Return to Piano Island: The Blood Brothers, Revisited

One day in the fall of 2002, I stuffed a paperback novel into my back pocket, hopped on the “El” train and headed north to the Fireside Bowl, the once and future bowling alley that, for about a decade, served as Chicago’s primary all-ages venue. The Blood Brothers, a Seattle hardcore act that I knew little about, was headlining that night and on the recommendation of a number of friends, I decided to check them out. I arrived at the venue just before the Brothers’ set and staked out a spot at the front of the stage, completely oblivious as to what was about to transpire.

The instant the band’s set began, the room exploded in a frenzy of excitement. I was immediately knocked flat onto the stage and had to scramble to my feet to avoid being trampled by vocalist Johnny Whitney, who had already begun flinging himself around like a rag doll. For the next half hour or so, I struggled to stay upright, all the while bearing witness to one of the most visceral, challenging and intense performances I had ever seen. On my way out of the venue that night, I was surprised to spot my paperback lying face down on the ground, about 20 feet from the stage.

Yes, the Blood Brothers kicked my ass, but that’s not the only reason why I remember them so fondly. They taught me — and presumably, many others — what it really means to be punk, at a time when the punk subculture had become every bit as conformist as the dominant culture it railed against.

The term “hardcore”, nebulous though it might be, is inextricably tied to a definite history and tradition. It brings to mind an image of Henry Rollins, shirtless and brawny, commanding the attention of the angsty, sweat-soaked teens surrounding him. The Blood Brothers took this idea of hardcore and distilled out its essence: the anger, disillusion, terror and alienation that drive the music’s aggression. They then rebuilt the music from the ground up, ratcheting up the intensity a few notches while subverting the unspoken conceit of hardcore culture: that rage is inherently masculine. The Blood Brothers were louder, faster and heavier than most any other hardcore act of their time. They were also far more effeminate.

At first blush, it’s easy to question the subversiveness of an all-male band in a male-dominated scene. To appreciate the Blood Brothers’ significance, we must recognize that while rock ‘n’ roll has never been particularly kind to women, the punk scene was more progressive than most. Punk rock had seen a few female-fronted bands over the years and what they lacked in numbers, they often made up for in mindshare (the riot grrrl movement, in particular, had addressed any lingering doubts as to whether women could play an active role in the scene).

What punk rock kids still hadn’t seen much of was sexual ambiguity; aside from a handful of pioneering D.C. post-hardcore acts (Shudder to Think, Embrace, Rites of Spring), few bands had dared to challenge the scene’s conception of masculinity without resorting to the sort of self-pitying oversensitivity celebrated by the emo movement. This was especially true in hardcore circles, where the discussion of sexuality and sexual identity — even within the context of a performance — was considered anathema.

Keeping this in mind, the Blood Brothers set out to confront; depending on your viewpoint, their performances were either revelatory or incendiary. For close-minded purists, few things could have been more challenging than the band’s theatrical, playful, sexually charged performances. Night after night, the Blood Brothers cultivated the best kind of discomfort, expanding the parameters of hardcore’s formulaic sound while undermining the audience’s sense of communal identity. The point wasn’t merely to subvert hardcore’s tired tropes; rather, the band also helped to widen its appeal. The Blood Brothers served as a crucial entry point into hardcore for fans of indie rock, glam rock and art pop, not to mention those outlying punks who never bought into hardcore’s machismo.

Whitney, the band’s frontman, took it upon himself to serve as the group’s primary provocateur. Stomping around the stage as if throwing a tantrum, he would alternate between impossibly high-pitched chipmunk croons and throat-shredding banshee screams. It speaks volumes that he endured shouts of “Shoot yourself in the head, fucking faggot!” while on tour supporting AFI, a band whose lead singer’s sexuality is widely debated.

Jordan Billie, meanwhile, served as Whitney’s onstage foil; the Ian MacKaye to his Guy Picciotto. Pacing the stage like a caged animal, he would whisper unsettling entreaties into his microphone in a low baritone, a fractured reflection of masculinity at its most sinister. Of course, he also spent at least half of his time onstage matching Whitney scream for scream, effectively doubling the band’s vocal firepower.

While Whitney and Billie might have been largely responsible for the Blood Brothers’ notorious stage presence, the value of the other three members’ contributions should not be understated. As adept as the band was at baiting prejudice, it was equally skilled at breaking down musical barriers, which it did with impressive prowess and ingenuity. Cody Votolato, the band’s sole guitarist, played with blistering speed and dexterity, frantically laying down disjointed, fragmented riffs that recalled Fugazi as much as Swing Kids. Bassist and keyboard player Morgan Henderson kept apace with his chunky, dub-influenced bass lines, following Votolato through the songs’ many twists, turns and abrupt time changes. Last but not least, Mark Gajadhar provided a sonic anchor in a sea of chaos, pounding out both slow, driving rhythms and heart-stopping blast beats with equal aplomb.

As groundbreaking as the Blood Brothers were, one gets the feeling that the band was never fully appreciated outside of the relatively small scene in which it existed. An inability to easily categorize the band’s music may have been partially to blame. Some tried to shoehorn the Brothers into the grindcore and spazzcore scenes, though their sound was infinitely more sophisticated than that of most of the bands usually associated with those sub-genres. Likewise, the screamo tag also never quite stuck, as the Blood Brothers were anything but self-serious. And the band proved too heavy for all but the most adventurous indie rockers and far too weird for the average metalhead.

Whatever the reasons, critical praise for the band was fleeting. While their albums regularly earned high scores from critics — Ryan Potts daringly called the band’s high water mark, Burn, Piano Island, Burn, “the most prolific, beautiful, and vital statement of rock since the Stooges’ Raw Powerin his review for this publication — the Blood Brothers were too often forgotten when the time came to compile year-end lists. While they had little trouble cultivating a devoted and sizeable following through years of endless touring, somehow, the Blood Brothers’ influence was always more often felt than it was acknowledged.

As such, it’s hard to argue with Epitaph’s decision to re-release four of the band’s five albums, three of which have been expanded with bonus material. The band had the bad luck of signing with not one but two labels that would eventually shutter their doors; as such, at least three of these albums would currently be out of print were it not for Epitaph. This Adultery is Ripe, the band’s excellent debut, will remain on Second Nature Recordings, along with the band’s vinyl catalog.

Artist: The Blood Brothers

Album: March on Electric Children

Label: Epitaph

Release date: 2009-11-07

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/b/blood_brothers_-_march_on_electric_children.jpgMarch on Electric Children

Released on Locust and Swing Kids frontman Justin Pearson’s 31G label in 2002, March on Electric Children, must have initially seemed of a part with the arty San Diego grindcore scene. Certainly, speed freaks would have found much to love in the record’s breakneck tempos, violently colliding riffs and ear-piercing screams. Upon closer inspection, however, it would have become clear that the album gave listeners far more to sink their teeth into than the average 31G release. Described as a sort of concept album by the band (the liner notes read, “short story and music by the Blood Brothers”), March on Electric Children weaves a loose narrative, populated by recurring, archetypical characters.

Truth be told, the substance of the story is largely secondary; March on Electric Children contains a higher screaming to singing ratio than any other Blood Brothers release and as such, it’s all but impossible to make out most of the lyrics, let alone follow the story that they tell. Still, based on the song titles and the few passages of audible lyrics, the keen listener is able to discern a number of persistent themes: skin, violence, exploitation, sexual depravity. Pair these recurring themes with a penchant for shocking imagery (sample lyric: “Peeling back the birth skin like wrapping paper around a virgin”) and you get an album whose commentary on mass media, body image, exploitation and vanity can be easily appreciated. Subtlety, one senses, was never part of the objective.

Musically too, the band rarely holds back on March on Electric Children. With an average track length of just under three minutes and a scant, 24-minute runtime, the album often feels like a sprint to the finish line. Still, the band manages to pack a lot of ideas into these nine short songs. Tracks like “Birth Skin/Death Leather”, “Meet Me at the Waterfront After the Social” and “March on Electric Children” stick fairly close to the spazz/grind playbook, with a smattering of strange flourishes layered atop: sci-fi synths, pick scrapes and pinch harmonics, theatrical vocal cadences.

“New York Slave” employs a tortuously winding bass line that slows to a crawl during the song’s midsection, as Billie delivers one of the album’s best lines (“The groom plucks a key/From the rapture tree/And opens her ribcage like a squealing armoire”). “Kiss of the Octopus” opens with a sample lifted from Nine Inch Nails’ “The Perfect Drug”, an obvious nod not just to NIN but to Refused, the hugely influential Swedish group that popularized the use of programmed beats in hardcore. The stuttering, seasick transition from the sample’s breakbeat to Gajadhar’s rolling percussion easily stands as one of the record’s finest moments.

As it turns out, the album’s final two songs would best presage the band’s future aesthetic. “Junkyard J. vs. the Skin Army Girlz/High Fives, L.A. Hives” nods firmly toward the Brothers’ glam rock influences, prominently featuring Whitney’s androgynous croon atop razor sharp guitars and a driving bass line. “American Vultures”, meanwhile, goes further. A saloon piano duet between Whitney and Billie, the song would almost feel at home in a production of Ragtime, save for the fits of screaming that bookend the singing.

Ultimately, March on Electric Children, like its predecessor This Adultery is Ripe, documents a band outgrowing the constraints of a cloistered scene. During this period, the Blood Brothers were largely known as that Seattle band that took up the mantle of the San Diego sound. On future albums, the band would come into its own, developing a distinctive, wholly original sound that would fully reflect the diverse tastes and technical abilities of its members.

Burn, Piano Island, Burn

Artist: The Blood Brothers

Album: Burn Piano Island, Burn

Label: Epitaph

Release date: 2009-11-07

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/features_art/m/mehan-burnpiano-cvr.jpg

Burn, Piano Island, Burn

Some have accused Ross Robinson, the producer of the Blood Brothers’ major label debut, Burn, Piano Island, Burn of sonic trickery. Robinson, these naysayers claim, took a band that wasn’t particularly heavy and made them sound downright brutal. On this point, I couldn’t disagree more. It’s always been my opinion that Burn, Piano Island, Burn is the only Blood Brothers LP that manages to accurately capture the intensity of the band’s live show (see the appendix to this reissue, the “Jungle Rules Live” DVD, if you don’t believe me). Burn, Piano Island, Burn is an eviscerating record, a relentless sonic assault that teeters on the edge of chaos for nearly 50 minutes. Dynamically speaking, it’s all release — you’re expected to bring your own tension to the party.

Yet Burn, Piano Island, Burn has so much more to offer than just blistering intensity. Lyrically, it’s a great leap forward from March on Electric Children. Using imagery culled from the detritus of society, the album paints an alarming picture of a crumbling, post-modern dystopia, one whose inhabitants never pass up an opportunity to indulge their worst instincts. Rather than attempting to tell a heavy-handed story, the album simply spews forth images like a cracked piñata, inviting repeated listens and close scrutiny.

Still, this is very much a scorched earth campaign, a fact that the band makes immaculately clear from the onset. The 39 second-long “Guitarmy” isn’t just the album’s opener — it’s a statement of intent. “Do you remember us? Do you remember us?/We doused your TV set in propane, turned up the gain!” Whitney and Billie gleefully shout amid power chords and snare hits that land like tons of bricks. The Blood Brothers are here not to mourn the breakdown of society but to celebrate it.

“Fucking’s Greatest Hits”, the album’s first full-length song, demonstrates just how far the band had come musically since March on Electric Children. Though disjointed and powered by a jerky, start-stop rhythm, the song comes charging out of the gates with a driving momentum. It’s far from disorderly, however: tiny details — a ride hit surgically inserted into brief second of white space, a verse that collides perfectly into a chorus, clicking rim hits that tick off fractions of a second — reveal a laser-sharp focus and a mastery of craft. This, it seems, is the sound of meticulously controlled chaos.

Offering a momentary respite from the storm, “Every Breath is a Bomb” also speaks to the Brothers’ disdain for traditional song structure. Opening with what sounds like echo-laden, violently plucked piano strings, the song eventually finds an uneasy groove in a repeating organ line and crashing cymbals. Things limp along like this at first, with Whitney’s squeals setting the scene: a comatose patient in a “fluorescent tomb”. Around the one-minute mark, the drums start to build and the song bursts in a flash of primary colors. Whitney and Billie play a brief match of vocal tennis (“Can you inject love’s tender touch back into the gang bang…Can you put the bite back in the beast you’ve broken, tied and tamed?”) before the song retreats again back to that organ line.

At last, the drums pick up beneath the wobbly organ and things roll along steadily until the song hits what can only be described as a ska breakdown. We then get a brief coda wherein Billie whispers menacingly over a shuffling drumbeat and muted organ chords. Finally, things start to build toward the conclusion, wherein Whitney and Billie repeatedly plead, “So doctor won’t you pull the fucking plug?/Won’t you cut the cord?”

While the Blood Brothers never quite wrote pop songs, “Ambulance vs. Ambulance” is about as close as Burn, Piano Island, Burn gets to something that can be described as accessible. Surprisingly, the song sticks to a fairly conventional verse/chorus/verse structure and employs melodies that are both immediate and catchy. As such, it was wisely chosen as the album’s lone single–the band even made a hilariously low budget, horror movie-inspired music video to accompany the song (included on disc one of the reissue).

Henderson’s dexterous bass line deserves much of the credit here, keeping the song grounded through a series of escalating flare-ups. Whitney and Billie, meanwhile, take turns on the mic, reading out lines from a grisly SAT problem on the verses (“Ambulance X extracts several consultants/From the slow, gumming death at the office orifice/Ambulance Y imprisons the sigh/Of the recent amputee and dumps her in the xylophone trees”) and trading high-pitched screams on the choruses. While not quite ready for the mainstream, the song easily became a fan favorite and a centerpiece of Blood Brothers live sets.

Many Blood Brothers songs exploit the fact that the band had two vocalists but few do it as well as “USA Nails”. The song consists of a dialogue between two characters: a woman accused of murdering her infant child (“They found him in some trash can/Blue, all clenched and chewed/But don’t judge me, I’m not his real mother/I couldn’t even recognize his face”) and the sex line worker she uses her one-call-a-day allowance to ring. Naturally, Whitney plays the histrionic mother and Billie, the operator. Billie, in particular, really shines here. Whispering a twisted fantasy into the receiver, he sounds both lascivious and genuinely terrifying. Just before the chorus picks up again, he manages to spit out, “We’ll send you the bill”.

“Cecilia and the Silhouette Saloon” is perhaps the best-loved song in the Blood Brothers catalog and it’s easy to see why. The song makes use of many of the Brothers’ most beloved tricks: a low organ line in lieu of bass, explosive choruses, the unexpected appearance of sleigh bells. What’s more, it has a sing-along chorus (“Where is love now?/Ba ba ba ba ba ba”) and a fairly stable beat. During live performances, the audience would clap along during the verses–a feat that would be impossible with just about any other song on Burn, Piano Island, Burn.

By the time we reach album closer, “The Shame”, it might seem like we’ve been battered by every curve ball the Brothers could possibly throw. Three minutes from the song’s close, the band starts to rally around the repeating chant, “Everything is going to be just awful/When we’re around”. The song slowly starts to build toward an explosive finale, picking up layers of guitar and synth with each measure like a sonic snowball. Just before the five and a half minute mark, things really start to ratchet up–the song feels like it could detonate at any minute.

And then, all of a sudden, silence.

While you can read the song’s abrupt ending as a final “fuck you” to the listener (and indeed, many have), there’s something undeniably fitting about the album’s purposefully anticlimactic finale. Not only does it turn the record’s operating principle on its head (all tension, no release), it ends the album with a statement of intent that’s as purposeful as that which opens it. Gimmicky though it might seem, “The Shame” forcefully reiterates the Blood Brothers’ unwavering commitment to challenge their listeners, no matter what the cost.

The reissue of Burn, Piano Island, Burn comes packed with two bonus tracks: a faithful reading of “Cecilia and the Silhouette Saloon” from the band’s 2005 Reading Festival performance and “Pink Tarantulas”, the stuttering, dance-punk B-side to “Ambulance vs. Ambulance”. We also get a second disc containing “Jungle Rules Live”, a recording of the band’s set at the 10th anniversary party for Redmond, Washington youth center the Old Firehouse. The band was less than pleased with this performance and with ArtistDirect’s decision to release the recording as a DVD, an action the Brothers feared would be interpreted as a shameless cash grab. Admittedly, the DVD’s production values do leave a bit to be desired. The audio is blown out in parts, the camera work is often sloppy and some of the visuals already feel dated (overhead audience cam, anyone?).

Regardless, the recording captures the Blood Brothers at the height of their powers and provides a much-needed document of their legendary live show (save for a few late night talk show appearances, there’s very little professionally shot footage of the band available). The performance here is characteristically electrifying–the band fires on all cylinders for forty minutes straight and the audience responds in turn, flipping out to each song like it’s the band’s last. Whitney and Billie treat the entire venue as their stage, flinging themselves about wildly and repeatedly diving into the audience. During the last song, when Votolato jumps headfirst into the crowd, guitar and all, no one even bats an eyelid.

The Blood Brothers, “Ambulance vs. Ambulance”

Crimes

Artist: The Blood Brothers

Album: Crimes

Label: Epitaph

Release date: 2009-11-07

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/features_art/m/mehan-crimes-cvr.jpg

Crimes

Before a show on the 2003 Burn, Piano Island, Burn tour, I interviewed Johnny Whitney and Morgan Henderson for my college newspaper. Sitting across from them in one of the Fireside Bowl’s worn vinyl booths, I ran through a list of questions that I had scribbled down in a notebook, all of which the band had probably been asked more times than they cared to recall. Despite my obvious greenness, Henderson was forthcoming and affable, listening patiently to each question and offering up thoughtful answers.

Whitney, meanwhile, was decidedly cagier and seemed more interested in the music playing over the PA system than in the interview. When a Queens of the Stone Age song came on, he started drumming loudly on the tabletop with his hands. Occasionally, however, a question would merit his attention and he would butt in, offering up a response before Henderson had had a chance to answer.

Not knowing any better, I eventually asked them what, in hindsight, was an offensively amateurish question: how did the Blood Brothers see themselves fitting into the hardcore scene? Whitney was quick to respond that they didn’t — the Blood Brothers were not a hardcore band. Surely, though, the members of the band must at least listen to some hardcore music? “No,” Whitney responded unhesitatingly, “We only listen to shit like T-Rex and Bowie in the van”.

While Whitney’s declaration may have been little more than self-aware posturing, only a few months prior, the band had been paying lip service to San Diego grind forbears Antioch Arrow and Seattle metal-core heroes Botch in interviews with zines. It pointed to a very real problem for the Blood Brothers, one that challenged the band’s identity as outliers. Burn, Piano Island, Burn had raised the band’s profile considerably; the Blood Brothers were now selling out headlining shows and opening up for more established acts like Cursive and AFI.

This newfound popularity, however, came at a price: as word spread, more members of the so-called “meathead” contingent started showing up at Blood Brothers shows, attracted by the band’s intensity, use of violent imagery and reputation for inciting mayhem. The band now found itself at a crossroads. Should it declare victory, embrace its acceptance and allow its sound to be subsumed by the hardcore scene? Or should it reaffirm its radical creed by issuing a record purposefully designed to freak out squares?

It should come as no surprise that Crimes, the band’s follow up to Piano Island, chooses the latter path, though it’s not weird in the expected, knotty follow-up to a breakthrough album sort of way. Rather, Crimes is a profoundly weird record, one that could have alienated even the band’s core fanbase. That it didn’t speaks volumes both to the band’s dedicated following and its ability to sell itself live — against all odds, the Blood Brothers played some of the largest venues of their career on the Crimes tour. Still, the album achieved its desired effect. It proved that the Blood Brothers were no longer just at the front of the hardcore vanguard — they were one of the strangest, most inventive rock bands around, period.

Recorded over the course of two months at Robert Lang Studios in Seattle with local producer John Goodmanson (Pavement, Sleater-Kinney, Blonde Redhead, Death Cab for Cutie), Crimes would mark a turning point for the Blood Brothers. Here, the band would more openly embrace the glam-rock influences they had long hinted at, while introducing elements of soul and even gospel music into the mix. Recorded, as it was, during a time of political uncertainty, the album’s lyrics are more overtly political than any the band had penned previously, adding yet another layer of depth to the Blood Brothers’ work.

“Feed Me to the Forest” makes clear from the outset that Crimes is going to be a major departure. Like many songs on the record, it’s a slow crawl, rather than a sprint, driven by pounding drums and a low, jarring bass line. Following the physically demanding Piano Island tour, the band made a conscious decision to write slower songs so that they might pace themselves during live sets.

In that spirit, “Feed Me to the Forest”, is notably less frantic — though every bit as sinister — as the songs on Piano Island. Votolato and the rhythm section work in tandem here, ensuring that the song lumbers along deliberately, like a piece of heavy machinery. Synths squawk and chirp atonally in the background, as Votolato slides in to and out of jagged, non-standard chords. On the chorus, the band picks up the pace, as Whitney screeches like a man possessed, hitting higher registers than we had heard him reach for in the past. His vocal here is so impressive, you might assume that it was sped-up, if you didn’t know any better.

“Trash Flavored Trash”, the album’s lead single, feels, in many ways, like a minor concession to old fans. Granted, it’s slower and less chaotic than the songs on Burn, Piano Island, Burn and sticks fairly closely to a verse/chorus/verse formula. Still, it’s punishingly heavy at times and while its lyrics sketch out a critique of the news media, most of the grisly imagery employed would feel right at home on Piano Island (“Take me to the pit of celebrity pregnancies/I want to wear the skin of a magazine baby”).

What follows, however, is wholly unprecedented. A love song gone horribly, disfiguringly awry, “Loves Rhymes with Hideous Car Wreck” slinks along on a base of handclaps, maracas and an undistorted guitar riff. Whitney’s vocals here are more than androgynous–a casual listener would likely assume that the lead vocalist was female — and he sings with palpable soul, allowing the refrain of “Love, love, love” to roll off of his tongue and rounding the word “love” as if it were a lozenge. It’s both one of Whitney’s finest performances and one of the best songs the band ever committed to tape.

“Peacock Skeleton with Crooked Feathers” feels like a distant, if less tightly wound cousin of “Cecilia and the Silhouette Saloon”. Anchored by a delightfully campy carnival organ line, the song invites Whitney and Billie to put their playful rapport to good use. The following, demented exchange provides a prime example: “‘Hey peacock?’/’What’s that?’/’I just want to know what his blood tasted like/Was it sugar or vinegar/Or whiskey or dirt?'”

In some ways, “Crimes”, with its slow gait and tumbling percussion, sounds like a Fugazi song played at half speed. Its lyrics, which deal explicitly with detritus, both literal and figurative, are at times disarmingly realistic (“And the children/In the subway/Eating apple cores/Is anybody listening?/They’re breathing paint out of plastic bags/Their mumbled mouths say/’Is anybody listening?'”). “My First Kiss at the Public Execution”, meanwhile, returns to the realm of theater, with Whitney gleefully squealing to the object of his affection, “So, won’t you hold me closer, oh?/Until the execution’s over, oh”.

The album’s closing suite, “Celebrator” and “Devastator”, serves as a meditation on the effects of war, examining conflict from the viewpoints of both the conquerors and the conquered. “I just want to join the party/But the piñata is stuffed with oil and sand”, Whitney whines on “Celebrator”, one of many overt references to the Iraq war and the Bush regime. “Devastator”, meanwhile, strikes a markedly different tone. Opening with a group hymn that sounds like an old spiritual and led by a striking, mournful vocal by Whitney, the song resonates in a way that few Blood Brothers songs do. Like “Crimes”, “Devastator” finds the Brothers employing their penchant for gruesome imagery to paint a disturbingly real landscape: “Neon black flowers on the mass grave/Neon black corpses, stacked, eclipse the horizon”.

While Crimes failed to land with the same impact that Burn, Piano Island, Burn did, it marked a critical juncture in the band’s evolution. On Crimes, the Blood Brothers outgrew the expectations of the insular hardcore scene and found a distinctive voice that played to their individual and collective strengths. Having sharpened their lyrical skills, they tackled weightier topics with greater finesse, demonstrating that they had learned a lesson that most punks never do: that social commentary need not be didactic in order to be effective. Musically too the band is at its most inventive here, using every resource at its disposal to create unsettling sonic landscapes that don’t rely on velocity alone. While Crimes is, admittedly, nowhere near as striking as Burn, Piano Island, Burn, it is unmistakably the product of a more mature band.

Disc two of the reissue offers some insight into the creation of Crimes. There are alternate versions of two songs — “Crimes” and “Peacock Skeleton with the Crooked Feathers” — both of which differ significantly from the album versions. “Crimes” swaps out the heavy choruses for a subdued, jazzy breakdown while “Peacock Skeleton With the Crooked Feathers” feels like the product of a loose jam session; the band dances around the hooks, never quite allowing them to come into focus.

There are also two non-album B-Sides, “Ladies and Gentlemen” and “Metronomes”, both of which read like slow dirges (“Metronomes” is particularly notable for its sluggish, bone-crushing beat and eerie outro, wherein Votolato picks his strings above the nut). Listening to these castoffs, it becomes clear that the band made a conscious decision not to veer too far from their previous sound. We also get six live tracks, most of which are culled from the band’s set at the 2005 Reading Festival. Unlike on “Jungle Rules Live” the sound here is clear enough for us to appreciate the near virtuosic skill with which the Blood Brothers reproduced their songs live, despite the often tumultuous conditions onstage.

The Blood Brothers, “Set Fire to the Face on Fire”

Young Machetes

Young Machetes

For their final studio album, the Blood Brothers enlisted the help of a man who was no stranger to baiting dogmatic hardcore fans: Fugazi’s Guy Picciotto. Working again at Robert Lang studios, the band employed both Goodmanson and Picciotto as producers, working over the course of three months to write and record Young Machetes.

Artist: The Blood Brothers

Album: Young Machetes

Label: Epitaph

Release date: 2009-11-07

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/features_art/m/mehan-machetes-cvr.jpgYoung Machetes is, in many ways, a strange swan song for the Blood Brothers. It’s easily the band’s most tuneful record, bearing more sing-along choruses, catchy hooks and traditional song structures than even Crimes. It’s also the slowest and least heavy of the band’s releases.

Calling Young Machetes a hardcore record is quite a stretch — in hindsight, it sounds more like a peculiar indie rock album, if anything. Yet even if Young Machetes finds the Blood Brothers completing their transformation into an indie rock act, it still manages to feel like a transitional record. Part of the problem is that it lacks focus: the band throws out a lot of different ideas but fails to choose a clear direction in which to move. As such, Young Machetes begs for a resolution that would not arrive. Instead, we are left with an album that, while flawed, hints at where the Blood Brothers might have gone next.

Like “Trash Flavored Trash” before it, the appropriately fiery album opener “Set Fire to the Face on Fire” feels like a concession to a fanbase that had, by this point, begun to cross over into the mainstream. Still, its lyrics are mostly sung, not screamed and its breakdown leads with a jazzy synth interlude — even if it does devolve into a complete spazz-out.

“Laser Life”, the album’s lead single, feels more like a Wolf Parade song than a Blood Brothers track, with its rollicking Wurlitzer lead, steadily plodding bass line and tambourine clicks. “Camouflage, Camouflage”, meanwhile, imagines a war-torn city concealed from outside forces; its refrain of “Camouflage/Camouflage/The city’s draped in/Camouflage” just begs to be sung along to — if you can hit the high notes, that is. Midway through, Whitney gets a piano bar-worthy solo, which he naturally milks for all the half-winking pathos it’s worth.

“You’re the Dream Unicorn” feels a bit like a throwback to the band’s early days, with its manic tempo and blistering guitar lead, until a chorus of voices enters, singing the song’s comical title. “Spit Shine Your Black Clouds” marries a theatrical, Queen-like piano ballad with the sort of funky, rhythmic stomp that made Prince famous. And “Lift the Veil, Kiss the Tank” closes with a tangle of jangly guitars that evoke the fuzzy tones of Fugazi’s “Arpeggiator” to spectacular effect.

In stark contrast to previous Blood Brothers albums, Young Machetes ends not with a bang but with a whimper. The album’s final three tracks are among its strongest and least conventional, offering a tantalizing peek at what the Blood Brothers might have become. “Huge Gold AK-47” revisits the viewpoint of “Celebrator” (“Come on it’s 4 am/Kick down the gate and spray your ammo like champagne”), wrapping an old school hardcore bass line around a recurring pirate chant of “Yo, ho/Oh, oh, oh”.

“Street Wars”, meanwhile, fully commits to Prince’s funk-pop template, inviting Whitney to put his stunning vocal range on display. “Exotic Foxholes”, the nearly three-minute outro that follows, is a smoldering landscape, populated by little more than a delicate acoustic guitar riff, an upright bass and an oboe. And “Giant Swan”, the album’s closer, is a slow-burner — a nearly six-minute exposition of surreal, nightmare imagery, soundtracked by a lethargic guitar lead and tumbling, jazzy drums. It’s as strange of a song as the band ever wrote, which is saying quite a lot.

In the way of extras, we get a second disc of remixes and live recordings. While Yeah Yeah Yeah Nick Zinner’s remix of “Laser Life” is unremarkable, the Gajamagic (aka Mark Gajadhar) remix of “Nausea Shreds Yr Head” reimagines the Blood Brothers as a surprisingly compelling, if scream friendly, electro-pop act. In Gajadhar’s able hands, “Street Wars” also gets a complete makeover — here, it’s recast as a mournful cathedral ballad, one that recalls the skeletal “harmonium version” of Depeche Mode’s “Enjoy the Silence”. Finally, we get a recording of a seven-song KXLU performance, which is particularly notable for the band’s tightness and for including many of the album’s best tracks.

Had the band trimmed some of the fat, Young Machetes might have been a good, 30-40 minute-long record. As it stands, however, at just over 50-minutes in length, it simply lacks the momentum necessary to compel. There’s too much filler, too many half-baked ideas and not enough commitment to the ideas that work to justify the album’s scattershot approach. Admittedly, some of the best tracks here show a way forward for the band, albeit one that would have required it to completely abandon those last vestiges of hardcore. Whether the band — to say nothing of its fans — would have been willing to go down this path is anyone’s guess.

In Our Band Could Be Your Life, Michael Azerrad recalls a legendary show that took place at Olympia, Washington’s Tropicana Club in September 1984, wherein the Beat Happening opened for Black Flag. Azerrad admits that the overtly fey Beat Happening and the belligerently masculine Black Flag were “an extremely odd pairing,” though he goes on to declare that, “in some ways the two bands weren’t so very far apart”. The point being that both acts were indisputably punk rock, challenging mainstream tastes and ideas about musicianship by pushing rock music toward opposite, if equally radical, poles.

During the coming decades, many bands would split the difference between these two styles of confrontation but few would harness the full force of both, as the Blood Brothers eventually did. They were loud, brash and heavy but never tough. They dared hardcore kids not to like them, overindulging their hunger for speed, noise and physicality while using their stage show to keep them at arm’s length.

Against all odds, they won over more hostile audiences than they lost. In so doing, they convinced punk rock to loosen up and accept a more elastic idea of masculinity, thereby reaffirming the spirit of inclusiveness that too many in the punk scene had lost sight of. Few bands did more to move punk rock forward during the last decade than the Blood Brothers. Here’s hoping that thanks to these reissues, a whole new generation discovers that fact.

The Blood Brothers, “Laser Life”

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