What do Joanna Newsom’s “Only Skin”, Melvins’ “Anti-Vermin Seed”, and Mogwai’s “Mogwai Fear Satan” have in common? These three songs are each longer than the entirety of LA-based, hardcore punk supergroup OFF!‘s debut LP; the 16 songs on OFF! clock in at a sweltering 15:51, the most expansive of the tracks barely cracking the minute and a half mark. Led by founding Black Flag and Circle Jerks vocalist Keith Morris, the four-piece use their time wisely, filling this disc with a manic, volatile insistence that both hardcore and these aging punks in particular are just as tough as they ever were. That furor doesn’t let up, the riffs keep on coming, and the album stands up as a standard for the genre.
Often, the industry tends to assume any album by long-established musicians relates to their age, and this is particularly true in a genre umbrella as effusively tied to youth as punk. The assumption, perhaps, is that you can only mosh for so long before you break a hip; another possibility is that one either grows out of being jaded or gets too angry to convey it properly. On “Cracked”, Morris actively addresses these assumptions, talking about the “hardcore karaoke retirement home” and “being played for a chump.” There’s certainly anger directed in a few different directions on this effort, but this insulted feeling is the majority of what’s filling the rage tank.
Throughout, bassist Steven Shane McDonald (of Reds Kross) and drummer Mario Rubalcaba (of Rocket From the Crypt and Hot Snakes) provide the steel backbone for the concussive song bursts, while Dmitri Coats’ scorching guitar work plays counterpoint to Morris’s angst-y sneer. The instrumentals behind Morris consistently adopt the same formula, fitting the ideals of the genre to a tee and never doing anything to push the envelope or challenge Morris for the listener’s attention.
The repeatedly referenced title to “Borrow and Bomb” is one of the clearer, politically aimed criticisms, with Morris screaming, “Yeah, I know I’m not alone” as a particularly effective rallying cry. “Toxic Box” calls out nuclear waste and the four horsemen, and “King Kong Brigade” works on the education system’s perceived tendency to “teach ‘em to shoot before they can read.” There are plenty of new things to be angry about every day, and Morris is not content to let the young punks take all the good stuff. His growls and yells shake through the speakers in equal measure, sounding just as intense as he ever has, ready to cover whatever topic comes up.
“Jet Black Girls” presents a serious shift in sound, though, the closest thing to breezy that an OFF! song will likely get. The song wears its nostalgia on its sleeve, and Morris and company crank out some serious introspection in the midst of mostly outward-turned rage. “Out in the night, mortality calls,” Morris fires, later saying that Germs frontman Darby Crash saved his life. Tellingly, the song also features some of the freest-sounding compositions, snarly feedback and cymbal tones ringing out into the open air, the importance of music in life apparent. Where the rest of the album clangs and bashes its way through rage, the tonal shift here fits with the new, warm topic.
This isn’t the type of album to redefine a genre, to challenge listeners’ preconceptions. Instead, OFF! is the godfather of hardcore punk churning out another stellar example of the genre at its peak, an album that kicks ass musically, confronts the listener lyrically, and then kicks ass again. Fans of any of the members’ other bands (or anyone who’s ever considered themselves a punk) will love this album and will surely be ready to mosh their faces off at live venues across the country.
Essential Tracks: “Wipeout”, “King Kong Brigade”, and “Jet Black Girls”