Top Ten lists, like the ragged handwritten label of an old school mixtape, should never be considered an end-all or a final declaration. They are a weight station in a single person’s life, an aural index of a person’s sense of place, time, and culture. This list of lost punk singles/7” records from the American Midwest is not about a “best of” concept, it is about the rare, sometimes seminal gems that remained tucked away from most consumers because they were made in small batches. Having growing up and attended schools and gigs in the Illinois flatland region, I consider this list like a shout-out to nearby mavericks and marginal rockers that produced fare worth revisiting.
“Trailer Court” (Noiseville 24, c. 1988)
This limited run of 300 contained actual bits of now-petrified beef jerky stuck down in the plastic sleeve. Produced by iconoclastic Steve Albini (Big Black, Shellac), the dense, murky mixes resemble acid-punk noiseniks Scratch Acid. The band delivers herky jerky rhythms and bastardized caterwaul vocals, anchored by bass player Simone Rinehart. Side b’s tongue-breaking titled “Dope Smoking Red Necks from Cedar Rapids Trapped in an Alternative Reality” is woven with Black Sabbath-style heavy thunder groove, which quickly gives way to metallic, double-bass drum, up-tempo mayhem that captures a demented trailer park vibe. The two-color, hillbilly grotesquerie artwork is seminal. This is haunting, neanderthal stuff from the bowels of Iowa City.
“Snakebite” (Self-released, 1989)
Released when Trenchmouth featured two blistering guitarists, singer Damon Locks played crazed congas, and the group was much less jazzified and deconstructed than its 1990s version, the whirling bass and near-funk patterns meld with glass-melting punk. Limited originally to 430 copies, replete with Fred Armisen’s (Saturday Night Live and Portlandia ) handwritten phone number on the back, this Windy City post-punk fills in the void between primitive acid-jazz grooves, worldbeat brazenness, and fetid Fugazi formula. It acts like a bridge mingling Beefeater and agit-pop. That musical territory seems to acknowledge and embody the city coming to grips with the soon-to-be post-rock era (or error! to some critics), crowned by Shellac, Tortoise, and others. This is shamanistic and lo-fi.
“Mood Music” (Self-released, 1979)
From Crete, IL, this dose of funkified New Wave loitering in the lap of 1979 is actually a slice of quirky genius. Drums careen like Gang of Four with tom tom lust; the guitar snakes and dives, performing riddles during daring moments; the bass plucks and plods effortlessly; and the vocals, heavily treated and tweaked, show a future maverick (Frank Nardiello of My Life with the Thrill Kill Cult) in his primal enfant terrible form. The mix is solid and appealing, the attempts to carve out a taut sound is uncanny, and the thick tribal modes and from-the-gut toying with form is both vigorous and mannered at times. Side two is a more direct flow of sonic slyness, breeding well-placed jolts and helter skelter musical bravura. This is a ripe and ready distillation of Midwest post-punk.
“It’s a Beautiful Day to Die” (Self-released, 1996)
Stemming from the dank cellar of the infamous Lost Cross house in the murky underbelly of Carbondale, IL, this twin-guitar rigged powerhouse burst through the lame indie pop landscape of the mid-1990s with dizzying speed and style, putting all the Pavements on earth to shame. Borrowing from hardcore punk’s lean zeal and thrust gleaned from Youth Brigade and Articles of Faith, the manic hillbilly guitar interplay of the Supersuckers, and the thick barely pop crunch of the Didjits, this four-song gem is relentless. The bass playing is monstrous and thumping, the drums barrel down with a punishing barrage, and the guitars fly into webs of solos with spidery notes intact. Just an hour from Kentucky, this unit proved to be a searing stab of gearhead punk stuck in the tough-as-nails coal region.
Rest in Pieces (Landmine, 1984)
Recorded circa 1983/84, the curious chaos of Downers Grove, IL, comes full-tilt on this split 7”. Dead Fink bites like classic Code of Honor: vocals pop four feet from the mix, drums sound like plastic gallon jugs, manic stops and starts riddle the song, and in the prized gaps and silences are wire-thin guitar licks. Overall, they pay close attention to rhythmic contortion, rare in the days of bulldozer hardcore. Happy Toons is freaky fast like all those acronym bands—MDC/FOD/AOD—but some classic guitar riffage unfolds and squanders the purity, in a good way. Unregimented, unbound, toxic-fueled, and varied, the tunes never buckle under the weight of artful gesture.