Friday, January 21, 2011

Record Review: OFF! - First Four EPs

In many respects Keith Morris remains the voice of first-wave American hardcore. Ian MacKaye may be more ideologically righteous, H.R. more cross-culturally versed, Bob Mould and Grant Hart more technically nuanced, and the late-great D. Boon more politically engaged and unpredictable. But as the voice of late-70s era Black Flag—and later, as frontman of the Circle Jerks—Morris helped define the genre’s then-burgeoning dynamic of youthful rebellion and pent-up aggression. As far as I’m concerned, “Nervous Breakdown” is not only the inception point but also the epitome of hardcore punk, and 33 years later it remains every bit the contentious clarion call it was as the Panic moniker gave way to Black Flag in late 1978. Much of this has to do with Morris, of course, who delivered one of the era’s most lasting and invigorating vocal performances on the band’s debut release, embodying the restless fury that Southern California was then breeding in its adolescent community. That Morris only lasted a couple years in Black Flag is no surprise; what has continued to impress, however, is the man’s resilience and dedication to the movement that spawned this suburban blitzkrieg in the first place. After many failed attempts at officially reuniting the Circle Jerks as an actual recording entity over the past couple of years, Morris instead opted for an entirely new band. Operating under the awkward banner OFF!, Morris’s new group traffics in two-chord, one-minute hardcore like it never went out of style, and as its title suggests, their first widely available release, First Four EPs, gathers the entirety of their output to date.

With a line-up consisting of Burning Bridges frontman and guitarist Dimitri Coats, Red Kross bassist Steven MacDonald, and Earthless/Rocket from the Crypt drummer Mario Rubalcala, OFF! has some serious punk credentials at its foundation. Couple that with Morris’s impressively seasoned vocals and the visual aesthetic of veteran scene artist Raymond Pettibon, and you’ve more or less got the follow-up to Nervous Breakdown that never was. By this point you should have a pretty fair idea not only of how this record sounds, but also how much time you might have for such a staunchly nostalgic endeavor. After all, hardcore has splintered off into so many sub-genres and spawned so many dubious movements that a project such as this can sound at once charmingly naïve and totally out-of-touch. Thing is, America hasn’t exactly progressed very far from the Reaganomic landscape that first ignited this passion as punk-rock moved from the big cities to outlying neighbors on both coasts and across the Midwest. If anything, this music’s inherent moralist maxim is more appropriate than ever. It’s not hard to feel a tinge of indignation as one listens to songs with titles such as “I Don’t Belong”, “Now I’m Pissed”, and “Fuck People”, and I’d find it equally difficult to believe that within seconds of opener “Black Thoughts”—and I do mean seconds, as the track only lasts sixty—that any twenty or thirty-something who was weaned on SST and Dischord wouldn’t experience a waking-rush of hand-plastered DIY artwork or basement printed zine euphoria.

Still, this is a pretty low stakes endeavor for Morris. In many ways, this is exactly what you’d expect from such a scene stalwart at this point in his career, and its success hinges as much on what it can spiritually and mentally conjure—I keep envisioning late-night teenage viewings of Repo Man and that one summer I read “Our Band Could Be Your Life”—as what it could potentially incite (which, circa 2010/11, is honestly probably not very much). Sure, not every hardcore frontman has a Fugazi in his future, but it’s nevertheless pretty inspiring to see a veteran once again so confidently go against the cultural grain even while staying firmly within his wheelhouse. Furthermore, the process of deconstructing individual tracks—of which there are 16 here, clocking in at less than eighteen minutes—can prove rather pointless: closer “Peace in Hermosa” features the only instance of what anyone might consider a breakdown, and ethically the lyrics remain both completely of their era and timeless in their universality (i.e. lots of pissed-off talk about being bored, being fed up, and feeling disconcerted). The album title even seems to be referencing the Morris-featuring Black Flag compilation, The First Four Years (or he could just be lazy). If the worst thing I can say about OFF! and the First Four EPs is that it doesn’t upend any sort of expectations, then I can also say that I wasn’t really expecting anything in the first place, leaving this record as a kind of restatement of purpose for Keith Morris and a reminder that hardcore will never die. But you will. [InRO]

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