|Side One:||Side Two:|
While I know people who frustratingly cannot seem to get a handle on entire genres like rap or metal, and, like me listening when I was younger, often take that almost as an out-of-hand, automatic cancellation of any interest in listening, there’s another barrier that’s more extreme and more difficult to deal with. There are some artists out there who get the words “difficult” and “uncompromising” thrown at them in an effort to appeal to those who see those as alluring, and sometimes as a means of quiet warning. Anyone who doesn’t already know this band, but knows me is probably filled with dread already. But the object here isn’t to scare people off–certainly, the idea of warning is one I am working with, but I own all the records I own out of interest, and most out of appreciation (and interest is generally just the predecessor of appreciation). I can’t go out blaring records at anyone and everyone, and records in particular are kind of inherently a home-listening format these days. I obviously have friends with turntables, but not many, and not many I visit and hang around the homes of. So, with all that in mind: this wasn’t an album I picked up because it means people will think or hear X, Y, or Z. I picked it up (three times now: the remastered CD from Epitaph, the original CD release from Three One G, and this picture disc) because I like the band and I like their sound–even if, yes, it’s going to be (extremely) grating to some people.
March on Electric Children is the second album The Blood Brothers released, following This Adultery Is Ripe (the only one of their albums not to receive the remastering/reissuing/expanding treatment). Some confuse Rumors Laid Waste for an album, but, of course, it’s actually a collection of their earliest 7″s, splits, unreleased, and compilation tracks. After this, they would hop labels again (this time to Second Nature Recordings), and then again (to V2 Records, who released both of their last albums). They gradually separated out their sound as time went on, from a blur of extremely hardcore-inflected origins into the aggressive but catchier sound of Crimes and Young Machetes.
Unlike some albums of the more abrasive variety, there’s not much confusion with the way the album starts: “Birth Skin/Death Leather” is semi-distant yelled vocals, a short drum beat, circling guitars–eventually expanding to add bass and expand the drums, adding a second vocalist. The distortion of the guitars and the wall of noise fades back to a guitar sound only slightly distant, but skeletal and unusual, though with bouncing bassline underneath it. Riffs open the song back up, thick slashes up and down, but dropping back to a rattling guitar with an insistent bassline that backs “Oh yeah, oh yeah!” from the second vocalist (Johnny Whitney).
“Meet Me at the Water Front after the Social” is a blur on all sides when it starts: the drums running miles ahead of the streaks of blurring guitar, climbing and then running sideways, the introduction of bass shows us the song proper, where each line of the verse is answered with part of the title (“At the waterfront after the social”) on clean guitars over bouncing bass. Cody Votolato’s playing seems like his guitar cannot make up its mind where to go–except that it stops at a moment’s notice to shift into clean, or join the rest of the instruments in pausing. Johnny and the first vocalist we heard (Jordan Blilie) trade lines, answering with the title at the beginning in unison, later repeating each other’s lines after them.
The title track hums with a dancing set of guitar notes that sounds like a cloud of insects, buzzing over the song, even after Jordan, Johnny, drummer Mark Gajadhar, and bassist Morgan Henderson enter. Mark’s drumming hits beats all over the place, as if he can face one direction for no more than a single hit. Morgan thumps only on beat, but pushes a few notes into each burst. Jordan and Johnny trade raspy yells of “Yeah!” in a rise of blurring noise until Cody is left alone to strike out short spurts of guitar alone, which are shortly joined by Mark’s intermittent bassline from earlier. “Boys, girls, suit up–” Johnny sings, “Let’s go!” Jordan yells alongside him, then takes off by himself, speaking lines over a burbling bassline and skittering, palm-muted guitar from Cody, occasionally backed by “Come on, come on, come on!” from Cody to the left and in the distance. The song opens up again, Morgan not pausing for a moment, and the sound of a pick sliding up and down a distorted neck faintly heard over a crush of riffs. Drum rolls and thorns of guitar let Johnny sing a few lines alone, a second repetition expanding Mark’s roll and adding Morgan thudding along below. Cody brings Jordan back with a spray of guitar that turns to riffs held to for a moment, then slid up or down the nect to be held at a new note. “March on, Skin Army soldiers!” the boys yell to close out the song.
With a beat that seems ready for a full hardcore song, Mark opens “New York Slave” with Cody playing a repeated riff that is just enough slower to sound as if it’s moving at a much slower pace, though still quite rapid, even as it backs down to the skeleton of sound that marks the cleaner sound he uses. A brief splash announces the arrival of Whitney and Blilie, and an electronic wash answers their first lines, Mark unrelenting, and Morgan only entering after a moment, as he matches Cody for less constant sound, Johnny singing alone with camp levels of vocal affectation. Jordan gets one of his few moments to just act as the less intelligible or simplistic backer, but the song takes right back off and gives Jordan the spotlight after this, Cody driving with the insistent and repeated riff that opens the song. It seems to joltingly start and stop at the behest of Morgan, though Mark’s relentless energy is met only with Cody’s spidery guitar for a moment, as Mark finally releases his stranglehold on speed, the tempo only a quarter of what it was: Morgan’s bass pulses below Jordan’s dark, discomforting description of a wedding: “The priest’s tongue slips out like a jackal/Every eye in the audience spinning like a drill/The groom plucks a key from the rapture tree/And opens her ribcage like a squealing armoire/Her lungs and liver screaming mercy mercy mercy/While they rearrange the wires in her heart/I now pronounce you smiling like a grave/I now pronounce you a New York Slave!” The last four words are left to be heard alone, as the song enters a sort of breakdown, everyone pounding out the beat, Johnny and Jordan swirling around each other and calling out the title of the song.
Let me pause for a moment as we end side one: this has been a total of ten minutes of music. The slow petering out of side one on vinyl is like a sudden gulp of air, like the fade, not of indiscernible noise, but that of relief from an oppressively dark, nihilistic sensibility that is somehow matched to music that is both appropriately aggressive and jagged, but also catchy and acerbic enough to avoid being absolutely depressing. Should anyone doubt the complexity of this band’s music–I was left with the urge, repeatedly, to give up on trying to describe the sounds I heard. It’s absurd to try to keep up, as they do not let up for a moment–even when there are brief moments like the slowed pace moments of “New York Slave”, they are long for their context but brief in totality. It’s breath-taking less like a moment that makes you gasp or forget you are supposed to breathe, and more like you are fighting for your breaths.
Side Two opens with “Kiss of the Octopus”, which has some of my favourite language in the album: “And the swarm of winged octopi/Fly out under the lid/Of the star studded sky singing/The flock of grinning octopi drop like tears from a varicose thigh singing…”. But the song opens with the vocal call-and-answer that tells you this is going to be one of the strange earworms of the album: “Do you wanna live forever baby? (Fuck yeah!)”–Johnny sings the line, and he and Jordan both answer it, and then they trade. A sample of “The Perfect Drug” and the vibrations of a single guitar note, running in tight repetition to sound like almost like it is just held, but with the modulations that signal it is being picked rapidly, despite not changing. After they sing those first lines I quoted, the song finds more space, but uses it for the disjointed, start-stop drumbeats of Gadjadhar and riffing of Votolato. Cody turns his riff inside out and elongates it, ending it with a slide up into dissonant notes, and the sound is thickened by Morgan’s entrance. Another vocal hook comes in: “Tug, tug, tug/The beard of the octopus/Lick, lick, lick/The kiss of the octopus”, Cody fades out, as does Morgan and then it is just Johnny singing (with Jordan operating much lower) the link to a third hook: “Sweet serum to devour the hours/Sweet serum to sweeten the sour”. The original hook returns, with the monotonic guitar note, Morgan defining the melody, and then jittering, echoed guitar turns the “Sweet serum” hook in another direction, the song gradually gaining chaotic variations that spill over and through each other as the song jumps between them after holding each for only moments, before holding to repetition of one to close out the song.
The western-tinged (!) lick that seems to be three or four times to fast for the sound it evokes, matched by a similar rapidity from Morgan’s bass, held in place by the rim-oriented playing of Gajadhar opens “Siamese Gun”, a song that reminds (in a very, very weird way) of Pink Floyd’s “The Trial”, especially as animated by Gerald Scarfe: dark, cynical, railroading–naturally, exhibited in a trial format. Jordan and Johnny start off in the song over this instrumentation unchanged, but when they start to repeat “Order (Yeah!)/Order (Yeah!)/Order in the court!”, Mark begins to move away from the rim and to the head of his snare, building to the riffing and more normal bass and drum that back the chorus: “Clik clik bang bang/Kiss the Siamese Gun”, which is incredibly catchy, and backs into the brittle, separated sound of the drum-driven, spare guitar sound that backs the most yell-like vocals of Whitney and Blilie, though the sudden bottom end of Morgan’s re entrance on this hyponotic monotone repetition, gives it the weight of a breakdown, and Cody’s guitar now fills the spaces it cut short between riffs previously. But then only brief, distant whines of guitar, intermittent bass and consistent drums back Jordan and Johnny as they become child-like and much quieter in singing, everything pausing for one breath before jumping back into the breakdown-styled riffing. An upward shift in tempo–simple and repeated drum and guitar with their vocals is suddenly cut short for an electronic hum. And then we’re back to the original western-tinged riff, the call for order, and we get to hear the phrase “piano island” that permeates their work (a song title on their first album, the title of the next album). The song explodes again, calling “Let the execution begin!”, and again we hear the catchiest hook: “Clik clik bang bang…” and they repeat “Kiss the Siamese Gun” until Jordan ends the song with the final lines: “You’re on your knees/Choking on the barrel of the Siamese Gun.”
“Mr. Electric Ocean” is the character that opens the album by name in “Birth Skin/Death Leather”, but is now the focus of an entire song. The electric ocean, it should not surprise you to learn, is the personification of electric media and the sheer breadth and depth of its influence and ability to envelop. Dry drum hits and then a jolting bass and guitar repetition start the song, seeming to push toward the most aggressive moments as the verse continues, Morgan’s bass driving, but we are suddenly starting us back at zero, the second run turning to an electronic noise that whirls upward and sets the song off completely, with everyone at full speed and volume, walling off the rest, with only a brief ring from Votolato’s guitar letting the song turn back to its initial approach, this time shifting from it to an almost (almost, mind you) relaxed sound, Johnny tossing his words out casually over an eased riff from Cody. It has the interesting effect of letting the return of full distortion not seem quite so loud or aggressive. But then it breaks for a peculiar guitar lead that wanders up and down the lowest strings casually, Jordan and Johnny carrying the song to a final yelling crescendo.
Bass thumps at the opening of “Junkyard J. vs. the Skin Army Girlz/High Fives/LA Hives”, Jordan speaking quietly with a half-singing approach, transitioning to Johnny’s singing style and the addition of Cody’s confused and seemingly distracted guitar. It opens up and Cody’s attention spans in as the two vocalists scream out the central vocal lines. Cody’s guitar begins hopping and playing around the neck as Jordan informs us we’ve moved to the “High Fives/LA Hives” portion, only to reintroduce Johnny and the original song. A midpoint is defined by a sort of chaos, some instruments sliding to a stop, others attempting to continue, Johnny and Jordan tripping over each other, but electronic noise and the slowed riffs of Votolato break the song into a new territory, the distant sound of waves turning Morgan to simple on-beat thudding as Mark thunders onward, Jordan again singing quietly. Keys and hum wash out the last of the song…
Possibly–no, undoubtedly–the most “difficult” song on the album, “American Vultures” acts as a sort of epilogue to the story March on Electric Children tells. Deliberately dissonant piano “chords” and yelling from Johnny and Jordan open the song, before it turns to Johnny playing more expertly–though muddling the final chords of each line as he and Jordan now sing instead of screaming, though still in their normal style. It’s a very odd piano piece–it’s almost like what you might hear from an elementary school play, which is only emphasized by the melody of the chorus, despite its content: “You’re married to the vultures/Ba ba ba ba ba”. There’s a long pause and we hear the second verse, which functions very like the first. They bring themselves back around to the chorus, and then Johnny closes out the song alone with a twist on the melody and a final line. But the final ending is the beginning: Jordan and Johnny screaming over deliberately horrific piano.
I can’t impress upon you quite how unusual and complicated this album is musically. It’s utterly without remorse for anything it does or says, blasting through a short story the band wrote that they say is about lives based entirely in selfish decisions and the negative consequences thereof. Shallowness as hubris permeates every song, as does the moral judgment (and associated intellectual limitation) of the rather large surroundings of the parts of society defined by shallowness, even working in the lascivious, backward, hypocritical desires that drive that moral judgment. There are no real heroes here, nor is there any prayer or hope for a “happy ending”: even if you feel pity for the protagonist–buried as she is in the clouded, stream-of-consciousness-style lyrics–there’s not enough to gather a sense of anything but sighs and shakes of head by the end. Too much awareness and lucidity in those calls of “Fuck yeah!” in response to the idea of “living forever”, no doubt in reference to media immortality. There’s no sense of duping involved, and even a sense that, whatever pain occurs, it was as a result of decisions made for selfish reasons, at best ignorant, but most likely just defiantly so.
I suppose that all sounds pretentious–and, indeed, it’s very difficult to make stream-of-consciousness sound anything but. But something in the way the Blood Brothers did what they did, there’s too much earnest desire for that. Maybe it’s the balance of five voices, or the energy and passion they brought, or maybe they just know how to write stream-of-consciousness more intentionally than the kind of person who attempts to to “mean something”–there’s a feeling of determined nature for metaphors (the reoccurring image of octopi and tentacles) without the feeling that they sat down at a chalkboard and had a meeting about what symbols to use for what ideas, or built from symbols they wanted to use into a whole idea. And when they use dark, disturbing imagery: it’s just that. It’s not where you stifle a chuckle, nor even where you gasp. And yet, somehow, it’s also not uncomfortable, even as it’s discomforting. It’s just macabre.
In the end, it’s a 24-and-a-half minute (!) piece of album that is brittle and piercing at moments and full and angry at others, never seeming forced, not even when it cannot sit still. More is worked in than you would think from 24 minutes, even if you are familiar with earlier hardcore: the material is more complicated than Black Flag ever set out to be in their early days, or certainly than the Misfits did for Earth A.D./Wolfsblood. Which isn’t a knock against either–they weren’t aiming for anything else at that point. But if that gives you the impression you might know what to expect–I can say that those, at least, give you nothing of the kind.
I realize this music is beyond “not for everyone” and very much into a semi-niche, but the band gained a lot more popularity with the albums that followed, which generally built more on the catchy hooks Johnny is capable of vocally, and an expanded range of instrumentation, past the brutal flurry of sound that defines the majority of this release.
Next Up: The Boomtown Rats – ?