Featured Releases - November 18 2021
Bad Brains: Rock for Light 12” (Org Music) The ongoing Bad Brains official reissue campaign has arrived at their second album, 1983’s Rock for Light, and I have a lot to say about it. I’ve always felt like Rock for Light was obscured by the lengthy shadows of the two monumental albums that stand on either side of it in the Bad Brains’ discography: their self-titled cassette on ROIR and 1986’s I Against I. You’ll find plenty of people who name one of those two records as their favorite Bad Brains release, but it’s rare to find someone who rides hard for Rock for Light. This is understandable, because the album has some flaws. The most egregious is the recording, which doesn’t suit the band at all. The Bad Brains were one of the most powerful bands ever to pick up instruments, and a great producer would have just thrown up some microphones and gotten the fuck out of the way. Rock for Light, however, throws a ton of very dated-sounding reverb on the drums and mixes the bass so low as to be nearly inaudible. It sounds so much worse than the more primitive and lower-budget recordings on the ROIR tape and the great, underrated Omega Sessions, and listening to it makes me wonder how anyone, at any point, listened back to it and thought to themselves, “this sounds really good.” But you know how you can make a thin, uneven recording sound even worse? By speeding up the tapes and pitching everything up half a step, which is what happened when Rick Ocasek and Daryl Jennifer remixed the recording for Caroline Records in 1990. That recording sounds odd, inhuman, and significantly worse than the original mix, and of course that was the version that was pressed throughout the 90s and 00s, and that’s still the version of the album on streaming services. (For good measure, they also shuffled around the track listing, butchering the original sequence’s flow.) Now that I’ve gotten all of my shit-talking and complaining out of the way, I want to insist that Rock for Light is still a great album that every Bad Brains fan should love. Despite the flaws in the production and recording, Rock for Light is a recording of the Bad Brains, who were still one of the greatest bands ever to walk the earth, and that shines through these flaws. The band is fucking blistering, at the top of their game, and Rock for Light captures them at an incredible moment. They were clearly headed toward the intricate, metallic I Against I material, but they were still playing that complex material at warp speeds. When I think of Rock for Light, I think of tracks like “Coptic Times” and “Joshua’s Song,” intricate mazes of music dense with tempo and rhythmic changes, most of it delivered with inhuman speed and precision. Interestingly, Bad Brains choose to contrast these more intricate songs (which I assume they must have written later), with a handful of bangers re-recorded from the ROIR tape (which, to be fair, hadn’t come out on vinyl when they recorded Rock for Light) and new recordings of some of their earliest songs like “Attitude.” The reggae tracks on Rock for Light are also some of the band’s best, with “Rally Around Jah Throne” and “The Meek Shall Inherit the Earth” sounding much more distinctive and memorable than earlier reggae songs like “I Luv I Jah.” While the track listing might look like a hodgepodge from our 2021 perspective, the result is an album that is intense but brimming with variety and expression. If it weren’t for the production missteps, I think most people would regard Rock for Light as the Bad Brains’ crowning achievement. While the remixed / sped up version is a crime against hardcore, when you listen to the original version (which is what you get with this new pressing), it’s easy to listen past those flaws and appreciate the greatness captured here. And since many of these tracks don’t appear anywhere else, it remains an essential piece of the Bad Brains puzzle.
Why Bother?: A Year of Mutations 12” (Feel It Records) Sam at Feel It Records has a knack for finding innovative and exciting new bands that are (at least before he puts them out) flying under the radar, and Why Bother? fits the pattern the label established with bands like the Cowboys, Sweeping Promises, and Smirk. Like those groups, Iowa’s Why Bother? sounds fresh and exciting, making music that’s grounded in the past without being bound by it. A Year of Mutations (which compiles tracks from previously released DIY cassettes and lathe cuts along with several new tracks) encompasses everything from driving, Spits-esque punk (“Buried in the Landfill (of My Mind)”), Electric Eels-style art-punk (“There’s Something Out There”), 80s-sounding indie rock (“Hum Drum”), and surf-inflected, California-style punk (“More Brains”), the disparate styles linked by the band’s restless creative energy and the charmingly lo-fi recording style. While I’m all for a band finding a formula that works and sticking to it, Why Bother?’s eclectic sound makes A Year of Mutations feel rich and fleshed-out in a way that much of the underground and DIY music I listen to doesn’t, yet everything still coalesces around the energetic and driving rhythms you want from punk. A standout release even within Feel It’s impressive catalog.
Death Gasp: Executioner cassette (Audacious Madness Records) This new tape from Pittsburgh’s Death Gasp caught me by surprise. While the artwork might lead you to expect straightforward crust, Death Gasp’s sound is heavier, gnarlier, and more interesting, incorporating metallic elements that remind me of bands like Amebix, Rigorous Institution, and (later-era) Crow. I love raging crust, but a track like “Ghost of the Bombs” illustrates how it can be even more effective when it’s contrasted with something else, starting with a writhing, Amebix-esque chug and building toward the main part of the song, which charges along at a Doom-style clip. Death Gasp’s sound is powerful on the metallic parts, with the guitars hitting gnarly low frequencies that even the heaviest doom bands would envy. Executioner is a real standout, and I hope we get some vinyl from Death Gasp in the future.
Barren?: Distracted from Death… Diverted from Reality 12” (Symphony of Destruction Records) You may remember Paris’s Barren? (the second band of this week’s update with a question mark in their name) from their contribution to Symphony of Destruction’s 4-way split 12” with Douche Froide, Litovsk, and Alarm, and now they’re back with their own full-length record. While the label describes Barren? as peace punk, they’re a long way from the skittering, Penny Rimbaud-inspired rhythms or the blaring hardcore of many bands who adopt that moniker. Instead, Barren?’s sound is straightforward and streamlined, bringing to mind another great 3-piece political punk band, the Mob (the English one, not the New York hardcore band). Like the Mob, Barren? build their songs around soaring, anthemic vocals that bring an emotional dimension to the political and social topics they address in their lyrics. There’s very little in the way of flash; no guitar leads or dramatic breakdowns, just driving, anthemic punk with big, shout-along choruses. Distracted from Death also features beautiful packaging, including an eye-catching Crass Records-style poster sleeve and obi strip.
My War #9 zine Belgium’s My War zine is back with their 9th issue, and this zine only gets better and better. It takes a big commitment to make a print zine nowadays, and Kristof’s passion for punk and hardcore is evident on every page, through both the visuals and the dense and lengthy text. My War is printed in full color, and takes advantage of that format with large, full-color photographs that set the scene for the informative writing. As usual, interviews are the near-total focus of My War, and Kristof’s interviews are thoughtful and deep. In a world of content meant to be digested in half a second as you scroll past on your phone, I come to print zines looking for depth, and My War delivers. This issue features interviews with Leper, Ian Mackaye, Bad Breeding, Bootlicker, and more, plus a short diary of Kristof’s experience at this year’s K-Town Fest. Nothing here feels shallow or perfunctory, and anyone with a deep passion for punk and hardcore will love it. Please never stop, Kristof. The world needs you!
Distort #58 zine The fifty-eighth issue of the long-running Australian zine Distort is out. I’ve been reading Distort for a long time (since close to the beginning I’m sure), and I’ve always admired this zine’s unique voice. Where a zine like My War takes a documentary approach to hardcore punk, DX at Distort (true to its name, I suppose) seems to delight in making things cryptic and slightly illegible, in keeping with his emphasis on what he calls “cult hardcore.” The band interviews are impressionistic and brief, but always leave me with a curiosity that sends me back to the music. This time around there’s a retrospective on the UK magazine Class War, interviews with Australian groups Prostate, Perspex, and Oily Boys, and (my favorite part of this issue) a feature on artist Sam Ryser about the one-of-a-kind band shirts he makes with magic markers. This piece includes color photos of the shirts along with Sam’s brief but interesting reflections on the pieces. Distort consistently pushes back against the rote and the conventional, and I’m always happy to see the current punk scene refracted through DX’s unique lens.