punk

Mix Tape

This fall, Canteen ran an essay of mine on music criticism, the glories of MP3 blogs, and my discovery of Zam-rock. It’s not online, but here’s a pdf.

cover-63I’ve always been obsessed with music. When I was a kid, I eagerly awaited each new Rolling Stone and Creem magazine, even though I didn’t necessarily understand the record-geek Aramaic in which they were written. (What’s an 11-year-old to make of a sentence that name-checks both Camus and Ozzy Osbourne?) It hardly mattered, though. It was a wide new world.
Later, I became a loyal reader of Maximumrocknroll, the Bay Area punk bible. A pulpy, grayscale rag that seemed to smudge your fingers if you even looked at it, MRR ran profiles of bands big and small; dispatches from scenes across the world, from Tacoma to Tokyo; and, this being the 1980s, screeds against Ronald Reagan. I always turned to the reviews first. There were pages upon pages of them, capsule reviews of roughly a million bands I’d never heard of. These listings filled me with awe: People had listened to all of this stuff–and they could place every release within the punk cosmology, each tape (they were mostly tapes) a speck of dust in an expanding universe of sound.

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The Walled City

In the latest issue of San Francisco magazine, I review the new album by Kowloon Walled City, the city’s best new metal band. These guys combine the aggression of Black Flag (sans Henry Rollins’ petulant moaning) with the sludgy grandeur of the Melvins, producing the aural equivalent of a primal scream. Check it out.

A band’s name is usually a clear indicator of its sound. (Really, could Cannibal Corpse play anything but metal?) This holds true for Kowloon Walled City, though you might not realize it at first. The San Francisco metal band takes its name from a famously dangerous Hong Kong neighborhood run by killers, drug dealers, and pimps–a sort of hell, in other words–and the group sounds satisfyingly like its name. Banging out a symphony of down-tuned guitars and turned-up amps, KWC harks back to similarly heavy forebears, like the Melvins, Helmet, and Oakland legends Neurosis. The band’s brutal debut EP last year earned it a spot at the gene¬≠rally metal averse Noise Pop Festival, and its first long-player only improves on the formula. The opening track, “Annandale,” sets the tone, with front man Scott Evans’ sandpapery croak slicing through the barrage of low-end riffs and hammer-fall drumming. A keen sense of dynamics keeps things interesting all the way through: “Paper Houses” swings like an undertaker on his way to the boneyard, and the cathartic closer, “More Like the Shit Factory,” features a chiming guitar that could almost be called pretty. But the idyll doesn’t last long–these guys have a name to live up to, after all.

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Detroit proto-punk

I was surprised to pick up the Times this morning and see this piece on Death, a Detroit punk band from the early 1970s, a band that was, as the headline so aptly put it, “punk before punk was punk.” Also, these guys were black, in a music scene dominated by Motown on one hand and white rockers like Alice Cooper and Bob Seger on the other. They didn’t fit in, and their record company–which apparently had no idea what to do with them–dropped them after they refused to change their name. They recorded an album but never released it; soon enough, they upped and left Detroit for Vermont, where they became a reggae band. Yeah, truth is stranger than fiction.

I first came across these guys last year on an mp3 blog, a couple songs posted as a stopgap before the full release came out. One of those songs, “Politicians in my eyes,” just blew the doors off: though recorded in 1974, it’s got the buzzsaw guitar work, abrupt tempo changes, and hyper-fast vocals that everybody first heard in Bad Brains five years later. You can hear the anger of those times in the music–the race riots, the war in Vietnam, the general, unshakable feeling that it’s all going to hell and there’s nothing you can do about it. All of that’s in this song. Now that the whole album’s out, you can hear it for yourself. Everybody knows that the MC5 and the Stooges are the godfathers of punk, but these guys deserve a place in the pantheon, too, as the bridge to what followed. So now, more than three decades on, Death gets its due.

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