For their final studio album, the Blood Brothers enlisted the help of a man who was no stranger to baiting dogmatic hardcore fans: Fugazi’s Guy Picciotto. Working again at Robert Lang studios, the band employed both Goodmanson and Picciotto as producers, working over the course of three months to write and record Young Machetes.
Young Machetes is, in many ways, a strange swan song for the Blood Brothers. It’s easily the band’s most tuneful record, bearing more sing-along choruses, catchy hooks and traditional song structures than even Crimes. It’s also the slowest and least heavy of the band’s releases.
Calling Young Machetes a hardcore record is quite a stretch—in hindsight, it sounds more like a peculiar indie rock album, if anything. Yet even if Young Machetes finds the Blood Brothers completing their transformation into an indie rock act, it still manages to feel like a transitional record. Part of the problem is that it lacks focus: the band throws out a lot of different ideas but fails to choose a clear direction in which to move. As such, Young Machetes begs for a resolution that would not arrive. Instead, we are left with an album that, while flawed, hints at where the Blood Brothers might have gone next.
Like “Trash Flavored Trash” before it, the appropriately fiery album opener “Set Fire to the Face on Fire” feels like a concession to a fanbase that had, by this point, begun to cross over into the mainstream. Still, its lyrics are mostly sung, not screamed and its breakdown leads with a jazzy synth interlude—even if it does devolve into a complete spazz-out.
“Laser Life”, the album’s lead single, feels more like a Wolf Parade song than a Blood Brothers track, with its rollicking Wurlitzer lead, steadily plodding bass line and tambourine clicks. “Camouflage, Camouflage”, meanwhile, imagines a war-torn city concealed from outside forces; its refrain of “Camouflage/Camouflage/The city’s draped in/Camouflage” just begs to be sung along to—if you can hit the high notes, that is. Midway through, Whitney gets a piano bar-worthy solo, which he naturally milks for all the half-winking pathos it’s worth.
“You’re the Dream Unicorn” feels a bit like a throwback to the band’s early days, with its manic tempo and blistering guitar lead, until a chorus of voices enters, singing the song’s comical title. “Spit Shine Your Black Clouds” marries a theatrical, Queen-like piano ballad with the sort of funky, rhythmic stomp that made Prince famous. And “Lift the Veil, Kiss the Tank” closes with a tangle of jangly guitars that evoke the fuzzy tones of Fugazi’s “Arpeggiator” to spectacular effect.
In stark contrast to previous Blood Brothers albums, Young Machetes ends not with a bang but with a whimper. The album’s final three tracks are among its strongest and least conventional, offering a tantalizing peek at what the Blood Brothers might have become. “Huge Gold AK-47” revisits the viewpoint of “Celebrator” (“Come on it’s 4 am/Kick down the gate and spray your ammo like champagne”), wrapping an old school hardcore bass line around a recurring pirate chant of “Yo, ho/Oh, oh, oh”.
“Street Wars”, meanwhile, fully commits to Prince’s funk-pop template, inviting Whitney to put his stunning vocal range on display. “Exotic Foxholes”, the nearly three-minute outro that follows, is a smoldering landscape, populated by little more than a delicate acoustic guitar riff, an upright bass and an oboe. And “Giant Swan”, the album’s closer, is a slow-burner—a nearly six-minute exposition of surreal, nightmare imagery, soundtracked by a lethargic guitar lead and tumbling, jazzy drums. It’s as strange of a song as the band ever wrote, which is saying quite a lot.
In the way of extras, we get a second disc of remixes and live recordings. While Yeah Yeah Yeah Nick Zinner’s remix of “Laser Life” is unremarkable, the Gajamagic (aka Mark Gajadhar) remix of “Nausea Shreds Yr Head” reimagines the Blood Brothers as a surprisingly compelling, if scream friendly, electro-pop act. In Gajadhar’s able hands, “Street Wars” also gets a complete makeover—here, it’s recast as a mournful cathedral ballad, one that recalls the skeletal “harmonium version” of Depeche Mode’s “Enjoy the Silence”. Finally, we get a recording of a seven-song KXLU performance, which is particularly notable for the band’s tightness and for including many of the album’s best tracks.
Had the band trimmed some of the fat, Young Machetes might have been a good, 30-40 minute-long record. As it stands, however, at just over 50-minutes in length, it simply lacks the momentum necessary to compel. There’s too much filler, too many half-baked ideas and not enough commitment to the ideas that work to justify the album’s scattershot approach. Admittedly, some of the best tracks here show a way forward for the band, albeit one that would have required it to completely abandon those last vestiges of hardcore. Whether the band—to say nothing of its fans—would have been willing to go down this path is anyone’s guess.
In Our Band Could Be Your Life, Michael Azerrad recalls a legendary show that took place at Olympia, Washington’s Tropicana Club in September 1984, wherein the Beat Happening opened for Black Flag. Azerrad admits that the overtly fey Beat Happening and the belligerently masculine Black Flag were “an extremely odd pairing,” though he goes on to declare that, “in some ways the two bands weren’t so very far apart”. The point being that both acts were indisputably punk rock, challenging mainstream tastes and ideas about musicianship by pushing rock music toward opposite, if equally radical, poles.
During the coming decades, many bands would split the difference between these two styles of confrontation but few would harness the full force of both, as the Blood Brothers eventually did. They were loud, brash and heavy but never tough. They dared hardcore kids not to like them, overindulging their hunger for speed, noise and physicality while using their stage show to keep them at arm’s length.
Against all odds, they won over more hostile audiences than they lost. In so doing, they convinced punk rock to loosen up and accept a more elastic idea of masculinity, thereby reaffirming the spirit of inclusiveness that too many in the punk scene had lost sight of. Few bands did more to move punk rock forward during the last decade than the Blood Brothers. Here’s hoping that thanks to these reissues, a whole new generation discovers that fact.
The Blood Brothers, “Laser Life”
// Notes from the Road
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