Friday, November 4, 2011

Joseph's Picks Of The Week 11/4/11 (1st Anniversary Edition) - Void and The Faith

Void weren’t from the suburbs, they WERE the suburbs; Columbia, Maryland, the band’s birthplace, was one of the first planned communities in the USA. Hardcore punk is a lot of things to a lot of people, and for many alienated, outcast ‘80s youth living on the outskirts and in-betweens, it served as a soundtrack to isolation, anger, fear and disgust, a way to release pent up frustration and aggression over the twisted pile-up of circumstances that defined a world those kids never made. If ’77-punk was a return to the basic principles of the original ‘50s R&R explosion, that return was largely rejected by the culture at large in favor of the stadium rock cul-de-sac and the less disruptive, more synthetic palpitations of the new wave. ’77 punk was about stripping it down, but hardcore was very much about not fitting in. This was steadfastly if not yet self-consciously ‘underground’ music, rescued from languishing in the ghettoized “import” bins of record shops, handed down from older brothers and sisters, passed around on mix-tapes, blasted from cheap speakers while skateboarding or aimlessly driving the back roads on a Saturday night. Void most-assuredly did not fit into the dominant youth culture of the time, but what’s more the band felt somewhat estranged from the very sub-culture that spawned them. “Outcast rednecks” was Void guitarist Bubba Dupree’s self-assessment of the group in relation to the nearby Washington DC scene, and this type of hicks vs. city slickers divide is to be somewhat expected, as it indeed rears up with some frequency in hardcore’s early history (and at this late date is possibly romanticized a bit). But in the case of Void, their lack of assimilation into an established comfort-zone of collective non-conformity greatly assisted in defining the band’s furious, primal, assaultive music as a dictionary definition of hardcore as The Soundtrack of the Outcast. And for decades, unless you were an avaricious collector of bootleggy-type material, Void’s discography basically consisted of their three song contribution to the FLEX YOUR HEAD compilation and half of the FAITH/VOID split LP, both absolutely essential examples of first-wave US hardcore at its best. Well, Dischord Records’ reissue series has scored another massive success, culling the collected results from the band’s first two studio sessions, a pair of outtakes from the FAITH/VOID LP and two live tracks into a 34-song blitz of enlightenment spotlighting Void’s fascinating mania. SESSIONS 1981-83 lends the band an actual trajectory of growth, which is a risky move; part of Void’s potent mythology is how they seemed to explode fully formed in all their extremity into the hardcore chronology, i.e. just what in the hell were they putting in the water out there in Columbia? Sure, the highways and byways of the ol’ intertubes have long since provided exposure to much of Void’s formative material, all of it included on SESSIONS in superior sound quality, but the orderly, historical attention to detail presented on the reissue lessens the enigmatic aura of the band and presents them as possessing something comparable to a familiar punk rock life cycle. Early on, Void alternates between the expected punk lyrical topics (“Dehumanized”, “Organized Sports”, “Don’t Wanna Be Like You”, “My Rules”, “Authority”, even a nine seconds-long eponymous theme) and the darker, more defining bursts of negativity (“Get Out Of My Way”, “Explode” “Time To Die”) and most notably self-negation (“Draft Me Please”, “War Hero”) with nods to the songs that helped set them apart from their contemporaries (“All White Neighborhood”, “Black, Jewish, and Poor”). The first twenty tracks on SESSIONS, recorded in November of 1981, identify Void as being very much in the thrall of Black Flag, though looser (or sloppier, if you prefer) yet more palpably hardcore in delivery. They even wrap up the session with a half-goof cover of “Wasted”. Black Flag influenced a battalion of bands from this era, but the connection here runs deeper. Void were named after a Black Sabbath tune, and their eventual integration of more metallic/hard rock touches into the boiling caldron of their sound shows a kinship with the Flag that’s much more than cosmetic (it’s also been pointed out that Void’s music points toward that of Melvins). But what’s immediately apparent it how Void considered themselves near total outcasts in terms of class, race, surroundings and again, even in regard to their immediate peer group. Tracks 21-30 finds the band really hitting their stride as a unit; buzzsaw distortion and peals of feedback (Bubba Dupree comes as close as unadulterated hardcore gets to the embodiment of guitar hero, sounding at times like a less disciplined Greg Ginn), hyperactive drumming (the late Sean Finnegan simply did what he had to do, which was beat the hell out of his kit), barking, growling vocals (John Weiffenbach presides over this gestalt with the infectious confidence of youth [Punk!!!] and complete investment in the material), and truly bruising bottom end (a lot of early HC isn’t as much heavy as it is simply cacophonous and fast, and that’s cool, but Chris Stover’s bass gives us the best of both worlds). These ten cuts are the music from FLEX YOUR HEAD and the rather rare CONDENSED FLESH 7”, so if you know those songs they are here in full. Tracks 31-32 are outtakes from the FAITH/VOID session, finding them getting rawer, sludgier and more metallic, yet not at all in the hackneyed manner that plagued speed-core/thrash later in the decade. When these two blasts are considered with the rest of the FAITH/VOID side and the culminating live clips included here, Void distinguish themselves as the noisiest band (though again not self-consciously so) in the whole original hardcore wave. So it’s easy to understand why these guys get championed (along with Negative Approach and not much else) by contempo noise-scene kingpins like Wolf Eyes; Void reached the point of a band hanging right at the precipice of sonically shattering apart. This found them at a crossroads. Either embrace the full-on mayhem they were playing around with to plunge deeper into the uh, void, or step back, reconsider and reformulate the sound. They chose the latter route, recording a more rock based LP for Touch and Go that remains unreleased, though bootleg downloads are available in cyberland. Wisely, none of those tracks are included here. SESSIONS 1981-83 spotlights just how Void became the most extreme band in Hardcore and leaves the somewhat controversial denouement to the absolute completists (I downloaded it once, sampled a few tracks and promptly deleted it from my hard drive. I didn’t sound heinous or even bad actually, but it was certainly not the way I want to think about this amazing band. Some lost chapters should stay that way, even final ones). Instead, what this album erases in mystery it more than makes up for in both sheer quality and its usability as a snapshot of hardcore punk’s emotional breeding ground. Oh, and speaking of snapshots, I’ve read a little internet grumbling over the album design of this reissue. Frankly, this is just nonsense. Yes, the SESSIONS sleeve is much different than the B&W drawing/layout featured on their side of the FAITH/VOID cover and perhaps lacks the polish of more commercially conceived record jackets, but this is an utterly good thing. The color saturation in the LP jacket’s captured conception of an explosive stage dive reminds me quite a bit of William Eggleston if he were a HC-matinee shutterbug like Glen E. Friedman, and this distinctive visual quality is fitting for such an unusual group. In Steven Blush’s problematic but essential oral history AMERICAN HARCORE (the book not the movie), DC-scenester and ex-Marginal Man guitarist Kenny Inouye talks about how an extended debate transpired back in the day over whether Void were even any good. He goes on to add that he considers this extreme disparity of reaction as the “first sign of a great band”. I mostly agree. But I’d like to place this divide of opinion in a slightly different light; while Void is correctly categorized as a hardcore band, they ultimately seem to fit in better with a long line of musicians that continue to inspire a polarity of response; Hasil Adkins, Albert Ayler, The Stooges, Throbbing Gristle, Half Japanese, Jandek, Loren Mazzacane Connors, Arthur Doyle, Borbetomagus, Boredoms, Lightning Bolt, Bill Orcutt. Additionally, what these names all share is a detectable vibe of not fitting in, and SESSIONS 1981-83 promote Void as a visceral exposé in popularity as an odious sham, in the process expanding/transforming the band’s singular discography into more than just one of hardcore’s brief cathartic exclamation points. They now stand tall as a foundational aural text in the style. What a fabulous state of affairs.

As Void’s legend has grown over the years into something close to biblical proportions, The Faith’s reputation has suffered somewhat. I feel confident this is a just a temporary situation, and that a tide of deserved esteem regarding the band will soon reassert itself, for I can still clearly recall the collective anticipation on a drive home with friends from Fairfax, VA way back in ’89, SUBJECT TO CHANGE and FAITH/VOID having been freshly purchased, understanding that a couple simple spins upon the trusty turntable were going to significantly deepen and adjust perspectives while solidifying a whole lot of punk rock connections. As a “second-generation” DC band (though very much an integral part of the original ’80-’85 wave) The Faith featured members of The Untouchables (Alec MacKaye and Eddie Janney) and State Of Alert (Michael Hampton and Ivor Hanson), two of the groups upon which the whole initial Dischord impetus/ethos was founded. Post ’83 break-up, members of Faith went on to fortify such important DC units as Embrace, Rites Of Spring, Ignition, One Last Wish, Happy Go Licky and The Warmers. Furthermore, in ’89 Minor Threat, while surely important and influential, weren’t quite as monolithic a punk/HC/u-ground presence as they would soon become, Fugazi were just gaining their musical footing, and Ignition, featuring ex-Faith members Alec (Ian’s bro, don’tcha know) and Chris Bald were one of the most impressive, in fact maybe the best, of all the post-Revolution Summer bands, so finally catching up with The Faith in ’89 held something special. Ultimately, after getting well acquainted with both records it was driven home with direct clarity just how key the band was at ushering in stronger songwriting, an increased melodic sensibility that did nothing to weaken the music’s firepower, a far less formulaic rigidity coupled with improved dynamics, and lastly a broadened lyrical scope delivered through Alec’s distinct raspy holler. In a nutshell The Faith functioned as the lynchpin band joining first generation harDCore and the subsequent post-HC progressions that rumbled through the District in the later ‘80s and most of the ensuing decade, a connection that reinforces their importance as sorta incalculable and makes the fact that they’ve been persistently slept-on more than a bit bewildering. So it’s very nice to see SUBJECT TO CHANGE PLUS FIRST DEMO appear as part of Dischord’s recent spate of reissues. Over one year elapsed in the band’s brief but productive lifespan between the recording of this previously unreleased demo material (December ’81) and the 8-song 12” EP SUBJECT TO CHANGE in May of ’83, and the difference is substantial. Unsurprisingly, the demo is closer to standard hardcore, though it’s far from generic. In fact, if Faith had called it a day after recording these initial eleven songs, they would still easily be the equal of other 2nd-gen DC cohorts like Deadline and Artificial Peace. But the demo essentially stands as an early run-through of the songs that comprise the band’s side of the FAITH/VOID split. The May ’82 session that makes up half of that canonical monster is heavier in delivery than the demo material (which is a rougher, with more ragged edges), but the biggest detectible difference is basically an increase in instrumental confidence. If ye practice, ye wilt improve, thou knowest? If catchy and dexterous, The Faith was also a grouchy, dark hued band, and this found them to be a fitting, distinct contrast for Void. Thurston Moore, a huge fan of the group (his latest solo album DEMOLISHED THOUGHTS is titled after a lyric from “It’s Time”) has mentioned how Faith were in essence really a methodical continuation of the template DCHC style, and that’s right on the money. The eight tracks that make up SUBJECT TO CHANGE feature Eddie Janney formerly of The Untouchables on second guitar, and even though it was released after the band’s breakup, this is the stuff that had such a profound impact on the Dischord scene over the following decade. But please let us linger a bit over the addition of Eddie Janney. In hardcore, unless a band is heading for metal suckdom or they just have terrible songs, adding an additional guitar is pretty much a sure bet, allowing for exploration of melody and opening up the potential for increased instrumental elasticity while sacrificing little if anything in the departments of heaviness and density. For instance, Minor Threat briefly featured second guitarist Steve Hansgen on OUT OF STEP and Black Flag’s 1982 DEMOS finds Dez Cadena on rhythm (and is in my estimation one of the greatest of punk rock bootlegs). So to properly absorb the sound of Faith’s growth it’s necessary to begin with the second side of PLUS FIRST DEMO, which contains the entirety of their inaugural session; next switch to the band’s half of FAITH/VOID (temporarily resisting the urge to indulge the Void side for kicks. Just control yourself, m’kay?); and then lastly soak up the huge strides and assured finality that is SUBJECT TO CHANGE. Approaching their discography in this manner really sheds a fine light on just how talented and groundbreaking Faith actually was, for as detailed above the evidence of their influence is indisputable, their sound having become so seamlessly interwoven into the fabric of Dischordian activities that upon first hearing the music can sound instantly familiar, this fact likely being another attribute in their status as a consistently underappreciated entity. But instead of ruminating over clues as to why The Faith aren’t as revered as they were roughly twenty years ago, I’ll simply state that knowledge of the band’s oeuvre is a complete necessity in gaining a full-bodied appreciation of early American hardcore. If thou study, thou shalt understand. Capiche?

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