Punk and New Wave

Royal Trux “Cats and Dogs” (Drag City, 1993)

Akin maybe only to Guided By Voices for their non-ironic use of classic guitar rock fodder, Royal Trux came together out of noise dirges and suspended clangor when they pushed “Cats And Dogs,” making steps toward indie-rock stardom (yuck, gag) that would never really come (still gag).

What’s for real though is Neil Hagerty’s playing. Bluesy riffs, heavy riffs, nonsense noise interludes, all skewered or unwound… “incendiary” is the word and so is “unique.” Sure it’s only two people, guy-girl combo, plus a friend? Session drummer? Anyway, the stand-in holds the beat and can be driving or plodding. Just enough to support distorted spillage.

Not only do you get a three-piece on “Cats and Dogs,” the best possible line-up in a rock format, but you get referential hard rockin’ material mostly free of the tounge-in-cheek. And it makes the cut: more grit than crit. -Wade

The Flesh Eaters “A Minute To Pray, A Second To Die” (Ruby, 1981)

The Flesh Eaters is the name behind one Chris D. Taking his stage name from a 1964 cult film, Chris D. wrote for legendary fanzine Slash in the late ’70s and assembled the first of many Flesh Eaters lineups from heavyweights in the burgeoning L.A. punk scene. After releasing a ravenous EP and heart-ripping debut album, The Flesh Eaters unleashed their era-defining statement…

Originally released in 1981, “A Minute To Pray…” brings together the greatest band in American rock history: Dave Alvin (Blasters) on guitar, John Doe (X) on bass, Steve Berlin (Los Lobos) on sax, along with Bill Bateman (Blasters) and DJ Bonebrake (X) providing the album’s trademark percussive backbone. Chris D. leads the group like a man possessed. Through a series of grotesque vignettes, his lyrical prowess and indelible growl stand toe-to-toe with the music’s powerful shifts.

From opener “Digging My Grave” (resembling a diesel-charged Magic Band) to the gothic groove of “Divine Horsemen,” each song is its own hairy beast. Inspired by African tribal music, ’60s garage-rock churn and Funhouse-era Stooges swing, A Minute To Pray remains (according to author / archivist Byron Coley) “the best rock record ever recorded.” -Superior Viaduct

Blurt “Beneath Discordant Skies” (Metadrone, 2015)

They’re back, though they never went away, really… Equal parts punk, noise performance and square-one rock racket, Blurt is a band that always has a pulse and it’s always pumping. For those that don’t know, Blurt is usually a trio run by sax player Ted Milton, and has been one of the most inventive groups to grace us from the late Seventies onward.

Normally this would be a capsule review of one record, but I have to touch on their self-titled LP and “Live In Berlin” because they are just so unique. In Manchester they were briefly on Factory and I dare say their records outshine the flashier groups like Joy Division, A Certain Ratio and the rest from that time pretty easily. Those records don’t sound the least bit dated. And as a live act, they were probably more rough and raucous than The Fall.

So here is the new one, with Ted as an old man, but he STILL sounds as inventive as ever. His playing is a unique spew and can’t be summed up as an Ayler/Ornette imitation. Lyrically he’s great and he always sounds wonderfully garbled. Longtime rhythm guitarist Steve Eagles is here. New drummer David Aylewood pumps along diligently. What more should I say? If you haven’t heard what some would call a post-punk gem, I’d give Blurt some attention. I’d also just call them a heck of a modern band. -Wade

D.A.F. “Die Kleinen und die Bösen” (Mute, 1980)

The very first Mute release was of a group pushing exactly what the label set out to do; a break with rock tradition. Deutsch Amerikanische Freundschaft started as a five-piece before moving into a more total dance direction, and the collection of songs, sketches and soundscapes presented here might as well be from an alien planet.

Side one is a grouping of noisy dirges and surges such as opener “Osten Währt Am Längsten” and “Co Co Pino,” respectively, but what really sets D.A.F. apart from other industrial clangers of the day is their use of subtlety in tracks like the quiet and plaintive “Kinderfunk.” Despite it’s morose sound, the chirps and whistles and bells give the song a playful alone-in-my-room sort of feeling. This melancholy is revisited in tracks later released like “Der Räuber und der Prinz.”

Side two is another surprise, switching to choice live cuts. Here D.A.F. are much faster, harsher and generally raw. As a full band D.A.F. were tight and tough to approach, using rhythms seldom heard before and consistently surprising us with new form standards. Mute continues to build off this stuff to this very day. -Wade

Wang Chung “To Live And Die In L.A.” (Geffen, 1985)

After the release of “Dance Hall Days,” Wang Chung had the fortune of being discovered by director William Freidkin, a man known for his recruitment of bands to produce film scores. Wang Chung joined the ranks of Tangerine Dream and The Germs when they scored “To Live and Die in L.A.”

They prove to be an excellent and integral part of the film, a self-aware macho action flick with plenty of action tropes set to punchy drum machines and thick synth lines… though the film’s more subdued moments show Wang Chung’s interest in classical music (use of flutes, cellos, no drum machine accompaniment). “Lullaby” is a laidback pop number with plenty of great changes for a seemingly sleek and simple number, but “City of Angles” on side two is the real track that showcases Wang Chung’s musical knowledge and modern craft. At just more than nine minutes, they provide most of the score for the entire film, and the feeling is as immersive as L.A. is expansive.

Not just a film score but a stand alone album of experimental pop, “To Live and Die in L.A.” is an OST to own if you’re a fan of synth, classical or new wave sounds. -Wade

Scritti Politti “Cupid and Psyche 85” (Virgin, 1985)

A change of attack was needed for Scritti Politti when pop form went back into vogue. Green Gartside ditched the first version of his group to work with session musicians, crafting perfect pop on top-of-the-line equipment. No longer presenting the jumble of styles heard on earlier singles, Scritti 2.0 would be crisp, clean, and pristine beyond recognition.

Green’s own living habits changed to reflect his new music as well. Originally a squat-dwelling punk with circles under his eyes, Green had kicked speed, started a workout routine and took much better care of his hair. He made the switch from ripped up blazers to sweaters and track suits. He still waxed lyrical of far-left ideals, but these statements are much more esoteric in this new pop format… It’s easier to focus on his vocal ability now, all saccharine-sweet in the mix next to sleek and dizzying sequencer beats.

All across the country, the U.S.A. played “Perfect Way” and “Wood Beez” on the air? It’s strange messages were pressed overseas by someone who once thought of himself as a Marxist, but the singles pressed beforehand with his first group were much harder for the average listener to swallow. Half listening, Scritti here sound like a rather innocuous pop act… but what were they subjecting us too beneath this shiny new surface? Hearing the contrast between the Rough Trade material and this monolith of a hit album is startling, but it’s similarities even more so. -Wade

Meat Puppets “Up On The Sun” (SST, 1985)

From Simon Reynolds:

One of the strangest, fastest mutational odd-yseys taken by a single band, from the thrashadelic punk of the debut through the countrypunk furore and dewdrops-on-cobweb delicacy of Meat Puppets II to Up On the Sun ‘s brutal plangency and frenetic speedfunk (a manic, flashing secateur snip’n’clip, a dragon-fly shimmer like sunbeams chasing each other through your veins, a peyote-and-desert-sun crazed Talking Heads with Jerry Garcia and Tom Verlaine as dueling lead guitarists). Awesome.

Say no more? By “Up On The Sun” the Puppets had gone away from breakneck hardcore speed and cooled down, guitar work improving to the point of jam band virtuosity, still keeping tracks within relative rock brevity. I can’t help but mention that SST insider Joe Carducci saw a period between albums where they resembled Steppenwolf and he (we) have yet to hear that phase of their career on recording.

Until then, third effort “Up On The Sun” remains their strongest stud in their discography, before they started playing around with drum machines you know… Unswinging funk bass with perfectly meshed frantic-sounding guitarwork, and a drummer that keeps time because someone had to keep their feet on the ground. And oh yeah, they are earnest and joyful. -Wade

The Descendents “Milo Goes To College” (New Alliance, 1982)

No other punk band to my knowledge has had their style emulated by hordes of lesser groups than The Descendents. But who could blame those groups for trying? Once they chugged a pot of coffee and played out this great molding of melody and speed set with “Milo Goes To College,” they probably didn’t have a choice…

Hearing their “Ride The Wild / Hectic World” single and jumping into this album can be startling. A capable rock band before, once they brandished new vocalist Milo and went hardcore they were just too damn good to be entry level punk hop-ons… They led the pack. And Milo was their ace in the hole, a wholly new style of rock vocalist; one that wasn’t concerned with having sex, scoring drugs or looking cool. And he rains fire on those that do, severing many a rock cliché. “I’m Not A Loser,” “Tony Age,” “Hope,” “Marriage” and “Bikeage” show that this group is 1) a powerhouse instrumentally and 2) ready to wreck the glamorized foundations of rock culture, with their own raw power.

Most songs don’t make it to the two-minute mark but each one has so many great changes and twists that none are alike, and each one has meat on it. Many of the subjects covered from rent to girls to love to fashion to drugs are standard pop punk material now, but The Descendents crammed it all in to this one, heavy, positive tumult. Play often and you’ll feel better, really. -Wade

Kate Bush “Never For Ever” (EMI, 1980)

British music scribe Simon Reynolds, a champion of arty underground music from the late 70’s/early 80’s, had a bit of a fascination with the popular Kate Bush. Mostly with how she triumphed as a pop star with so many radical sounding singles. And also, while her work is far-reaching, arty and interesting in the way prog-to-pop folks like Peter Gabriel are in the studio, she gives very little insight into her process, or her inspirations.

In 1980, UK music was full of arty types and the most hip had punk rock credentials in some form or another. Kate Bush is just as arty and modern as The Slits, Wire… yet, no ripped clothes, so little hip factor. And when those groups sound scrambling or angular, Kate’s sound is ornate, meticulously layered and placed in direct opposition. “Never For Ever” is her third full length, the most focused of the bunch and the one that further secured her place in pop culture after a string of leftfield-hits like “Wuthering Heights” and “Wow.” And it’s another step sideways from conventional pop.

And speaking of hits, the tracks bookending the album are two of her best. “Babooshka” is a classic that chronicles a wife’s desire to test her husband’s loyalty by taking on the guise of a younger woman… From personally paranoid to worldly heavy, album closer and single “Breathing” is about being born after a nuclear holocaust, which seemed like a very legitimate threat around that time.

Even with such content, Kate is pleasant throughout, with songs ranging from piano ballads to art rock. The darker tone is reminiscent to the glam of UK group Japan. “Never For Ever” is a good one to dive into before further exploring her discography, which is varied and still keeps her a bit of a cypher, despite massive popularity. -Wade

Black Flag “Damaged” (SST, 1981)

How many members burned through Black Flag’s stay on earth? The answer is seventeen in their initial run, which lasted about a decade. Primary songwriter and guitar hero Greg Ginn was the sole lynchpin holding it all together, and as tough a band leader as he was, he wouldn’t outright fire people if they couldn’t meet his vision. Instead they would fall off from exhaustion.

By the time Henry Rollins got on board, they had the hardened vocalist they needed. “Damaged” had been attempted in small stages before, and finally came together in ’81 to change the face of rock and punk forever. The production is a bit muddy but the songs blast through efficiently… And what “punk” songs these are with their tight interplay, tempo changes made on a dime and heavy, Sabbath-heritable interludes with expressive and new noise-to-blues guitar flaying.

Side one has the most recognizable favorites; the opening anthem of “Rise Above,” “Six Pack,” “TV Party…” most of the tracks are narrated by damaged characters through Rollins, whether they are abusive macho types, alcoholics, or those pained by them, cops, or existence itself. Though Rollins is channeling these stories written mostly by Ginn and bassist Chuck Dukowski, he does let loose on side two’s grinding closer “Damaged I,” which he was known to improvise in performance.

But the whole disc is a document that spells the beginning of the end for Rock-as-Field Recording. It’s real, raw as in legitimately raw, and they didn’t take years in a studio assembling it together. Neither would their contemporaries. They kept slugging it out for another half-decade, got heavier, and you about know where Rock picks up from there, Seattleites. -Wade

James “Blood” Ulmer “Free Lancing” (Columbia, 1981)

After releasing his solo work “Are You Glad To Be In America?” through Rough Trade instead of say, ECM, the direction of his work grew more technical but remained engaging after his jump to Columbia. And he didn’t lose what he had going on with the post-punk label: innovation and a feeling of warmth throughout despite his unique brand of guitar flaying.

If you see live clips of Chick Corea in 1986 with his “Elektric” band, or other fusion bands of that time headed by Miles, and your only major turn off is the electric keyboards sounding like the audio equivalent of stale cheese, then “Free Lancing” will work for you. Ulmer’s band is electric, but it operates how a crack jazz/funk/rock outfit should. The heavy bass pops and acts as the main rhythmic component, James sings over his precise scratching and scrambling, and the drums embellish when they don’t drive the most memorable track, “High Time,” to the conclusion of the first side.

Loved by Ornette, post-punk art schoolers, rock enthusiasts and fans of Hendrix’s cross-town traffic music in general… well let’s put it this way, the material you hear on “Free Lancing” was the same stuff they would flaunt in front of Captain Beefheart and PiL. You can consider it a treasure of the era that occupies it’s own space. -Wade

Lizzy Mercier Descloux “Press Color” (ZE, 1979)

Funny how the “Press Color” album changes with each new pressing… Whenever New York’s infinitely hip ZE label put out a fresh one it seemed to have a rearranged track list and changes in song lengths. With a new Light In The Attic reissue on the way, this tradition continues, and they even expand the LP into a double gatefold that includes Lizzy’s early material from the art-group Rosa Yemen, so keep an eye peeled.

So many reissues and it still warrants a listen again; Lizzy Mercier Descloux was a definite talent from the post-punk / No Wave axis and “Press Color,” with tracks in any arrangement, still impresses. Lizzy was a Lower East Side scenester with ties to Patti Smith and Richard Hell. The cutely impish French gal was also a self-taught guitarist with unique chops that worked in a noise or dance context. Catfish Collins or Arto Lindsay? Somewhere in between that spindly rhythm matrix…

Whatever side of whatever version you get of “Press Color,” the discofied Arthur Brown cover of “Fire” still remains it’s most exciting ride. The convergence of New York styles at the time of this recording places this track at ground zero in dance-punk fun. More confrontational numbers include the lurching “Torso Corso” and the dizzying “Wawa.” With No Wave and post-punk revivals come and gone, “Press Color” still stands as an excitingly fresh mess of styles. -Wade