Return to Piano Island: The Blood Brothers, Revisited

Emerging from the West Coast punk scene in the late '90s, the Blood Brothers helped redefine hardcore before abandoning the genre in favor of a damaged brand of art pop all their own.

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 Power" in 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: 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.

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