The Heavy Lure of Lungfish

A.C.R. 1999

Having melded a curious and compelling sound during the post-hardcore halcyon days of the late 1980s in the Washington D.C./Maryland nexus, Lungfish proved that stamina and resilience — and sticking to artistic prowess — can create a fertile legacy that bends the rules. Rather than always innovate and paving new paths every few years, Lungfish stayed on course, cutting records with consistent mystique, murkiness, and mantra-like quality.

This material is an artifact from fin de siecle 1999, a previously unreleased testament to Craig Bowen, who twisted the knobs at A.C.R studios in Baltimore. The band members didn’t stop to release them. In fact, they plowed ahead, forging new songs, ultimately re-recording several A.C.R. tracks at iconic Inner Ear Studios, which handled dozens of Dischord acts. So, while this album doesn’t present a bevy of virgin material, it does present a unique twist to the path of these songs — a glimpse into their original birth chamber.

Unlike Fugazi, Lungfish is not the type of band that seemed atomized and atavistic during every turn of phrase, emoting a lexicon of anguish, personal politics, and art. Instead, Lungfish appeared to be a band tethered to fluid restraint, control, ambiance, and roiling but paced rhythms. The ensemble were the dizzying pause in the storm, but retained the storm’s heavy signature.

Once, when opening for hectic Brainiac in New York City during the Ohio band’s zenith, Lungfish took the stage with almost immobile gestures. The drummer faced his amp most of the set, as if listening to his own shadow, while singer-cum-artist Daniel Higgs cut an imposing figure of wayward seafarer, tattoo collector, handyman, and visionary homeless man. While Brainaic was marked by impulse, mayhem, and the body electric, Lungfish seemed like an exorcism in slow motion, a wailing soliloquy leaking into the club’s mirth.

This album’s opener “Eternal Nightfall” feels like ice melting: the pump of the bass drum and the dribbling guitar meet in a groove that is softly locked. Meanwhile, both “Symbiosis” and “Screams of Joy” feel as lyrically taut and terse as an early Ezra Pound poem, yet the mutating vocals — for which Higgs is a legend — feel both cryptically religious (“The Christ is suckled”) and coldly observant as imagism (“Screams of joy / Can be heard / Within the perimeter / Of our open air facility”).

On one hand, the band seems to operate effortlessly within the traditions of Killing Joke (sonic repetition, opaque lyrics, primordial spirituality) and poetic variations that range from direct presentation of life data to obtuse, meandering thought spiels spelling out lines like “The brittle skin / Of embalmed limbs / Declares a polynym”. Found on the tune “I Will Walk Between You”, such phrasing feels fecund and formal. Higgs’ nimble wit, assonance, surrealism, and effortless play with the textures language amount to a powerful modus operandi.

Sure, some will suggest Lungfish seems stuck in time and tempo, each song evoking redux, a revisitation of each other, like an elongated, multi-volume sequence, sometimes frustratingly knit together in a cocoon. Yet, that is akin to calling AC/DC repetitious and redundant. Instead, I imagine Lungfish as plumbing the depths of a larger oral poetics, in which purposeful, poignant songs arc into each other, forming cycles grappling with birth, life, and death in each stanza.

In fact, the songs become an index of being — the soundtrack of living in a riling world as connected to folkloric rites as it is to the video age. On “Sex War”, which evokes the body’s trials and tribulations, Higgs fittingly belts out, “Until the repetitions cease / The repetition must increase”. Such song maps life’s patterns and permutations, from flesh-based anxieties to metaphysical and lexical flux.

One doesn’t have to ponder so hard to enjoy tunes like “Shapes in Space”. the cosmic drift of a song seemingly indebted to Roky Erickson’s lysergic repertoire. Equally profound and slightly danceable, it nods to the outer limits (space, time) and inner limits (skulls, breasts), and the passageways in-between.

Those that prefer songs to languish in Pop and rest in empty shells of clichés might choose meat other than Lungfish. For those that seek songs doubling as abstract verbal sculpture or wayward scripture, Lungfish is a vendor of those vibes.