When Washington, DC’s post-hardcore quintet Black Eyes announced their break-up this past May, no one really cared, or really even noticed. Their eponymous 2003 debut had garnered critical attention matched by a building reputation surrounding their ferocious live act, but the band had always seemed unfairly overshadowed by DC staple Fugazi and label-mates Q and Not U. But for those who did notice their dissolution, we wouldn’t fully understand that loss until a month later with the quiet release of their second and final album, Cough, an album criminally ignored in the months since by fans and critics alike. While a now non-existent band’s inability to tour may be the true culprit, Cough deserves better: It’s the best record DC has yielded all year, and one of the small but potent scene’s best productions thus far this decade, standing alongside Fugazi’s The Argument and The Dismemberment Plan‘s Change.
The debut—for all the novelty of having two drum kits, two basses, a lone guitar and two equally abrasive vocalists—was far too constrained within the now institutionalized “DC sound”: a hardcore aggression balanced by rhythmic arrangements and off-kilter sensibilities. With Cough, gone are the angular basslines and percussion-driven grooves, and with that, gone is probably half their fan base. Finding bearded bassist Jacob Long now concentrating on saxophone, the album’s free-jazz embellishes immediately paint a disc more representative of New York’s late ‘70s avant-garde and no-wave movements than DC’s enduring hardcore tradition. Whether driven by wandering, near-klezmer sax or creating dub-like textures as a mere medium for their sociopolitical rantings, Black Eyes have caught fans violently off-guard. Proclaiming, “Who have eyes to see let them see! / Who have ears to hear let them hear!,” Black Eyes entirely deconstruct the tight rhythms that defined their debut; Cough is as much a disintegration (and denouncement) of their city’s signature post-hardcore establishment as it is a dramatic evolution for the band. With the subsequent break-up following the album’s recording, it’s hard not imagining it documenting a band as they implode. Their label (the semi-historic Dischord) describes it as “burning it all to the ground”. This couldn’t be truer.
The atmospheric opener “Cough, Cough” is the album’s only attempt to contain its entropic indulgences, a contemplating pre-apocalyptic chaos revolving around a gently-moving bass dub, distantly resigned vocals and increasingly frenzied percussion, eventually erupting into the structureless “Eternal Life.” At first a wall of feedback, frenzied sax, and vocal wailings, the cut takes an entire minute to find its spastic melody, and the seemingly inattentive Black Eyes lose it mere seconds later, more intent on furthering their chaotic experimentation. But beneath the noise, there are odd semblances of order and calculation guiding our protagonists, whose deviations of time-signature and melody shrewdly assist Cough‘s enigmatic qualities.
As lyrically focused on urban violence (“I know the sound and smell of gunshots!”) and sexual ambiguity (“Looking at the girls with boy’s pants / And the boys with girl’s hips / I never wanted to go home”) as their first effort, Cough also incorporates an unexpected biblical bent, at times quoting canonical passages. The unique interplay between the high-pitched rantings of Daniel Martin-McCormick and the deliberating punk growl of Hugh McElroy compliments these lyrics well—even when unintelligibly rabid or hidden beneath the towering rhythms and James Chance-esque saxophone bursts.
Ultimately, Cough is a confusing album, and requires particular attention from the listener. Its grating qualities will lead many to deem it “unlistenable”, but repeated stabs should hopefully yield a subtle understanding of this short—albeit complicated—record. Much like Joy Division’s Closer, Cough is an album of resounding ambition and unheralded growth, a testament to a band who—if allowed a longer existence—might have accomplished anything. It’s not perfect, and it’s certain to drive some fans away, but mostly, it’s simply a shame that it’s their last.