Ben Greenberg (the Men, Hubble) Talks Black Flag’s What The…
Black Flag is my favorite band ever. In their sound, their work ethic, and their attitude towards the outside world they have embodied everything that I strive to be and achieve as a musician. I have their logo tattooed on my wrist. My favorite guitar that I’ve played in bands for years and years is a Dan Armstrong with a see-thru body just like Greg Ginn used until his got stolen in 1986. When I was in high school I would sit down and learn Ginn’s solos note for note, like kids before me had done with Zeppelin or Van Halen. His unhinged, Pharoah Sanders-meets-John McLaughlin style of weaving together melody, emotion, and total sonic freedom is still a constant inspiration for my own playing. I’m not saying I’m the biggest Black Flag fan ever, but let’s just say that I deeply love and respect the band and they are undoubtedly the prime mover that has kept me playing and working harder, and better, and harder with my bands over the years. As each step up the hill of my musician’s life has been full of challenge, discouragement, disappointment, and even total public rejection and humiliation, Black Flag has always been the one band I can always put on and turn up to get my bearings back and stand up to face another day.
The key ingredient in Black Flag’s musical power, the source of that root feeling in every one of their songs that makes me want to jump out of my seat and peel the paint off the walls with my teeth, was their communal spirit and work ethic. They worked their asses off and created a completely new sound that everyone tried to copy but no one could. The intensity of their preparation allowed them to record in very stripped down settings and still fully convey the spirit and the soul within their music. Most of the band’s records up through Slip It In sound like they’ve barely been mixed, like they just heard the raw, unaffected playback after each take and moved on. But that was all they needed to spread their message. The records were just that: records, documents, snapshots of a moment in the band’s life; all their energy and communal spirit frozen in time for the rest of us to refer to forever and ever as a world-class example of musicianship, sheer energy, and pure defiance.
OK, I think I’ve established that I love Black Flag. Now let’s talk about their new record. It’s called What The…, which is either the band’s hilariously on-the-nose prediction of what people will involuntarily say out loud when they hear it (and see it — the South Park-meets-cartoon-amoeba-meets-cum-stain-colored-in-with-crayons cover art by singer Ron Reyes has gotten a fair amount more press than the music itself), or an unfortunate attempt at sincerity as the band grapples with the fact of their own reunion. Perhaps it’s a mix of both, but either way, both the cover and the album title show me a band that is blissfully, perhaps purposefully out of touch with the rest of the world. This is troubling to me, because I always thought of Flag as a band with a timeless attitude. Most of their records came out before I was born, but I’ve always felt like they were still speaking to me, and about me sometimes, too.
As I’ve listened to this new record over and over again, I haven’t been able to find that resonance or point of relation in really a single one of the album’s 22 tracks. It just sounds like they aren’t trying very hard, to be honest, and that breaks my heart, because this band historically set a very high standard of effort, and I’ve tried to live up to that standard for basically my whole life. Yes, there are 22 songs on the album, which, on paper, is impressive, as it’s more than double what they’ve recorded for almost all of their proper LPs in the past, but each of these songs comes off like a fairly unmolded ball of clay when compared to literally anything else they’ve ever recorded.
The songs on What The… are mostly mid-tempo, each one has one main riff that either breaks into a second riff, or doesn’t, whatever. The songs sound under-rehearsed and flimsy, honestly, like Ginn was trying to put together a record as quickly as possible, running the band through every single idea he could come up with. There are no anthemic choruses, which have always been the band’s trademark — even when they were anti-choruses on songs like “Rat’s Eyes” — no carefully manicured grooves that lurch and scramble and fall apart at the seams but always hold together with some bizarre precision.
Ron Reyes (formerly Chavo Pederast, a name he’s no doubt given up as a responsible father of four) screams and screams and screams about being in hell, or down in the dirt, or shutting up, or going away, or lies, but his voice has audible boundaries now, and those boundaries have stripped it of its power. Maybe in the 30+ years since he sang in the band he’s learned how to scream “properly” without shredding his throat, maybe it’s the totally fake-sounding compression that is all over his vocal tracks and the rest of the record, I don’t know. I haven’t heard his other current band, Piggy, so I can’t tell you if this is what his voice sounds like all the time or if it’s just his approximation of his own former Flag glory. Also, all the vocals on the record are doubled, which any idiot who’s ever made a record can tell you is a way to smooth out a lead vocal track. Why the hell are we smoothing out Black Flag’s vocals? They’re supposed to cut right through the center of the mix like a fucking knife and slam you square in the forehead, not blithely melt into a sea of guitars and funk-metal almost-grooves. If you want to hear this contrast very clearly illustrated, listen to any song on the new record, and then go back and listen to the song “Spray Paint” off Damaged, where then-singer and celebrated American strongman Henry Rollins sounds like he’s screaming so close to your face he might just bite it clean off your head.
The lyrics and themes on the record are similarly flimsy approximations of their own former selves. I seriously want to curl up into a ball when Reyes sings “My quest is clear/I smell your fear” on “The Chase,” which is a song about him chasing me around the room, as far as I can tell. Ron, when would that ever happen? Did you write it when you were chasing one of your four kids around the room? Why were you chasing them? Should we be concerned? Do the neighbors know? For real, man, hearing him yell “Will you condemn me for what I aspire,” which doesn’t even really make sense or mean anything, is really sad. Ron, you care what I think now? What the hell? Compare that with the following:
We’re gonna get revenge
You won’t know what hit you
We’re tired of being screwed
See, that’s what I’m talking about. They’re tired of being screwed, you won’t know what hit you, look out, motherfucker, no questing or fear-smelling or aspiration necessary, just straight to the point and that’s it. That’s all you need! If it takes 22 songs to try to convey one emotion, and it still doesn’t ring true, something’s wrong.
The one thing on the record that doesn’t sound like a half-assed attempt to recreate what it used to be is Greg Ginn’s guitar playing, probably because he never stopped shredding since the band broke up. There’s a particularly classic Ginn solo on the first track, “My Heart’s Pumping” (what a fucking stupid song title, by the way — are you a tween seeing Titanic for the first time? Did you just smoke your first cigarette? Get outta here), complete with his trademark “out” notes and my favorite Greg Ginn soloing device: taking super-stock rock guitar licks and playing them in the wrong key on purpose. That, at least, remains intact.
One last thing I’d like to mention is that I wish they’d at least recorded the album on tape. This record is so clearly a Pro Tools disaster. The snare drum is so obviously recorded straight into a computer and compressed with some crappy plug-in — it sounds like a timbale and you can’t hear it clearly most of the time. The guitars do sound like classic Ginn, but they’re missing that extra oomph element on their early recordings that came from pushing the tape into the red, or from really evil-sounding reverbs and EQing decisions on their later recordings. The bass sounds like it was plugged straight into an iPhone, and when the first song on the record kicks in after the bass intro, the whole track actually gets quieter instead of louder, which is something that happens a lot in fake “rock” mainstream pop songs by, like, Avril Lavigne or Kelly Clarkson. Why is it happening on a Black Flag record? Who the hell recorded this thing? Some random with a studio who makes coffee shop singer-songwriters sound like the Counting Crows all day?
Granted, the record is not by any means overproduced, but where there are little production details, it actually hurts the music, as on “Slow Your Ass Down” (again, with the title, wtf?!) where, 50 seconds in, the two guitar tracks that have been panned hard to the left and right suddenly, though not in a particularly impressive way, disappear in favor of a lone guitar track directly in the center channel. Now, the guitar solo that happens there in the center channel is boss, and I’m really into it, but seriously, man, hearing those guitars condense like that in such a mediocre way, it sounds like a mistake. It sounds like the engineer erased the guitar tracks after 50 seconds by accident and Greg decided he didn’t feel like playing them both again, so he just did one of them again and they threw it in the center channel. I’m all for boneheaded mixes, and dull dumb sounds, I love recording things that sound basic and blocky, but making a record in a really raw way only works if you make everything raw, every step of the way. If you half-ass it, then you wind up with something mediocre, which really is worse than bad.
Greg, if you’re reading this, next time please let me find you a studio with a tape machine — there are plenty of them in Texas, I know of, like, four in Austin alone, OK, man? It doesn’t have to be this way, it could at least sound like something! Fuck! Ugh, god, now I’m all pissed off. I’m gonna go listen to Rollins Band and clear my head.