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.
Anniversary Records: Head Wound City – Head Wound City
by Chad Jewett
Head Wound City’s sole EP offers its seven songs in just under ten minutes, a fanged, combustible 600 seconds that tirelessly see-saws between absolute precision and scraped-knee chaos, garage strut and grindcore’s hornet-swarm racket. Head Wound City might just be one of the best punk releases of the 2000s, and is certainly one the decade’s most galvanizingly sharp and vividly realized. It’s the kind of release that feels impossible now, if only because, if memory serves, the thing just sort of appeared, surfacing online with little initial fanfare and even less information, other than a lineup built from The Blood Brothers, The Locust, and Yeah Yeah Yeahs–farfetched in its illustriousness—and a few spare photographs, including the band hidden beneath panda masks, a match for the shadowy mystery surrounding the group in general. Legend has it that the whole EP was formed in a single week – written, recorded, mixed, everything – a fact that seems especially absurd the longer you spend with the record’s sheer exactness, the expertly synchronized jabs of “Thrash Zoo” or the vampy haunted-house mid-section of “Prick Class” (or the martial stomp of its outro, for that matter).
The record is perfect — not simply because the quintet clearly had such a lock-step grip on a batch of songs on which the paint was barely dry, but also because the album overflows with ideas too. Head Wound City manages to satisfy as both exceptionally feral hardcore and as understatedly brainy art-punk, especially whenever it’s both. It’s that mix of ferocity and cleverness that defines the uncanny noise sculptures of “Prick Class” and “Radical Friends” or the gathering boil of “New Soak for an Empty Pocket”, which would work as especially apocalyptic post-rock for its first twenty seconds if it didn’t instead then suddenly opt for lacerating hardcore. Head Wound City is full of these moments, making for an oddly rewarding re-listen when you take into account that the EP wouldn’t outlast most people’s drive to work.
Considering the Dream Team nature of the band’s roster, one might be tempted to try to segment what makes Head Wound City great back into its ingredients, and there are some opportunities for that. Some of Cody Votolato’s stripped-wire guitar work from The Blood Brothers’ excellent 2004 LP Crimes, which featured the guitarist relying on the gnarled tension of single-note riffs instead of brawnier chords, can be traced in the similarly spartan leads of “Radical Friends” or the syncopated, barbed licks that close out “I’m a Taxidermist”. The same goes for Nick Zinner, whose ear for unconventional hooks (his carefully placed dots of melody in “Maps” remain indelible, for instance) can be found in the creepy-crawly riffs of “Michael J. Fux” or the final swinging bars of “Prick Class”, the song’s mute strums a defining part of Zinner’s approach in Yeah Yeah Yeahs. The same can also be said for the band’s wild rhythmic approaches, largely the product of The Locust’s Justin Pearson and Gabe Serbian, who maintain that band’s witheringly sharp left-turns and thick, shuddering bursts.
But Head Wound City remains special because it remains singular. The album is likely singer Jordan Blilie’s masterpiece, an opportunity for him to push his explosive acid-burst of a scream so that his shouts can at times coat entire measures in caustic static or serve as the most unlikely of hooks. The singer exhibits an incredible ear for how rhythm can equal melody, as on the hyperactive first bars of “I’m a Taxidermist”, where the song’s archly familiar first-generation hardcore launch is made a thing of kinetic joy by the way Blilie fits his caterwaul between the chords. The same goes for the way Blilie navigates the highly syncopated pounding of “Street College”, so that the song’s beginning verse practically feels like a duet between the singer and Justin Pearson’s scraped-up bass.
It’s also fun to see Blilie reviving some of the acidic sloganeering that turned Blood Brothers songs like “Guitarmy” into gonzo anthems. On “Radical Friends” we see the singer’s trademark nightmare impressionism: “I’ve got these radical friends, broken lips, rainbow violence / Pink clouds on a razor mountain / We’re running through a city of head wounds, holding hands / Night frowns in the city of head wounds, so take my hand”. As is the case with so much of Head Wound City, it’s fascinating to see the singer manage words and melodies that so frequently double as both blunt objects and ultra-honed scalpels. And as is often the case with Blilie’s writing, it’s more about evocation than any literal concept. Taken as a whole, the song becomes a crazy quilt of weird imagistic juxtapositions that make their own kind of sense, even as they’re almost absurdist in their strange logic. Yet the language remains striking above all else; which is the point. In that way, the vivid yet surreal nature of the words are a slogan for Head Wound City twice-over – an explication of their stylized abrasion and an evocative reflection of the band’s unruly mystery.