Black Flag – What The…

What The
The new Black Flag album, featuring Greg Ginn and Ron Reyes, proves difficult to separate from its surrounding drama and suffers from a watery feel, lack of interesting ideas, and an absence of the personality dynamics that made the band’s original run so interesting.

Released Dec. 3rd on SST Records

Well, here it is at last, nearly a year after being announced as completed: The new Black Flag album. Although the fair critical thing to do would probably be to review the album it on its own merits rather than in the context of the drama surrounding it, at this point it’s become nigh-impossible to separate the work from the tabloid-level controversy in which it finds itself. Indeed, the album itself now seems like little more than a footnote to the larger story of dueling reunions, lawsuits, and bad blood that has tarnished this ill-advised “reunion”.

Let’s get a few things out of the way: Black Flag was Greg Ginn’s band. He started it, was the sole constant member, wrote the lion’s share of the material, and was the one who ultimately pulled the plug. He’s also an amazing guitarist, entering a trance-like state in which his hands seem to melt into the fretboard. All that said, he seems to be the member least cognizant of, or simply least interested in, what made Black Flag’s music memorable. He may own the rights to the name, and he’s kept the records in print (though he’s never given them the remastering job they desperately need and deserve), but otherwise he’s done little to perpetuate the band’s memory in the public consciousness, or at least it certainly seems so in comparison to the many interviews, tributes, books, etc. that other ex-members have been involved with.

Minus a couple of poorly-reviewed “reunion” shows in 2003, and a 3-song set with former Black Flag singer Ron Reyes in 2010 in celebration of Reyes’ 50th birthday (which planted the seed for What The… and its supporting tours), it’s seemed that Ginn was content to let Black Flag rest in peace. As recently as 2012, he said that he was mainly interested in exploring what he could do with electronics, that he “wasn’t excited about reunion stuff or alternative rock”, and that “There’s not much crossover between old Black Flag fans and what I’m doing now and that’s fine.” And it is fine, especially in light of his hyper-prolific post-Black Flag output (he’s released dozens of records under as many monikers), it just makes his choice to resurrect the Black Flag banner now, almost three decades after putting it to rest, all the more off-putting. Black Flag may belong to Ginn, legally and to a large extent philosophically, but stewardship of the band’s legacy seems better left to the BF alumni currently touring as Flag (Keith Morris, Chuck Dukowski, Dez Cadena, and Bill Stevenson, with Stephen Egerton filling Ginn’s spot), celebrating the band’s early catalog with the enthusiasm and power it deserves.

Then there’s Ron Reyes. You have to give the guy props for trying. Of Black Flag’s four singers, he had the shortest tenure in the band (6 months), only ended up performing on three proper studio tracks (3 of the 4 cuts from 1980’s Jealous Again EP), and quit abruptly mid-performance, moving to Vancouver where he’s been continuously active in local bands. Black Flag, in turn, rechristened him with the derisive nickname “Chavo Pederast” when Jealous Again went to print. Yet somehow, Reyes has maintained good relations with Ginn and continuously looked back fondly on his time with the band. His jovial nature and enthusiasm for this reunion seemed to buoy hopes for the album. He’s certainly giving it his all on What The…, with a thick howl that injects a shot of energy to the proceedings.

Reyes was never Black Flag’s most dynamic vocalist, though, known mostly for his onstage energy (self-described as a “Mexican jumping bean”) rather than his punk shout. While enthusiastic, his singing didn’t have the mania and wry humor of Morris, the stentorian bark of Cadena, or the intense, muscular anger of Henry Rollins. That hasn’t changed much in 30 years (an Allmusic review calls it a “lumpen bray”, and I’m hard-pressed to argue), and energy will only take one so far. It doesn’t help that his lyrics on What The… are little more than cookie-cutter punk rants with titles like “Slow Your Ass Down”, “Shut Up”, “Get Out of My Way”, and “Give Me All Your Dough”.

Black Flag, July 15, 2013 at Soma

Black Flag, July 15, 2013 at Soma

If I were to pick one adjective to describe this album, it would be “watery”. Everything on it seems to be over-layered in ways that make the end product sound like it’s being listened to while underwater. I mentioned Ginn’s hands seeming to melt into his guitar, and that’s a good metaphor for the sound here; where his off-the-rails riffs and scabrous solos once exploded out of the speakers on records like Nervous Breakdown and Damaged, here they sound more like they’re flowing into the instrument itself rather than out at the audience. his playing remains savage and unpredictable, but the blues-metal influence of Black Flag’s later years, and of his instrumental outfit Gone, gives a feeling of fluidity to his playing rather than one of brittleness or sharpness. This watery sensation also pervades Reyes’ vocals, which are multi-tracked almost throughout, often in places that don’t call for it. The songs often sound like they were meant to be instrumental and had his vocals crammed on top, further muddying the waters.

Ginn also plays bass on this record, using the pseudonym Dale Nixon that he employed for the same role on 1984’s My War. While his bass playing is more dynamic than it was on that album, it once again suffers the project that he’s essentially interplaying with himself. During its original run, Black Flag employed a dynamic rhythm section that emphasized strong personalities: The idiosyncratic heft of Dukowksi, the technical proficiency of Kira Roessler, the speed of Robo, the power of Stevenson. On What The… there’s no clash of personalities, which makes the whole thing seem uninspired. Gregory Moore, a longtime Ginn collaborator, adds little to the proceedings on drums, his interplay with Ginn sounding downright sluggish in most places and the drum sound puny in comparison to, say, Stevenson’s. Former SST co-owner and rock writer Joe Carducci once commented that Ginn “wanted this rhythm section that did a minimal kind of thing; he seemed to want a floor upon which he would play, and that floor was flatter than it should have been.” That certainly seems to be the case on What The…

Ginn also plays a theramin and some organ on this album, which has been heavily criticized by some punk purists, but I don’t find much to complain about regarding it. It’s an accent piece, doesn’t pervade the album, and adds some extra weirdness to some of the songs thus challenging the audience’s expectations, something Black Flag was always known for. Sure it sounds odd, but Ginn’s been using it in his other projects for some time and knows when to apply it and when not. I actually think it sounds cool on tracks like “Down in the Dirt”.

What ultimately frustrates most about What The… is that there are some good ideas here. Songs like “Down in the Dirt”, “Lies”, “The Chase”, and “No Teeth” are tense and appropriately menacing, and given some smithing (and a better rhythm section) such tracks could’ve made a tight, kickass record. But there aren’t enough such ideas on What The… to justify its 22 song tracklist and nearly 45 minute runtime. As always, what Ginn seems to lack most is an editor, someone to help hone his many muses and experiments into a sharpened, effective attack. Had this album been more focused, and released under a different moniker, a reunion between Ginn and Reyes would likely have been welcomed and celebrated rather than so heavily criticized.

As it is, What The… is set up to underwhelm in a number of ways: By being posited as a Black Flag record, it positions itself for comparison against the band’s iconic back catalog. By positing this lineup as the only true Black Flag, in a petty press release stating they were “not to be confused with the fake Flag band currently covering the songs of Black Flag in an embarrassingly weak ‘mailing it in’ fashion”, the Ginn camp invited their current work to be weighed against what Flag was doing (which, by all accounts, was blowing the effing house down), thus setting a very high bar for itself. The situation certainly wasn’t helped when Ginn sued the members of Flag and lost, the judge concluding that Ginn did not have individual rights to the name. With all this going on, the advance singles from What The… were largely lost in the noise of the drama  and were difficult to judge on their own merits. When the album was finally announced, its laughable cover art and even more laughable title only served to erode anticipation for it. You almost had to listen to it, to see if it would sound as bad as it looked.

Speaking of the cover art (without rehashing its near-universal revulsion), it brings up another problem with this “reunion”: Ginn’s notorious knack for alienating those he works with. The Black Flag biography is chock full of stories of how ex-members were “vibed out” by the guitarist and retain animosity to this day. Even Ginn’s brother Raymond Pettibon, who supplied his now-iconic artwork to so many of Black Flag’s albums and fliers, cut all ties to the band in ’85 and is now doing art for Ginn’s self-described competitors in Off! and Flag. It seemed that, up to this point, the amiable Reyes (who created this cover art, though he didn’t know it’d be colorized and used for that purpose) was one of the few Black Flag alumni still on good terms with Ginn, but even he has now been ousted from the group, merely a week before What The…‘s release no less. His exit statement points out some of the problems that plague the album and its supporting tours. If this ends the debacle that was Black Flag 2013, then What The… will appropriately remain a footnote and a curio.

2/5

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