Graded on a Curve:
OFF! (s/t)

The first full-length LP from hardcore punk survival unit OFF! delivers more of the brief, scorching sound initiated on their four highly-regarded EPs. It’s a dandy listen, and it places Keith Morris and cohorts at an interesting place. Just where will they go from here?

When it first came to my attention that Keith Morris was going to be fronting a new band, my immediate impression was a mixture of sincere happiness for the guy and a complete disinterest in actually hearing the music. We’ll get to the happy part a few paragraphs down, but the apathetic aspect has been hashed out by quite a few others already; it has to do with both the age of Morris and his band members and the actual contemporary relevance of the whole hardcore punk shebang.

Methinks that hardcore is a perfectly fine genre to tackle in the here and now, but it is a form best served up by a band of fresh-faced upstarts like Trash Talk rather than promulgated by a bunch of certified oldsters. Unlike blues, jazz, and country & western, punk rock and hardcore in particular doesn’t ripen with age; it’s very much a young person’s game. Of course, plenty of old punks are still making high quality music. It’s just that very few are still working from within the confines of the style that originally spawned them.

And it’s not just the factor of youth. There is almost always a very finite window of opportunity from which to produce truly topflight junk before the situation just starts to break down. The number of bands that produced more than one great punk LP is infinitesimal compared to the sheer wealth of fleeting names that could only manage to squeak out one exceptional seven-inch or a single classic song before the wheels fell off the endeavor.

 

When someone tells me about a bunch of punk vets whose sound is “just like the old days,”my reaction is consistently that of utter dubiousness, understanding the general tendency of folks to misapprehend good intentions for actual sonic success and to elevate form over content in a desire to reconnect with past glories.

In the case of OFF! I was hearing it from people I thought would know better, and this did rouse my curiosity a bit. Still, I continued to avoid the band for a long while after learning of their existence, mainly due to my familiarity with the slowly diminishing quality of Morris’ past work; by the release of Wonderful in 1985, the Circle Jerks were essentially over and done with.

The four essential LPs of the Los Angeles HC-punk experience are in order of release (GI) by The Germs (released ‘79), Group Sex by Circle Jerks (released ’80), the self-titled debut from the Adolescents (released early 1981) and Damaged by Black Flag (released late 1981). Sure, there are some other high quality long-players in the Los Angeles hardcore canon along with scores of seven-inches, comps, and individual songs that help to really flesh out the city’s post-Dangerhouse Records scene, but these four albums easily encapsulate the growth of the straight-ahead HC-punk sound before the genre quickly started stagnating and became plagued with also-rans, violence, and noxious posers. In brief, these four LPs set the standard.

Indeed I was extremely happy to know Morris had a band and was kicking up some fervor and that his personal circumstances were looking up, for an acquaintance that had moved to the west coast had filled me in on just how awful he felt after ordering a pizza and finding one of his favorite musicians ringing his doorbell to deliver it. Simply put, hearing that news stung me, too. And on top of that the guy was diagnosed with diabetes back in 2000.

Now, past glories are no guarantee against the hard realities of life, but this was an unshakable drag of a situation, for Morris is one of true greats of Cali hardcore punk not only through his direct involvement with the Circle Jerks but also by serving as Black Flag’s first vocalist, appearing on the genre redefining and still blistering Nervous Breakdown seven-inch.

Instead of enthusing at length on the quality of Group Sex, I’ll just reference the words of the Angry Samoans’ Metal Mike Saunders when he called it a classic of “folk appropriation;” Morris and company grabbed from whatever was necessary and came up with a ragged and concise masterpiece. And it was the LP equivalent to a bolt of lightning, i.e. the kind of record that’s essentially impossible to follow up. But try they did, naturally and admirably, with two very interesting if problematic LPs, Wild in the Streets and Golden Shower of Hits. Then the situation started going to the dogs circa Wonderful. It was really quite predictable.

Well, against my better judgment I eventually caught up with the First Four EPs. And against the odds its contents were rather major. How’d that happen? For starters, Morris and ex-Burning Brides’ guitarist Dimitri Coats bailed on a reportedly subpar Circle Jerks’ incarnation and recruited drummer Mario Rubalcaba (Rocket from the Crypt/Hot Snakes) and Steven Shane McDonald (Red Kross) to serve as the rhythm section. This shaped them up as a sort of punk rock supergroup, meaning they were flirting with disaster of massive proportions. But in avoiding the worst of all outcomes they actually achieved an extremely impressive result.

For comparison purposes OFF! mostly resemble the primal throttle of early Black Flag (that’s pre-Rollins, don’tcha know), an obvious similarity reflected in the humor of the band’s name. The First Four EPs delivered a wallop that was very similar to the aural punch thrown by one of the first three sides of the Flag’s Everything Went Black or the entirety of The First Four Years. Like these examples, OFF!’s whole essence was “short:” short-tempered, short in song-length, short in overall running time. It was a resounding and unqualified success. The only question was how long would this good creative fortune last?

This follow-up, packaged as an LP, is slightly shorter in running time than the First Four EPs, and as such holds some surface resemblance to the maniacal brevity of Group Sex. The music however retains its love affair with the mauling, grim density, and velocity of early Flag, with a few slight and unfussy nods toward growth. For one example, Coats’ guitar has become more dynamic, though it’s as different from Greg Ginn string-bending work as it is similar.

Unfettered hardcore is essentially a music of exhaustion; how long can I deal with this six-band show; how long can I play drums this way without losing the feeling in my arms; how long can this amazing band avoid descending into suckdom? Minor Threat, the pick of many (including myself) as the greatest hardcore band ever, only released three 7-inch records and one 12-inch EP (plus two compilation tracks) in their entire existence; the band’s whole discography fits onto one compact disc with time to spare.

If post-hardcore was a widespread phenomenon, it had a hard time catching on in Cali and in particular Los Angeles, likely because that’s where much of HC’s sound, concept and image was formulated, and it’s also where many bands had something resembling commercial success (and the requisite “fame” that came attached). Kids in DC, Chicago, Boston, Texas, Detroit, and other points on the North American map were initially reacting to cues from England and yes, indeed Los Angeles and later to each other; popularity was largely elusive outside of their own peer group and notoriety was essentially posthumous. When HC started running out of gas it was easy for bands in the Midwest or DC to integrate elements of post-punk, noise, or metal into the equation with differing levels of success.

In Los Angeles, three SST bands were the exception to the hardcore redundancy; Black Flag’s big grapple with a metal/hard-rock sound (what Joe Carducci dubbed “New Redneck”), Minutemen’s power-trio brilliance, and the far less heralded punk-psyche-art of Saccharine Trust. In comparison to these bold moves, OFF! is still taking baby steps.

But it’s early yet. This self-titled affair is their first LP after all. But it essentially puts them on a precipice; are big things going to happen, or is this the beginning of the seemingly inevitable downward spiral? It bears mentioning that Morris has never successfully navigated a move away from the punk norm. It would be a total gas if at this late date he accomplished just that.

Graded on a Curve: B+

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