Attention! All ye freers of Fiona, Yankee Hotel Foxtrotters, record industry skeptics! The St. Louis-based band Living Things, a trio of brothers with the Clash’s politics and the Ramones’ riffs, were a recent low-profile casualty of just another corporate merger. Their ferocious Steve Albini-produced debut, Black Skies in Broad Daylight, was set to be released in August 2004 by Dreamworks, before the label was unceremoniously “acquired” by Interscope. (I reviewed the album’s original incarnation here.) Living Things found themselves label-less, and their record elicited little interest in the industry. (It’s possible that many labels found the band’s candid politics to be a liability; despite having toured with Velvet Revolver, Living Things’ onstage politics got them banned from L.A.‘s Viper Room club.)
Now, over one year later, Black Skies is seeing an official release with some revisions in tow. It’s been re-titled Ahead of the Lions, had its tracklisting slightly altered (three songs cut and three added), and Jive Records, unbelievably, is releasing it. The record’s rebirth is an all-around improvement. The new pseudo-psychedelic cover art is an aesthetic enhancement, even if it does sacrifice political implications for artful ones. “Dead Deer” and “Standard Oil Trust”, two tracks that slowed Black Skies’ final third, have wisely been removed. The new tracks help make Ahead of the Lions a tauter, more immediate record: “Monsters of Man” is a nervy, fuzz-faced rocker with a stubborn Stooges bang and sax honk; and “God Made Hate” lumbers around with big-fisted chords and militaristic momentum, instructing to “ignore them orders”. The album’s first single, “Bom Bom Bom”, is a new highlight, its title (and chorus refrain) distorting protest into a pop figment over a heavy Gary Glitter bounce. Lead vocalist Lillian Berlin lends new meaning to the phrase “we’re gonna rock this town”, his band colliding with a national hypocrisy.
Some may second-guess Living Things’ political soapboxing, especially when manifested in the form of a rock band. Admittedly, the band’s slick sound and rock star posturing may detract from its message (Albini’s recording is almost uncharacteristically immaculate), but at least they’re taking a stand for something. A band this young has plenty of time before it has to resort to leather pants, heroin chic, and laughable lyrics to eke out a decent living.
All other aspects of the original album remain unchanged: Ahead of the Lions is a punishing, accessible hard rock record, a marriage of the rock ‘n’ roll fetish of the MC5’s Back in the U.S.A. with Nirvana’s wicked decibel annihilation. The anti-war, anti-authority “Bombs Below” opens the record with a riff that sounds like the Cars after being exposed to Hulk-sized levels of radiation, and the concentration of intensity rarely lets up until 11 tightly wound songs later. It’s like a Foo Fighters or Queens of the Stone Age record, except it’s thankfully bereft of clichéd relationship songs and sounds like it would physically assault you on the street. Isn’t that what you want your rock ‘n’ roll to do?
The record’s proliferation of religious imagery (“No New Jesus”, “God Made Hate”, “you’re your own messiah”), often entwined with political righteousness, reflects the U.S. administration’s current outlook, mistaking personal faith as the bedrock of public office. If you pine for rabid, passionate hard rock with a pristine professionalism, Living Things are for you. “Wake up!” Berlin howls in “No New Jesus”. “Uncuff your hands!” This is a call, not to past resignations, but to future indiscretions. Living Things are intervening. This is what bands sound like before they stop caring.