Welcome to Anniversary Records, a column where we reflect on records that meant the world to us way back when, and what they mean to us now. This week: The Blood Brothers’ Crimes.
Anniversary Records: The Blood Brothers – Crimes
by Chad Jewett
Certain albums just seem to arrive as miracles of time and place, so serendipitous is their claim on the eras in which they were produced. Think of the buzzing, righteous indignation at the core of Fugazi’s self-titled debut in relation to the cynical optimism of the later Reagan years, or the outsized, heartsick Romanticism of Sunny Day Real Estate’s Diary, showing up less than a month after the death of Kurt Cobain. Crimes — the fourth and most essential full-length from Seattle post-hardcore quintet The Blood Brothers, which celebrates a tenth anniversary this month — feels similarly definitive in its evocation of the mid-2000s. Marked by an overwhelming sense of sharp anger and desperate frustration at the stark rightward turn and overt imperialism of the Bush administration, and the ways in which media outlets glibly echoed the knotted logic of the War on Terror, Crimes now serves as a snapshot of a particularly dire time in American culture and politics, a direness reflected in some of the most furiously inventive and inventively furious post-hardcore music of its era. If The Blood Brothers were seemingly always designed to marry chillingly vivid narratives to explosive, acidic punk – the band’s own aesthetic of shock and awe — then the social-political climate of the period provided the band with a queasily ideal canvas. All the extremes of their music – the difference between Johnny Whitney’s falsetto purr and Jordan Blilie’s carbolic shriek, the clash of the band’s neon R&B grooves and their immense, bombastic flare-ups, the precision of their quietest passages and the monolithic stature of their biggest crashes – were seemingly pushed to their breaking, the sonic equivalent of a half-decade that felt like it was coming apart at the seams, battered between similar outer limits.
The album begins with its finest moment, the trudging, wooly “Feed Me To The Forest”, a treatise on pollution and gross industrialization that set vivid pictures of “lungs like twin garbage sacks sucking charcoal breath” to the sort of wicked blues-punk stomp that defined Nick Cave & The Bad Seed’s Abattoir Blues. The song swings from that sludgy, patchwork trudge (courtesy of Mark Gajadhar whose carefully sculpted beats are the model of selective taste throughout) – notice the weird beauty of how the song’s initial rhythm lands like shards, scraps of ground up noise, bass, and guitar calling and responding in an oblique groove (Morgan Henderson’s jagged bassline is a marvel during the song’s first verse) – to a fleet, accelerated punk chorus, splitting time between Johnny Whitney’s cooed opening verse and Jordan Blilie’s rending bridge, then back to Whitney. The landscape is increasingly littered as all the corroded sounds – wiry, tangled guitar; rusted-up bass; industrial noise – are heaped in clutters until the whole thing spills like a garbage avalanche into the anarchic triumph of “Trash Flavored Trash.”
Moving from the literal pollution of “Feed Me To The Forest” to the noise pollution of popular culture, “Trash Flavored Trash” is as direct as The Blood Brothers ever got, a thrash punk sequel of sorts to the self-mythologizing “Guitarmy”. But where “Guitarmy” was a turbulent outburst over in thirty seconds, “Trash Flavored Trash” is gloriously streamlined, moving from an initial skronk of noise and ham-fisted minor chords (guitarist Cody Votolato milks serious drama from the art of subtraction, powering Crimes with his frequently atonal minimalism) to a thudding electro break (courtesy of Henderson who always milked that odd pause live) and into Whitney and Blilie’s competing images of modern excess, all summed up, economically in the chorus’s parting announcement: “the five o’clock news is fucking fantasy!”. If Burn Piano Island, the band’s vivid, nightmarish third LP, was defined by its kaleidoscopic collection of nightmare images, then Crimes gives all of that uncanny a direction. Here, weird icons like a “zoo of broken faces” become the pap of broadcast entertainment, as tangible a waste product as what exceeds the dumping grounds in “Feed Me To The Forest”. All along the song moves at dizzying speed, its spartan, utilitarian chords carrying the same combination of wicked irony and cutting energy that defined In Utero, arguably a model for Crimes’ mix of gleeful sonic fieriness and righteous indignation.
If mass culture is exposed as a pacifying veil in “Trash Flavored Trash” then “Peacock Skeleton With Crooked Feathers” offers a similar critique of mainstream news outlets (the titular “Peacock” refers to the famous NBC logo). Set to a klaxon-esque electric piano (courtesy of Whitney) and a quick, propulsive Latin-jazz groove, the song arrays any number of tragedies, injustices, and war crimes as fodder for broadcast – “A panicked face makes the peacock proud”. Experts of tension and release above all else (one could spend an afternoon debating the finer points of Blood Brothers breakdowns), the band creates a sense of mounting dread throughout “Peacock” as the groove gets tighter and tighter, as moments of quiet – traditional harbingers of coming flare-ups in so many Blood Brothers songs – continually loop back into that hypnotic Rhodes groove (one screamed signal of “WHICH PEACOCK IS PRIEST” sneakily leads into a subtle samba groove rather than a tidal breakdown) until the song finally does burst, ending up with a final magisterial chorus and an unsettling question: “Who do you love? Who do you trust when your friends take a match to your front lawn?”
“Peacock” leads into “Teen Heat”, a sequel of sorts to “Trash Flavored Trash” that satires the payola industrialism of major label music with a similarly stark punk surface, deconstructed guitar jangles and scuffed-up bass scratching alongside Blilie’s breathy murmur, Whitney’s stark falsetto: “The Fifth Horseman stuffs the radio (oh oh oh, oh oh) / With singles ‘til it’s sick to its stomach. (oh oh oh, oh oh).” The whole thing comes together around a delirious chorus — “Prommageddon pit, smash-hit / Prommageddon, chart-topper”, a rallying that bursts atop a small handful of chords, as direct a moment of theatrical frustration as the album achieves, matched only by the thrashy perfection of “Trash Flavored Trash” on one side and the surrealist hardcore sprint of “Beautiful Horses” a song that rides a single barbed guitar note and a roiling hunk of bass to link various nightmare-mythic images of horses to noxious American showboating.
But the lion’s share of the album is devoted to tracking the unnerving post-9/11 era in all its complications. There’s a mournful loneliness to much of Crimes, as the provocative spookiness that The Blood Brothers have always used to capture our imagination is now suddenly, brilliantly politicized. On the album’s title-track and moody, magisterial centerpiece, Jordan Blilie asks “Is anybody listening?”, sounding more than a little bit like the last man on earth as the song renders a remarkably prescient picture of apocalyptic financial-corporate venality that would become even more pungently clear in 2007 and 2008. Elsewhere, the 1-2 album-closing triptych of “Celebrator” and “Devastator” contrast the premature pronouncements of “Mission Accomplished” following the American invasion of Iraq — which in “Celebrator” are parodied with an upbeat swing of decomposing baritone guitar – to the dirge-ish opening and feral close of “Devastator” (drummer Mark Gajadhar is an absolute dynamo here, his sudden eruptions of rhythm marking each stark change in the song’s hysterical trajectory) that marks the ugly remainder of all of that violent nationalism with stark imagery: “Neon black flames cook the calm air / The party’s over, what was your favorite gift?”. We are undoubtedly still putting back together all that was falling apart in the era that The Blood Brothers etched on the essential, indelible Crimes; an album that refuses to be forgotten.