BLACK FLAG: MY WAR (1984)
1) My War; 2) Can't Decide; 3) Beat My Head Against The Wall; 4) I Love You; 5) Forever Time; 6) The Swinging Man; 7) Nothing Left Inside; 8) Three Nights; 9) Scream.
After a three-year break in recording, partially triggered by legal hassles with their record label as well as personal problems — such as losing their drummer and their bass player for different reasons — Black Flag came back with a vengeance for 1984, releasing no fewer than three new studio albums that year. But whoever was expecting another Damaged from these guys (or, better still, three more Damageds!) had to take a hike: Greg Ginn and Henry Rollins were not about to let their progressively-oriented brain machines be overridden by rigid formula.
The first side looked promisingly conservative. The title track breaks in at an acceptably fast tempo (not nearly as fast as ʽRise Aboveʼ, though), delivers a classic Rollins scream-hook as he spits "you're one of them! you're one of them!" right in your face, almost making you blush in embarrassed confusion, and turns Ginn's guitar into a well-oiled machine gun, as he bathes you in sonic shrapnel from behind Henry's muscular back.
ʽCan't Decideʼ, despite the already suspicious gargantuan running length of 5:22, is even better as a song — as its discordant sonic intro eventually morphs into another set of machine-gun phrasing, Rollins and Ginn construct a series of verses on the issue of having to suppress one's true emotions that subtly-brutally build up towards an explosive resolution: Henry's "I can't decide, I can't decide, I can't decide ANYTHING!" may be one of the most credible expressions of total frustration since the Who's ʽI Can't Explainʼ. Why they decided to include a gazillion of dissonant guitar solos and verses is beyond me — the song would probably have worked much better as a laconic 2:30 blast — but, most likely, expanded lengths like these simply meant refusing to kowtow to established «hardcore standards», take it or leave it.
The remaining four songs on Side A do not add any extra emotional range: the energy level never drops, and Rollins' lyrics never cease scorching the earth (the first line of ʽI Love Youʼ is, after all, "I put my fist through the door" — we've come a long way from 1964), but the musical structures and moods follow the same principles, and Ginn's laudable willingness to keep experimenting with chord sequences comes at the expense of catchiness: there are some fairly monstruous and not particularly meaningful polygonal riff-monsters here, and the best thing about them is probably the guitar tone — low, grumbly, distorted, but cleanly produced, with tight control exercised over echo and feedback.
Side B, although it retains the tone, is a different proposition altogether. It is given over to something quite unexpected: three lengthy, slow, draggy slabs of what could only be described as «early sludge metal», most notably derivative of Black Sabbath but nowhere near as poppy or catchy, especially when Greg throws in one of his dissonant solos whose sound I could only describe as «what you'd expect to happen if Lou Reed started playing like Frank Zappa». Critical opinion on these weird creations is usually negative, with «self-indulgent» as the mildest epithet in their direction — but once you really start thinking, it seems as if it is only the tempo that truly separates them from the first half. Everything else is the same — the guitar tones, the dissonances, the darkness, the lyrics, the screaming; if you took ʽI Love Youʼ and slowed it down, you'd have yourself another copy of ʽNothing Left Insideʼ. Therefore, by loving the first side and hating the second side, one essentially admits that the only reason why «hardcore» deserves to exist is its speed — a logical position, but not a very useful one, so it seems.
I think that the monotonous, draggy trilogy of ʽNothing Left Insideʼ, ʽThree Nightsʼ, and ʽScreamʼ is at least «kinda curious», and at most, if you let yourself ride its wobbly waves, a quasi-psychedelic rough trip that mixes early 1970s pothead-ism with modern punk to an unpredictable effect. ʽNothing Left Insideʼ, in particular, succeeds in generating a cool, smoky, downer atmosphere where, at times, Rollins and Ginn howl in unison like a pair of stray dogs, freshly run over by a truck. Nothing too serious, just "pain hurts my heart, nothing left inside". Oh, needless to say, eighteen minutes of this atmosphere are easily sustainable probably only if you are a pothead, but the experience is not a total waste, and «self-indulgence» is a word I'd rather reserve for a 15-minute Kansas epic than for this brave, only partially successful attempt to invent «slow hardcore» (or «anti-hardcore», whatever).
All in all, the experimental nature of My War has its attractive sides, and the album captures and bottles something — at the very least, this is certainly not a case of a band with nothing to say. I am pretty sure that all of this could have been said better, maybe with some extra overdubs, or with a little more range to Rollins' character, or with a little less slobbering adoration for Tony Iommi that prevents Ginn from straying away from that one single path. But even as it is, My War still deserves a thumbs up, since its «bravery» (maybe even literal bravery — the hardcore market is already so small that most of the suppliers usually try not to alienate any parts of it) does not come at the expense of meaning, and the album has some replay value.
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