It’s hard to know what to do with OFF! even though Keith Morris’s latest foray into hardcore pretty much lays its intentions bare. There isn’t an ironic note in the band’s entire catalog – from the material that comprised The First Four EPs to the band’s new eponymous full-length. Instead what we get is a lot of pissed-off honesty, a lot of vitriol shot out in all directions, in short, quick bursts. It’s an energizing sound to be confronted with, but it hits so quickly and leaves you behind so fast that you might wonder what actual impact there is in such brief blasts of aggression. Morris is a guy who has spent decades having something to say about the bigger guy, about the hypocrite, about the cops, about whoever was running the system he was trying to fuck up. With that in mind, he actually has little to say on OFF!, or rather he doesn’t really dig into the topics he mentions here. Which is kind of the point. OFF! isn’t about analysis. This band isn’t about delving into issues and finding solutions. Instead, this album is a clearly and loudly stated list of complaints. This isn’t meant to tear anything down, but rather to illuminate the crumbling artifices already under our feet.
Morris starts with his own formless frustration on opener “Wiped Out”. As “the cities weight buries [him]”, Morris shouts from under all that pressure, as if he’s trying to get his last shrieking breath out. Of course, he’s just getting started. He takes shots at “original” punks and scene territoriality on “I Got News for You”. He shreds those who take shots at his band – and their quick-fire delivery – on “Cracked”. The sheep that follow along with societal plans (“Wrong”), US foreign policy (“Borrow and Bomb”), fracking and other pollution for profit (“Toxic Box”) – they all get dragged out into the harsh light of day. But if Morris is calling them out, he’s also stuck in his own frustration. It’s he who has “finally cracked” and, later, on “King Khan Brigade” is reduced to fantasies of clubbing someone “like a baby seal.”
This isn’t to say that Morris has lost it, but what OFF! seems to lack – which actually comes off as a great strength – is the patience to attempt any sort of repairs. If these songs seem self-righteous, it’s because they are, and defiantly so. They may push a bit when the targets feel like straw men, as on “King Khan Brigade” with the kids who “learn to shoot before they can read” and “sprinkle glass on their happy meals.” But that self-righteousness has its logical (and ideological) limits and, instead of seeming like a type of snobbery, comes across more as a passion for how thing could be mixed with the paralysis of living in the middle of so much trouble. If the walls are crumbling around Morris, he’s shouting at the architects, but while he points with one finger, he’s covering his head with the other.
Behind him, the band grinds out these songs with a young energy and a seasoned maturity. There’s nothing really complex about these songs, but they drive forward with an undeniable sense of purpose and a sneaky knack for a hook. Mario Rubalcala’s drums keep everything moving with a powerful speed, one that never feels like it will come off the rails, even when the songs stop on a dime or shift unexpectedly. Guitarist Dimitri Coats and bass player Steven McDonald are in lock-step with each other, and deliver blistering runs that are often just steady, razor-sharp chord progressions. On “Wrong” or “Vaporized”, they can hit with off-kilter riffage, but mostly the band sprints forward behind Morris’s bleating speak-singing. For a band that talks so much about the ills of the status quo, the music here represents that idea well. Most of the songs run on a one- or two-chord straight-ahead churn, before crumbling into a quick tumble of notes and cymbals. “Borrow and Bomb” gets thrown perfectly off course by quick shifting notes at the end of each line, while “Vaporized” rides on a lean riff until the chorus descends into a chaos of shouting noise.
The point is that OFF! is constantly speeding up and them slamming on the breaks, so while it’s fast it’s not exactly propulsive. But the whiplash you’re left with is still pretty amazing. This album, and band, succeeds because it doesn’t claim to be any more than it is, and while its ambitions may be low, its execution is brilliant and its insights – even if it doesn’t probe them – are sharp all the way through. The album delivers 16 songs in less than 16 minutes and then leaves you to deal with its brief carnage. It doesn’t stick around long enough to connect with the listener. It just does its thing, however briefly, and lets you in if you can keep up. In that way, OFF! isn’t confrontational, because confrontation – with us or with the issues addressed here – involves some level of interaction. So while we’re not confronted by the band – Morris has been around long enough to know what he’s doing and, probably, to not care if people get it – what we are confronted with, in the end, are our expectations. Of what music can do. Of what it can say. And of how it can say it. The band may hit with the power of that exclamation point at the end of their all-caps name, but the punctuation that best represents OFF!, that shows where their true power lies, well, that’s the question mark.