Tuesday, January 6, 2015

I've Always Been On Fire

Dirt EP

Rip Reed and I go way back. The second gig X-tal ever played, we opened for Trial, a Joy Division-influenced anarcho-punk band he briefly played guitar with. Back in the 80s, Rip cut his teeth on the more challenging end of the punk scene, playing with Trial and Ⓐ State Of Mind as well as recording EPs by Atrocity and Liberté. Even as a youngster, he was focused and brilliant, and very much a fixture on the scene back then. I still crack up remembering the time we were at a New Years Eve show at the Victoria Theatre featuring the Dicks (Gary Floyd made himself up as a dead ringer for Divine in Pink Flamingos that night) and hanging out with a freshly-shaved Rip when a drunk skinhead stumbled up to us, bellowing, "YOU'RE not a skinhead! I'M a SKINHEAD! YOU'RE just a BALD MAN!" It took some effort for us to maintain our cool and not burst into giggles until the guy moved on to some other distraction. Ah yes, punk rock was still fresh and a bit dangerous back then.

After decades of being out of touch, it's nice to discover that Rip is at the helm of a new vehicle called Spider Heart. As I would expect, the guitar and production are absolutely stellar. Rip now favors big room-filling chords and basic, satisfying riffs with a slight Ron Asheton tone, especially when he hits the wah-wah pedal. Lead singer May Black is no slouch on guitar herself, and their combined tones go down like a shot of whiskey. With Juli Sherry on bass and Chris Maneri, their current drummer, filling out the rhythm section, Spider Heart pounds out their songs with pure confidence and authority. At the center of it all is May Black's voice, a feral, intoxicating thing that moans, shouts and sneers at the world. Imagine a throatier version of Kat Bjelland of Babes In Toyland and you might be halfway there.

On their diverse debut album, Under The Gun, the standout tracks included the brooding "Book Of Poems" and the cascading 3/4 wall of sound "Spark." The album was a long time in the making; on the band's Soundcloud page, you can hear the songs develop over the years. In contrast, the new 5-song EP, Dirt, sounds more like a spontaneous, unified outburst. The two-guitar tone has been honed into something even bigger and more undeniable. The EP seems to unfold in a very deliberate fashion: big drone stomp; midtempo minor-key bluesy rocker; crazed punk screech; bigger slower drone dirge; despondent/defiant crawl. The five songs fit together like a cathartic ritual. It all feels right.

The lyrics are...how do I put this?...very dramatic teen-angst rock stuff. Everything is devils, dirt, guns, bullets, crime, fire, dead this, dead that...in the hands of a less powerful band and singer it would start to sound kinda corny after a while. But the way Spider Heart tear into these songs, you just want to jump around and wave your fists joyfully. Also, it has to be said, I've never heard a more convincing delivery of "fire" as a metaphor for the libido than the song by the same name. "Fire" is a thrilling undertow of noisy longing. Oddly enough, the manic middle track, "Love/War", manages to take one of the worst rock clichés ever (gun=dick, bullets=you know the rest) and twist it by 1) the words being written and delivered by a female singer, and 2) upping the violence ante with a chorus of "My love's a bullet, I'll shoot to kill!" followed by an insanely screamed "KILL! KILL! KILL! KILL!" Suddenly it feels like we're in the head of the perpetrator of the next big mass shooting, and we've moved beyond mere AC/DC or Motley Crue style cock-rock japery into a scary evocation of the reality of gun-crazy America. Meanwhile, the music and the vocals are madly exhilarating. It wouldn't be as disturbing and disorienting if they weren't.

Maybe they weren't intending this to be anything more than a cool, bad-ass song and broader social commentary was the last thing on their minds. It doesn't matter, really. This is the kind of impact punk rock used to have: a dive into the abyss in search of unsentimental truth, no matter how nasty or hideous the result may be. If you see culture as pure pedagogy, you'll hate it. If you see it as a reflection of the Zeitgeist, you'll nod your head sadly while banging it at the same time. Turns out punk rock can still be fresh and dangerous sometimes. Spider Heart are already on to something. I look forward to where they go from here.

No comments: