Dag's still got it.
Revelation Records called it “the most important release in the history of our label.” No small claim from a label whose catalog reads like a “who’s who” of hardcore bands, containing luminaries like Gorilla Biscuits, Judge, Youth of Today, Quicksand, Burn, and Sick of It All. From 1985 through today, Revelation Records has defined and redefined hardcore by consistently putting out the biggest and best the genre has to offer. So it makes sense that it would take legendary Washington, DC band Dag Nasty reforming and recording a new album to earn the “most important release” title. After all, most of the bands that helped make Revelation Records the label it is would probably not have existed had it not been for Dag Nasty.
Minor Threat may have invented hardcore, but Dag Nasty’s debut album Can I Say was largely responsible for giving it melody. It all began in 1985 when the original DC hardcore bands—Minor Threat, Faith, Void, etc.—began to react against the violence that had permeated the scene. Refusing to compromise their ideals, members of those bands recreated themselves in an effort to lessen the “slam danceability” of their music while maintaining the message. Brilliant bands like Rites of Spring, Embrace, Grey Matter and Three were just a few bands born from that movement that would change the face of hardcore forever. At the same time, Minor Threat guitarist Brian Baker had joined forces with vocalist Shawn Brown, drummer Colin Sears and bassist Roger Marbury to form Dag Nasty.
After recording a demo tape, the band replaced Brown with ex-DYS frontman Dave Smalley. The addition of Smalley would solidify the band and Can I Say, produced by Ian MacKaye and released in 1986, was like a breath of fresh air injected into the scene. While most of the DC scene was trading in their frenetic chops for a calmer, more experimental sound, Can I Say maintained all of the explosiveness and urgency of the early DC hardcore bands, while adding never-seen before melodies and harmonies. Smalley’s vocals, the perfect blend of anger and hurt, were the voice of a scene torn between the future it was discovering and the past it had left behind. Soon after the release of Can I Say, Smalley left to pursue graduate studies in Israel. The band released Wig Out at Denkos with Doug Carrion on vocals, also on Dischord Records, but were not the same without Smalley. (Dischord would later combine the two albums and re-issue them as one CD. Recently they’ve remastered the sessions and re-released them for the second time). That lineup also released Field Day before breaking up in the early nineties when they reformed with Smalley to release Four on the Floor.
Now Dag Nasty is back again, featuring the same lineup that propelled Can I Say, and the results are pretty awesome. Any skepticism over whether or not they could still deliver the goods should be erased about four seconds into “Ghosts”. The song begins with the frenetic guitar bombast that Brian Baker has become famous for, as Smalley wonders “Can I escape? Well not today and I still see them even though I moved away / It’s a bitter shade of gray and it leaves a bitter taste / Everything I do, everywhere I go, I’m seeing ghosts”. This is what made Dag Nasty so great: the classic driving hardcore song with Smalley’s insights gliding over them. This song is particularly reminiscent of that “DC emo” motif of trying to face a past that is inescapable no matter where you stand today.
The next track, “Minority of One”, shows how much Baker has taken from his stint in Bad Religion as the song could have come off of Generator or any of their other albums. However, lest we think Dag Nasty is about to go Epitaph records on us, “Bottle This” sounds like an out-take from the Can I Say session and is the clearest indication that the band has rediscovered the magic from their first recording. Brilliant mid-paced hardcore, complete with a breakdown provided by Marbury and Sears, and as the breakdown builds Smalley does his talk-sing thing that can be spine tingling. The fourth track, “Broken Days”, is the oddest track as the band takes a journey from their typical leanings into a land inhabited by Sugar, circa 1994. “Your Words” is slightly reminiscent of the anthemic attack of Down By Law as Nasty lays down the band’s battle cry.
Anyone looking for circle pit fodder should turn to “Throwing Darts”, which is so old-school that it could have appeared on the Flex Your Head compilation. “White Flag” once again sees Baker’s influence, as the song is so Bad Religion it even features the classic maniacal breakdown where the bass and drums sound like they’re about to explode before the song ends. “Average Man” ties things together as Smalley wonders what it’s like to have to work a 9-to-5 day, devoid of the inspiration of one’s youth. The topic is easy to muff and when tackled by an average band often comes off as condescending; however, Smalleys’ unique ability to sound like a compatriot saves the day.
So is this “the most important release” in Revelation’s history? Tough to say. There’s no doubt that Dag Nasty can still deliver the goods. Despite their occasional lapses into Bad Religion territory, this is the album they should have released after Can I Say. Musically, lyrically, it’s all here—however, I doubt this will have the impact of their earlier works. Those albums were released in a time and a place that seem so distant—partially because they were, partially because of when I discovered them. Growing up, Dag Nasty meant all the world to me. At times I still reach for them for comfort after a rough day. Will Minority of One mean the same thing to kids today? My perspective is warped by a stained glass pane of nostalgia hanging in the way; it colors the way I hear this. For me, Minority of One is like seeing an old friend again, delighted to find out that we still share the same bonds that once made us so close. For kids first hearing this album, I think they’ll find themselves listening to an excellent example of hardcore played at its best. Time will tell if they’ll look back on Dag Nasty the same way I do.