Courtesy of the artist
Led by Black Flag's Keith Morris, "Upside Down" is a minute-long steamroller, and a model for streamlined might.
Led by Black Flag's Keith Morris, "Upside Down" is a minute-long steamroller, and a model for streamlined might. Courtesy of the artist
Song: "Upside Down"
CD: First Four EPs
Hooky, anthemic and structurally foolproof, punk rock has technically always been pop music. But in its poetry, it's been a vehicle for the disaffected — the property of alienated young adults and the precocious adolescents who felt like them. Today, though, some of punk's tributaries have evolved into pop in the most philosophical sense, as unashamedly commercial music that deals in teenage melodrama.
OFF!, formed late last year in Los Angeles, plays punk of a self-contained purity that appears to have nothing to do with current trends. This is a good thing. The band is fronted by Keith Morris, one of the architects of the compacted, accelerated punk variation called hardcore that flourished in the early 1980s. Morris sang in two of the defining West Coast hardcore bands, Black Flag and Circle Jerks, and OFF! acts as a distillation of those bands' already stripped-raw aesthetic.
"Upside Down" is a perfect teaser for the minute-long steamrollers on First Four EPs, OFF!'s debut vinyl box set. This band is shooting to kill, and, like any great punk group, is a model for sustained intensity and streamlined might. Punk rock has famously been a refuge for non-musicians, but here the music argues in favor of mastering fundamentals; OFF! in particular makes a case for punk as played by grown men, and this outfit sounds tighter and leaner than its inspirations. Guitarist Dimitri Coats, best known for the band Burning Brides, hammers out his riffs like a drummer and, in a live version, offers a pithy solo that recalls the atonal squirm of Black Flag founder Greg Ginn. The locked-in rhythm section includes bassist Steven McDonald, of Redd Kross, and San Diego scene veteran Mario Rubalcaba, a remarkable rock drummer whose unflagging technique imagines early hardcore as interpreted by John Bonham.
And then there's Keith Morris, perpetually enraged and railing against everything and nothing. In "Upside Down," as throughout First Four EPs, his venom is aimed at age-old enemies that are at once vague and complex: a forbidding establishment, the unrelenting anxiety of the modern world. These complaints have been filed before: With Black Flag in 1978, Morris suffered a "Nervous Breakdown," and on First Four EPs he's having a "Panic Attack."
Revivalism is the elephant in the room here, and it's not only the music that seems to exploit the old school. The name and highly collectible product — the set features sleeves by Black Flag cover artist Raymond Pettibon and is available as a limited-edition cassette — also resemble pointed attempts to mine nostalgia. Who cares? Considering how "punk" has become a marketing term, there's nothing wrong with such inspired throwbacks.