[8 February 2010]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Music fans love those rare recordings by their favorite artist, whether it’s an album that’s been long out of print (Neil Young’s Time Fades Away), never seen the light of day (Prince and the Revolution’s Dream Factory), or a supposed recording that’s achieved mythical status in the eyes of some collectors (Bruce Springsteen’s Electric Nebraska). Whether it’s the obsessive idea of being a “completist” or an interest in trying to further understand the musician’s art, searching out those rare recordings is a big part of the fun of being a music fan. Of course, it always helps when the artist relents and actually does put out the damn missing record, and that’s exactly what Georgia sludgemeisters Harvey Milk have done.
Casual listeners might have considered Harvey Milk’s 1994 album My Love Is Higher Than Your Assessment of What My Love Could Be to be their debut, but all the die-hard fans are well aware that in the summer of 1993, the Athens trio had headed to Chicago to record their proper debut full-length with Shellac bassist Bob Weston. Originally intended to come out on the North Carolina label 227 Records, for some reason known only to the parties involved, it was shelved permanently. However, and not at all surprisingly, third, fourth, and fifth generation recordings of that album surfaced over the years, to the point now where all one had to do was a quick search on Google to find a pirated downloadable version of what has come to be known as the Bob Weston Sessions.
The timing for the band and their current label Hydra Head to put together a proper release of that album couldn’t have been more perfect. After all, Harvey Milk rode a big wave of hype and critical praise with their astonishing comeback album Life…the Best Game in Town in 2008, and what better stopgap release could you put out than that long lost debut? So here we have it, finally, given a proper (eponymous) title and a good spit ‘n’ polish by Weston himself, enough to make any fan of the band ecstatic.
Structurally, what we hear on Harvey Milk isn’t much different than what we hear on My Love Is Higher Than Your Assessment of What My Love Could Be. In fact, four songs appear on both albums, with the only significant change in song length being a trimmed version of “Merlin is Magic” on the ‘93 album. It’s exactly what we expect the band to sound like, it’s what they’ve always sounded like: simply, one of the most formidable sludge bands to ever lumber across the earth. However, the huge difference is sonically, and while it is aided by Weston’s retouching, the fact is, remastered or not, these ten tracks obliterate the David Barbe-recorded versions on the ‘94 album. Warm in tone yet still unbelievably raw, Harvey Milk sounds phenomenal, rendering My Love surprisingly weak by comparison.
Granted, we do get a few tracks that do feel like works in progress, namely the psychotic dirge “Blueberry Dookie” and the crust punk-infused “Smile” (to be fair, twoof the band’s earliest songs), but for the most part Harvey Milk has the threesome sounding ferocious, bassist Stephen Tanner and drummer Paul Trudeau forming a punishing rhythm section not unlike Weston’s great Shellac as Creston Spiers unleashes riffs that waver back and forth between doom metal and hardcore, howling away in an ungodly voice that would become his trademark. The tortured seven minute sludge epic “Plastic Eggs”, which would eventually surface on 1996’s Courtesy And Good Will Toward Men, is an immediate standout, as is the towering “My Father’s Life’s Work”, which is built around a brutally slow, bluesy riff reminiscent of Black Sabbath’s first album. Only Ozzy didn’t emit the kind of disturbing, primal groans that Spiers pulls off.
Elsewhere, “Probolkoc” churns away mechanically, half predating the alt-metal fad that would soon follow, and half reflecting the burgeoning post-punk underground. “Anthem”, meanwhile, closes off the album on a triumphant note, featuring a clever outro swiped directly from Kiss’s “Black Diamond”, certainly not the last time the band would pull off such a stunt. It might have taken nearly 17 years, but it was worth the wait, and Hydra Head deserves credit for giving this terrific album a proper release, making it yet another “lost album” to cross of our lists.