Before a show on the 2003 Burn, Piano Island, Burn tour, I interviewed Johnny Whitney and Morgan Henderson for my college newspaper. Sitting across from them in one of the Fireside Bowl’s worn vinyl booths, I ran through a list of questions that I had scribbled down in a notebook, all of which the band had probably been asked more times than they cared to recall. Despite my obvious greenness, Henderson was forthcoming and affable, listening patiently to each question and offering up thoughtful answers.
Whitney, meanwhile, was decidedly cagier and seemed more interested in the music playing over the PA system than in the interview. When a Queens of the Stone Age song came on, he started drumming loudly on the tabletop with his hands. Occasionally, however, a question would merit his attention and he would butt in, offering up a response before Henderson had had a chance to answer.
Not knowing any better, I eventually asked them what, in hindsight, was an offensively amateurish question: how did the Blood Brothers see themselves fitting into the hardcore scene? Whitney was quick to respond that they didn’t—the Blood Brothers were not a hardcore band. Surely, though, the members of the band must at least listen to some hardcore music? “No,” Whitney responded unhesitatingly, “We only listen to shit like T-Rex and Bowie in the van”.
While Whitney’s declaration may have been little more than self-aware posturing, only a few months prior, the band had been paying lip service to San Diego grind forbears Antioch Arrow and Seattle metal-core heroes Botch in interviews with zines. It pointed to a very real problem for the Blood Brothers, one that challenged the band’s identity as outliers. Burn, Piano Island, Burn had raised the band’s profile considerably; the Blood Brothers were now selling out headlining shows and opening up for more established acts like Cursive and AFI.
This newfound popularity, however, came at a price: as word spread, more members of the so-called “meathead” contingent started showing up at Blood Brothers shows, attracted by the band’s intensity, use of violent imagery and reputation for inciting mayhem. The band now found itself at a crossroads. Should it declare victory, embrace its acceptance and allow its sound to be subsumed by the hardcore scene? Or should it reaffirm its radical creed by issuing a record purposefully designed to freak out squares?
It should come as no surprise that Crimes, the band’s follow up to Piano Island, chooses the latter path, though it’s not weird in the expected, knotty follow-up to a breakthrough album sort of way. Rather, Crimes is a profoundly weird record, one that could have alienated even the band’s core fanbase. That it didn’t speaks volumes both to the band’s dedicated following and its ability to sell itself live—against all odds, the Blood Brothers played some of the largest venues of their career on the Crimes tour. Still, the album achieved its desired effect. It proved that the Blood Brothers were no longer just at the front of the hardcore vanguard—they were one of the strangest, most inventive rock bands around, period.
Recorded over the course of two months at Robert Lang Studios in Seattle with local producer John Goodmanson (Pavement, Sleater-Kinney, Blonde Redhead, Death Cab for Cutie), Crimes would mark a turning point for the Blood Brothers. Here, the band would more openly embrace the glam-rock influences they had long hinted at, while introducing elements of soul and even gospel music into the mix. Recorded, as it was, during a time of political uncertainty, the album’s lyrics are more overtly political than any the band had penned previously, adding yet another layer of depth to the Blood Brothers’ work.
“Feed Me to the Forest” makes clear from the outset that Crimes is going to be a major departure. Like many songs on the record, it’s a slow crawl, rather than a sprint, driven by pounding drums and a low, jarring bass line. Following the physically demanding Piano Island tour, the band made a conscious decision to write slower songs so that they might pace themselves during live sets.
In that spirit, “Feed Me to the Forest”, is notably less frantic—though every bit as sinister—as the songs on Piano Island. Votolato and the rhythm section work in tandem here, ensuring that the song lumbers along deliberately, like a piece of heavy machinery. Synths squawk and chirp atonally in the background, as Votolato slides in to and out of jagged, non-standard chords. On the chorus, the band picks up the pace, as Whitney screeches like a man possessed, hitting higher registers than we had heard him reach for in the past. His vocal here is so impressive, you might assume that it was sped-up, if you didn’t know any better.
“Trash Flavored Trash”, the album’s lead single, feels, in many ways, like a minor concession to old fans. Granted, it’s slower and less chaotic than the songs on Burn, Piano Island, Burn and sticks fairly closely to a verse/chorus/verse formula. Still, it’s punishingly heavy at times and while its lyrics sketch out a critique of the news media, most of the grisly imagery employed would feel right at home on Piano Island (“Take me to the pit of celebrity pregnancies/I want to wear the skin of a magazine baby”).
What follows, however, is wholly unprecedented. A love song gone horribly, disfiguringly awry, “Loves Rhymes with Hideous Car Wreck” slinks along on a base of handclaps, maracas and an undistorted guitar riff. Whitney’s vocals here are more than androgynous—a casual listener would likely assume that the lead vocalist was female—and he sings with palpable soul, allowing the refrain of “Love, love, love” to roll off of his tongue and rounding the word “love” as if it were a lozenge. It’s both one of Whitney’s finest performances and one of the best songs the band ever committed to tape.
“Peacock Skeleton with Crooked Feathers” feels like a distant, if less tightly wound cousin of “Cecilia and the Silhouette Saloon”. Anchored by a delightfully campy carnival organ line, the song invites Whitney and Billie to put their playful rapport to good use. The following, demented exchange provides a prime example: “‘Hey peacock?’/‘What’s that?’/‘I just want to know what his blood tasted like/Was it sugar or vinegar/Or whiskey or dirt?’”
In some ways, “Crimes”, with its slow gait and tumbling percussion, sounds like a Fugazi song played at half speed. Its lyrics, which deal explicitly with detritus, both literal and figurative, are at times disarmingly realistic (“And the children/In the subway/Eating apple cores/Is anybody listening?/They’re breathing paint out of plastic bags/Their mumbled mouths say/‘Is anybody listening?’”). “My First Kiss at the Public Execution”, meanwhile, returns to the realm of theater, with Whitney gleefully squealing to the object of his affection, “So, won’t you hold me closer, oh?/Until the execution’s over, oh”.
The album’s closing suite, “Celebrator” and “Devastator”, serves as a meditation on the effects of war, examining conflict from the viewpoints of both the conquerors and the conquered. “I just want to join the party/But the piñata is stuffed with oil and sand”, Whitney whines on “Celebrator”, one of many overt references to the Iraq war and the Bush regime. “Devastator”, meanwhile, strikes a markedly different tone. Opening with a group hymn that sounds like an old spiritual and led by a striking, mournful vocal by Whitney, the song resonates in a way that few Blood Brothers songs do. Like “Crimes”, “Devastator” finds the Brothers employing their penchant for gruesome imagery to paint a disturbingly real landscape: “Neon black flowers on the mass grave/Neon black corpses, stacked, eclipse the horizon”.
While Crimes failed to land with the same impact that Burn, Piano Island, Burn did, it marked a critical juncture in the band’s evolution. On Crimes, the Blood Brothers outgrew the expectations of the insular hardcore scene and found a distinctive voice that played to their individual and collective strengths. Having sharpened their lyrical skills, they tackled weightier topics with greater finesse, demonstrating that they had learned a lesson that most punks never do: that social commentary need not be didactic in order to be effective. Musically too the band is at its most inventive here, using every resource at its disposal to create unsettling sonic landscapes that don’t rely on velocity alone. While Crimes is, admittedly, nowhere near as striking as Burn, Piano Island, Burn, it is unmistakably the product of a more mature band.
Disc two of the reissue offers some insight into the creation of Crimes. There are alternate versions of two songs—“Crimes” and “Peacock Skeleton with the Crooked Feathers”—both of which differ significantly from the album versions. “Crimes” swaps out the heavy choruses for a subdued, jazzy breakdown while “Peacock Skeleton With the Crooked Feathers” feels like the product of a loose jam session; the band dances around the hooks, never quite allowing them to come into focus.
There are also two non-album B-Sides, “Ladies and Gentlemen” and “Metronomes”, both of which read like slow dirges (“Metronomes” is particularly notable for its sluggish, bone-crushing beat and eerie outro, wherein Votolato picks his strings above the nut). Listening to these castoffs, it becomes clear that the band made a conscious decision not to veer too far from their previous sound. We also get six live tracks, most of which are culled from the band’s set at the 2005 Reading Festival. Unlike on “Jungle Rules Live” the sound here is clear enough for us to appreciate the near virtuosic skill with which the Blood Brothers reproduced their songs live, despite the often tumultuous conditions onstage.
The Blood Brothers, “Set Fire to the Face on Fire”
// Notes from the Road
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