Black Sabbath song, and the textural touchings in the guitar part which powers “Circuitry’s God” as well as the much slower-moving “Ignored” actually begin to sound like stoner rock. Granted, the overall form is still pretty obviously the punk rock that OFF! has been making since 2012 – but the notion that changes are developing isn’t unreasonably and, when “Black Widow Group” (which features a slightly airier mix than fans are accustomed to, from OFF!) trails off into the saxophone-y rave-up instrumental shich is “L” (which, itself, is actually the second instrumental on the album’s A-side – but the first, which appears after “Kill To Be Hears,” doesn’t feature a hard cut at the end of the song and really just feels like an extended outro, on vinyl), it’ll have listeners moving to flip the record over and keep the energy up before the final notes register.
…And when “Muddy The Waters” kicks open the B-side, listeners will know that, while Free LSD is a more experimental record as a whole, Keith Morris and Dimitri Coats still have it in them to produce an OFF! song as fans of the band’s first three albums know the form. Clocking in at just over a minute, all the things which made the first three OFF! albums great – the speed, Morris’ hoarse vocal tone, the return to hardcore anti-production – are all set up perfectly. And the song itself? “Muddy The Waters” examines sociological events as they have been presented over the last couple of years (see lines like, “Confuse community/ Radiate the population/ Rewrite history/ Rewrite yesterday/ Folklore sustains itself/ How do you see it?/ Now you don’t/ Hall of fractured mirrors”) and dismisses it with disgust. The bitterness in Keith Morris’ vocal delivery is staggering but, by song’s end, listeners will find themselves siding with him; the anger accessible, in this case, and listeners will be able to note specific aspects of the singer’s delivery with which they’ll be able to relate.
There’s no way to deny that, after the street-level assault of “Muddy The Waters,” OFF! hangs one foot off the edge of the map and taunts the idea of losing listeners as they sprinkle a little more stoner rock styling as well as a whole lot of alien conspiracy theories into “Murder Corporation” – and then do it again on “Behind The Shifts” (which indirectly discusses the conspiracy theories which swept through headlines repeatedly during the Trump administration) in a pretty cringe-y way (we escaped the Trump years – it’s too soon to revisit them in any way).
Happily, after the worst one-two punch in OFF’s songbook (“Murder Corporation” and “Behind The Shifts”) and then “The Worst Is Yet To Come” follows with an equally wretched line which originally came from Kimberley Guilfoyle, the band recovers well as “Suck The Bones Dry” lets Autry Fulbright’s bass have some better presence in the mix, and then really lambastes listeners with “Smoking Gun” – a song which bravely keeps energy levels up, but also finds Dimitri Coats playing beyond the hardcore “fast chords only” standard and unloading a slab of frenetic power which could best be described as “Agnostic Front on speed.”
As the album begins to wind to a close, Coats allows himself the chance to play open chords (read: not power chords – but they’re still really overdriven) on “Peace Or Conquest” and adds some kind of delay effect to Morris’ vocals to make them completely unintelligible for a second and then hits an awesome peak and pinnacle for the album’s title track, which plays so hot and so hard that, for a second, listeners may swear they hear a tea kettle whistling somewhere in the mix. The result is absolutely fantastic, in the end, and while listeners still get a sax solo through the final cut on the side (“D”), listeners will just be left glowing as the closer runs out. “Free LSD” will have already warped listeners in all the right ways, by the end.
…And yes, reader, Free LSD is as good as you think. It is not perfect, but the album manages to develop OFF!’s established sound further, without running the risk of alienating fans with dramatic formal alterations. It’ll be interesting to see how OFF! develops from here, now; Free LSD sets the precedent that more changes may be in the band’s future, so it’ll be interesting to see where the band goes next. [Bill Adams]
OFF! – Free LSD – [stream]
Free LSD is out now. Buy it here, directly from the band.