Thursday, December 1, 2011
The Great Record Excavation: B is for The Black Halos
At last Friday's .357 String Band/Those Poor Bastards show at Turner Hall, Keith and Janet introduced me to their friend Dave from The Mighty Deerlick, a Wisconsin punk band that's existed in one for or another since at least my college years (i still remember a dude in the UW-Oshkosh music program walking around with "THE MIGHTY DEERLICK" written in marker on the back of his jean jacket...in 1993! In other news, i was in college when my current girlfriend was 11). We had an extended and entertaining conversation about our differing musical philosophies, stemming from some old AV Club comment thread where we (DJ and "prisonn") got into it here and there. Essentially, the conversation discussed the merits of "arty" bands vs. standard punk rock bands that play accessible music that many people can enjoy (you can guess which side i was on).
There's nothing wrong with playing accessible music, of course (which to Dave is the whole point of being in a band that plays shows in front of an audience)--some of my favorite bands play gorgeous, easily digestible music (see: Magnetic Fields, Murder By Death) that has earned them large followings. As i've said previously in this blog, if a band can accomplish something arty and challenging while also providing enough hooks to get large audiences invested (see: St. Vincent, Devo, Future of the Left), it's a special thing. But if i'm forced to defend either "accessible" or "arty" without straddling the grey areas, i'll end up on the side of "arty" every time.
A desire to try something different is why part of me always felt a little bit outside-looking-in at Green Bay's Concert Cafe, THE "most unlikely punk mecca" (according to a list New Bomb Turks singer Eric Davidson published, appropriately, in The Punk Rock Book of Lists) of the 1990s, despite being one of the regulars and despite becoming friends with Tom, Andy, and many of the people who kept that scene running. The Concert Cafe was the single most important building for hundreds of Green Bay and Fox Valley kids who would have never seen punk rock up close otherwise. It was home to some of the greatest shows i saw in my college years (at least two Brainiac shows, the last Rip Offs show ever, a New Bomb Turks/Teengenerate double bill, Archers of Loaf, Poster Children, the Jawbox/Jawbreaker double bill...i could go on). But it would be a gross re-edit of history to ignore the large numbers of kids that turned out for the most routine Fat Wreck Chords cookie-cutter pop-punk tours (oh good, No Use For a Name and Lagwagon are touring together; it'll be like one band with an intermission!), to say nothing of the legions of local garage punk bands that came and went with nary a hint of evolution beyond your standard Ramones/Rip Off Records/Maximumrocknroll-approved template.
It's that part of the Concert Cafe experience that i think about when i pull out the record that this week's Great Record Excavation will focus on--mostly because i picked it up at the Cafe.
The Album: The Black Halos, The Violent Years (Sub Pop, 2001)
Who they were: The Black Halos are a Vancouver, BC based punk rock band founded in 1993 by lead singer Billy Hopeless and guitarist Rich Jones as The Black Market Babies. The band was briefly on Sub Pop Records, and later signed with History Music. They broke up in 2008 after having their equipment stolen while on tour, however disagreements between the Halos and Billy Hopeless were also cited as a cause.
I ganked that paragraph directly from Wikipedia because i really don't remember all that much about this band.
Where i got the record: Like i said, it was a Concert Cafe show, apparently during its last year of operation, when it was known as "Rock 'N' Roll High School," judging from the fact that this CD apparently came out in 2001 (i honestly thought that maybe i got it in 1996 or '97). Despite all that stuff about all the cookie-cutter punk rock that came through the Cafe in those years, i remember legitimately liking The Black Halos live; they sounded loud and raw and looked like a bunch of mascara-smeared degenerates. But when i got the CD home, i remember placing it in my stereo, eagerly awaiting the grimy sleaze-punk that was presented on stage, only to discover...a record of cookie-cutter anthemic shout-along street-punk derived rock 'n' roll that i had heard about 500 other times (if i'm being generous) in the 6-year run of the Cafe. I shelved it after one listen and never went back.
Does it hold up? As i spin The Violent Years on my computer (shut up--the hard drive's spinning), not much has changed in 10 years. It's not a bad record by any means--heck, a standard punk rock band put out an album on Sub Pop, so it must have something going for it. And sure enough, everything you'd expect in a workmanlike, serviceable punk record is here: guitar riffs running through what sounds like a wall of Marshalls; solid-if-unspectacular mid-tempo drumming that varies by little more than 10 BPM from one song to the next; and ragged vocals soaked in Marlboro and rail whiskey. Anyone who wants their New York Dolls-influenced glam-punk to come wrapped in more of a Rancid jacket (minus the ska) than a Faster Pussycat scarf (minus the Aerosmith) knows what they're getting into with this disc.
And that's where i differ from the Dave Deerlicks in the world, i guess; ten years on, this sounds no different than the pile of dyed-black, leather jacket punk promo CDs that threatened to topple off the desk of my college radio station's music coordinator office like a game of Oi! Jenga. There's nothing here to distinguish the Black Halos from any other band from 10-15 years ago. They don't have the incisively, absurdly intellectual smartass lyrics of the aforementioned New Bomb Turks' Eric Davidson or Boris the Sprinkler's Rev. Norb. They don't have the dizzying 90-degree turns of a NoMeansNo. They don't have a dry guitar tone that matches the dry humor of their lyrics, like the Rip Offs. If you put The Violent Years on at a party where a bunch of dudes with "RAMONES" plastered across their leather jackets are drinking Blatz, it'll get the heads bobbing and the fists pumping. It's accessible as hell, but generically so. It's government issue (lower case) punk served in a white case with "PUNK RECORD" in black Arial font. Hell, one of the songs is cringingly titled "Sell-Out Love."
The Black Halos are a textbook case of a band that lots of people saw, said "hey, they were pretty good," and promptly forgot about. I can't help wondering, though, how different my opinion would be if they sounded more like that gritty, attitude-filled band that i hazily remember seeing on stage in Green Bay a decade ago? I remember a real sense of surprise that the record sounded so generic when compared to the band's live show. Maybe if the CD had been a more accurate translation of their live sound, i wouldn't be ready to shelve this disc back in the CD rack, not to be remembered until i unpack my next apartment. As it stands, the discs rates a big fat "meh" from me, but i'll bet if they reunited and did another tour, they could still find an audience and map out a string of grimy, hole-in-the-wall punk clubs where dudes would lose their minds. And sometimes that's all you need, i guess. Hell, beats playing for three disinterested lumps of space in a Nashville shithole. I should know--i play in a purposely obtuse "arty" band.
But hey, judge for yourself: click here to download The Violent Years by The Black Halos