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’ Young Machetes.
Anniversary Records: The Blood Brothers –Young Machetes
by Chad Jewett
As swan songs go, Young Machetes is positively Abbey Road-esque in its grandness, its magisterial density, and its glimpse of what its creators might have done further down the road. Released in 2006 and closing out one of punk’s more unimpeachable runs, the album found the post-hardcore hell-raisers in The Blood Brothers drawing on both the prog-rock pomp of their middle period (2002’s March On The Electric Children and 2003’s Burn, Piano Island, Burn) and the bare nerve punk ferocity of their 2004 masterpiece, Crimes. Co-produced by Guy Picciotto — who through his later work in Fugazi traced a similar path between late-80s art-punk and 60s psychedelic ambition and whose influence can be seen most in the restraint and evocative precision of songs like “1-2-3-4 Guitars” and “Street Wars/Exotic Foxholes” — the album is almost willfully hard to define, at times re-centering the grinding minimalism of Crimes, as on the stomping, sludgy opener “Set Fire To The Face On Fire”, at others fully entertaining the love for Queen evinced by their earlier cover of “Under Pressure”, as seen on the glam-punk boogie of “Laser Life” or “Spit Shine Your Black Clouds”.
In the aggregate, the thesis for Young Machetes seem to be fully exploring all the ideas that were first glimpsed as giddy snapshots on earlier LPs. If the doom blues of Crimes’ “Live At The Apocalypse Cabaret” made just enough room for a bit of oddly lovely mood music in its closing section, then Young Machetes would devote an entire two minutes to that kind of hushed subtlety in the early goings of closer “Giant Swan”. If “USA Nails” occasionally tipped into hardcore at its most carved-down and accelerated between the rhythmic hard lefts more characteristic of Burn Piano Island, then the steady-rolling “Rat Rider” and “Nausea Shreds Yr Head” would make that kind of dizzying forward motion the whole point. It’s a risky maneuver, and one that yields some marked changes in approach. For instance, where “Beautiful Horses” – Crimes’ most spartan punk flare-up – found singers Johnny Whitney and Jordan Blilie wielding their call and response routine to wild perfection, much of Young Machetes finds them a lot more divided, so that “Johnny Ripper” is almost exclusively a showcase for Blilie’s excoriating scream and “Huge Gold AK-47” is mainly helmed by Whitney’s barbed coo. Where Blood Brothers were typically masters of synthesis, their final LP found them reverse engineering their mercurial aesthetic back into its constitutive parts.
Yet, ironically, that approach is part of what makes the album special, and is certainly key to what makes it illuminating as a closing statement. Glossy and bright where Crimes had a certain dusty grit to its production, you can hear the ingredients with startling clarity on Young Machetes, meaning that the perfectly poised crunch of Morgan Henderson’s bass on “Set Fire” and “You’re The Dream Unicorn!” (wherein the bassist weaves unexpected countermelodies between the song’s seemingly straight-forward speed-punk structure) are there in stark clarity. The same goes for drummer Mark Gajadhar, who is tasked with drumming for a band that variably sounds like Jawbox, Sly & The Family Stone, The Fall, and Bad Brains, while still managing to complicate the garage rock traditionalism of songs like “Vital Beach”. If Young Machetes found Henderson and Gajadhar developing even further as the rhythm section that made Crimes such a multi-modal revelation, then the album finds guitarist Cody Votolato playing both with and against the single note attack of Crimes, one of its most singular stylistic tics. Many of Votolato’s parts on Young Machetes land in huge drenching sheets that suddenly burst from the needling jabs of the album’s predecessor. Crimes thrived on a sort of skeletal abrasiveness; Young Machetes is defined by a stunning maximalism. The change serves as a decent metaphor for the change in aesthetic that defines the band’s final album as a whole – the innovations and breakthroughs of craft, drama, and style that defined Crimes now raised to a more operatic pitch.
What is perhaps most salient about Young Machetes, beyond the way it practically served as a self-deconstruction of the Blood Brothers’ sound, was just how near the band came to turning their ferocious, manic style into pop music. While it remains just about impossible to imagine what a “breakthrough” Blood Brothers single would sound like (and, really, thank god for that), a song like “Laser Life” comes damn close, taking all of the band’s vampy subversion and giving it a certain new wave joie de vivre. Where the similarly groove-oriented electric piano shimmy of “Peacock Skeleton With Crooked Feathers” was so utterly haunting in its ghostly fog of war narrative that the song’s infectious rhythm felt almost entirely ironic, “Laser Life” is somehow less gothic, less grotesque in the cognitive dissonance it establishes between its joyful motion and its nightmare imagery. The same can be said, though in an entirely different context, for the riotous fun of “Rat Rider” and “Huge Gold AK-47”, songs that simply move in a way that Blood Brothers rarely had after their debut, This Adultery Is Ripe. Indeed, for most of their career the band’s punk barnburners were generally the most eligible candidates for the kinds of sudden changes and reverses that mark the funk middle-eight of “Beautiful Horses” or the rolling bridge and heaving outro of “Fucking’s Greatest Hits”.
Ultimately, Young Machetes serves as a fitting closing document for a band who rarely stood still, one that seems to have at least some of its attention and spirit attached to each of the four albums that preceded it. Indeed, the biggest surprise of the LP might be the very real self-knowledge on display from the Seattle quintet, who seemed to understand acutely the defining traits that made “The Blood Brothers”. Rarely do we get denouements this comprehensive and this daring, this able to capitalize on past innovations and willing to try for new ones.