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Burning Alive Never Felt So Perfect

Ryan Potts

[The Blood Brothers'] dichotomy of bone-breaking screaming and jittery pop shrieking is like nothing rock or any of its inert subgenres has ever heard -- and there is beauty in its brutal destruction. Unpredictably violent and spastically catchy, the two throats chew the traditional hardcore vocal structure into tatters as they spit a grotesquely poetic ode to how people cloak themselves in lies and fake personae.

The Blood Brothers

Photo credit: Martyn Atkins

Tying a Noose of Piano Wire Around the Throat of the Past

With television a fluorescent tombstone and radio singing music's eulogy, our culture has sauntered into a state of emotional poverty and intellectual deprivation. Propaganda fills our heads like a landfill. People are exploited, sex and politics corrupted, art tarnished. In spite of all this, rock 'n' roll's nihilistic voice has been stitched shut, wandering a depressing landscape: still astray in the darkness of Nirvana's shadow, riddled with swollen egos and over-inflated poseurs. The disease of rap-metal and the lingering illness of MC5-mimicry now stunt rock's growth, limits it to its rudimentary DNA.

"You don't need a doctor, honey/ You need a mortician." This is what Johnny Whitney stammered at the end of the Blood Brothers' 2000 debut album, and no one envisioned that he, along with his four musical arsonists, would end up morticians to the benign corpse of rock. The Blood Brothers new album, Burn Piano Island, Burn -- equal parts cathartic release and beautiful chaos -- is rerouting the course of punk music.

But the Blood Brothers' postmodern punk rock is slaughtering more than just music and its typical conventions (although those too are being torched and charred). It's ravaging our deteriorating culture and torching society's dollar-driven distortion of sex, media and politics. Like a musical synthesis of William Burroughs, the avant-garde, At the Drive-In, androgyny, The Shape of Punk to Come, surrealist poetry, and Noam Chomsky, the Blood Brothers have assembled an album in Burn Piano Island, Burn that transcends stereotypes and trends. Words can hardly describe their punk-noise, with lyrics that read like a dystopian novella, and sounds like a rock'n'roll Armageddon. But this culture crash was no accident.

Carving Out the Hymn in Skin

The caustic punk rock roots of the Blood Brothers reach back to their high school days when the 15-year-olds were slaughtering their first victims at basement shows. After their first material appeared on Home Alive -- a Seattle stationed anti-violence organization and advocate for human rights -- they tore apart the West Coast scene both onstage and on vinyl. With one self-titled seven-inch and a split with Chicago's Milemarker, the Blood Brothers hacked these hardcore building blocks to construct Burn Piano Island, Burn: an album that can glue empty souls back together and fill the gaping holes of our culture.

Contrary to nostalgic-rock rewinders, this revolutionary gash in rock's now soft commercial skin doesn't take place in hipster scenes or hype avenues. Instead, this fire-breathing Seattle quintet exorcised their hardcore demons and hacked two albums of rough, jagged, brutal punk rock that bore no relation to the drivel being passed by MTV under the same pop-prefixed genre label. Arguably just avant-hardcore prerequisites to the society ravaging neutron bomb that is Burn Piano Island, Burn, This Adultery is Ripe (2000) and last year's March on Electric Children, were both equally equipped to drop jaws and scar ears.

However, the large evolutionary leaps taken by those LPs were more than mere vertebrae in Piano Island's spine, as each release has carved its own dynamic, abrasive niche into the hardcore canon. In retrospect, co-vocalist Jordan Blilie now pinpoints This Adultery as "too poppy" and Electric Children as "more metal." That is, if the pop he speaks of spews genre-corroding acid rather than saccharine and the metal referenced is sent through filters of dystopia and nihilism.

Still, March on Electric Children holds the vital metamorphosis from hardcore traditionalists to avant-garde extremists. That album was a conceptual post-hardcore opus which chronicled media's degradation of humanity, sex and thought. Much of Piano Island's surrealist vision has its roots entrenched in the disc's nine songs. Replete with a cast of surrealist lyrical characters -- for example, Mr. Electric Ocean (the mass-media) and the skin army (the superficial populace) -- the Blood Brothers have now abandoned the premise of a concept album in order to outline society's impoverished moral values and destroy them accordingly.

But even the name that bears the title of their ArtistDirect Records debut -- Piano Island -- traces its lineage through the lyrics of Electric Children and into a song title surfacing on This Adultery. "On our first record it started as just a fictional place, but now it's evolved into an embodiment of everything exploitative and disgusting in our world. And [Burn Piano Island, Burn] is getting rid of it," Blilie promises.

Sealed Inside are Secrets Screaming to Speak

Needless to say, however brilliant the Blood Brothers' two noisy culture-shock discs were and however raw their early spine-extracting hardcore vinyl experiments, this new album multiplies it all by ten. Burn, Piano Island, Burn is more daring, fully developed, incendiary, and just plain staggering than the thousands of bands aping the Velvet Underground's lo-fi pre-punk or posing as new Stooges. The problem is, what those creatively bankrupt bands lack, the Blood Brothers recapture in influence and motivation. They mutate and distort it, chew it and spit it out into a new, postmodern form of fucked-up punk rock where its musical knives are as sharp as its mind. Just listen to the 37-second opening track, "Guitarmy" and you'll realize no other record in ages has been this simultaneously intelligent, tenacious, visceral and vital as they so brashly proclaim that they'll send our culture into a car crash: "We wrapped your Corvette in cellophane, set it aflame . . . / We doused your TV set in propane."

However, what makes Burn Piano Island, Burn a profoundly revolutionary record is its sheer subversion: it destroys norms and preconceptions setting everything aflame from the inside out. The Blood Brothers extract all the thick-headed testosterone and tough guy masculinity that used to be a prerequisite to hardcore, they play without an ounce of highbrow pretension and they produce a new form of culture, not just eat up its remains. And, unlike that other major-label "underground" band the Strokes, the Blood Brothers could actually inflict a cerebral rupture on the music industry. That's right: Piano Island has surfaced on major label radar (ArtistDirect) and was funded by the very corporate puppet strings the Blood Brothers assault in their lyrics.

Directly retaliating against all indie elitists and hardcore fascists, the Blood Brothers realize that their dystopian punk-noise will heal more hearts and eradicate more cultural cancer by using a major label's reach and magnitude. Imagine if Nirvana ignored Geffen's offers -- what beacon of recent rock would flicker its light of hope? By subverting trite indie trends the revolution is now fully accessible: Burn Piano Island, Burn -- while more indie than the indie rockers and more punk than the punk rockers -- smolders with a potential energy to burst corporate rock into flames at every chain record store across America. "Torch these hands dipped in gold lacquer" sneers the title track.

Even without their subversive ideals, transcendent noisy qualities and intellectualism, the Blood Brothers' caustic grooves, mind mincing guitars and avant-garde experimentation simultaneously accelerates punk rock into the future while hearkening back to its original dissonant and destructive origins. But it's the twin vocal turbines that light the fuse: Johnny Whitney and Jordan Blilie instigate Piano Island's musical monsoon by personifying caffeine in their hair-raising, vein-splitting vocal desecration that is more brains than brawn and even a bit gender-bending in its anti-manly sound. Hissing and spewing lines back and forth, the two rail-thin vocalists spray mace or spit enough sugar to send stagnant hardcore traditions trembling back into its burrow.

Call them rock 'n' roll contortionists: while Whitney spits sassy squalls of venomous pop hooks, Blilie snarls through spoken word surrealism and art-school screams that, together, create the most brutally nihilistic, radically destructive style of vocals this side of Raw Power. And the interplay between the two is simply astounding: songs such as "Six Nightmares at the Pinball Masquerade" find Whitney jolting and jerking from the sassy, effeminate pop squeals of, "Can you feel your sweat beading porcelain?/ Your skeleton outgrowing its skin?," into Blilie shredding any remnants of musical coherence with anarchic screeches and screams before slinking into a whisper of tempo-halting, free verse poetry. The dichotomy of bone-breaking screaming and jittery pop shrieking is like nothing rock or any of its inert subgenres has ever heard -- and there is beauty in its brutal destruction. Unpredictably violent and spastically catchy, the two throats chew the traditional hardcore vocal structure into tatters as they spit a grotesquely poetic ode to how people cloak themselves in lies and fake personae. Surrealism coats their words -- "The maitre d's quiver as they watch you shiver as the mask and mouth knit into each other.../ I saw the mirrors cringe/ The choir voices bend/ The costume in my skin" -- as the band raptures between frenetic mayhem, irresistible hooks and riotous energy while transcending all the genres that've shackled rock.

But after the vocal shrapnel breaks necks and stereotypes alike, Piano Island is the first Blood Brothers' album to feature an instrumental equivalent to their vocal arsenal that is at once an antidote to everything rock isn't and everything it should be. Although they layer their auditory anarchy with bass lines that stab your brain and writhe in your body, wiry guitars layered as dense as concrete and drums that fracture both bones and beats, Piano Island is also replete with pianos, synthesizers, acoustics and glockenspiels to create a brutal sonic playground that expands (and explodes) your mind. As drummer Mark Gajadhar explains, "I get bored after about four measures, so I have to keep everything changing just to keep myself happy. If I didn't have that, I'd probably have to quit the band." This need for creative release and yearning for cathartic invention is what plunges the Blood Brothers' insights into the depths of humanity to make an musical alloy that is both radically dynamic and continually threatening to rock's trite traditions.

The evidence seethes in every aural inch, but the Blood Brothers' visionary prophecies become clear and vividly terrifying in Piano Island's closing song. "The Shame" epitomizes the Blood Brothers' conquest -- both musically and ideologically. "From these cliffs you can see the whole city laid out groveling like a field of wounded soldiers/ The billboards in heat and hissing/ The sky scrapers stitching the gash of the earth/ As they waltz the broken dance of their limbs/ Their ballroom has been groped by so many evil whims." As Whitney sputters these lines, the band collapses into a clash of the avant-garde and the post-hardcore, an obstacle course between our everyday exploitations and the strength to survive them. This is their shame (and their inspiration): the world we live in.

The Fornication of Fear and Flames

Ultimately, the Blood Brothers are simply far too good for their own health -- and yours. They channel the Velvet Underground's nihilistic voice instead of merely imitating it. They accelerate the Clash's self-titled debut and Wire's Pink Flag up the speed of light, but they don't clip their riffs or rip off its proto-punk shriek. And the conclusion here is clear: the Blood Brothers inject much needed subversion into lukewarm corporate-rock world (and they do this from inside the industry's walls). They abolish trends and stereotypes (and dismantle the enforced structure that such trends create -- both musically and ideologically). They turn punk rock back into an intellectual force (by stripping the rotting skin of our society to reveal a decayed corpse).

But heed my warning: Burn Piano Island, Burn is addictive and lethal. The Blood Brothers are saviors to a generation sick and fucking tired of choking on testosterone rock, weary of having their eyes polluted by a Hollywood screen, pissed at seeing sex, media and art being bought out by the largest dollar sign. I'm convinced these sounds won't just abort every other band who think they are playing important heavy music, but they'll unite the alienated, give hope to the suicidal and rejuvenate the depressed.

Burn Piano Island, Burn is an escape, a cathartic cure for emotional impurity and cultural decay. It's an ear-shattering wake up call to the mass-media toxic waste dump we call television and radio; shock therapy for a culture sauntering into an ignorant, cold slumber.

Has your blood turned into antifreeze? Has your heart contracted into concrete? Does your mind dream in dollar signs? The sleepwalk ends when Burn Piano Island, Burn meets your ears.

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