For almost three decades now, Black Flag has existed in the hearts and minds of hardcore fanatics young and old the way that former presidents do in history books. By 2013, their story had long been written, the pages dog-eared and yellowed with age. They’re iconic, not simply in terms of the savage sounds they committed to record, but in how they bled, physically and metaphorically, for this thing called hardcore. They played hard, toured hard, and lived hard, and, in the process, they pretty much taught every punk band that followed in their footsteps how to walk the walk.
So, it’s not difficult to figure out why Greg Ginn has steadfastly refused to reunite the band for so long. With every passing year, it’s just made more and more sense not to do it, even as the band’s peers started cashing reunion checks hand over fist. As their legacy continued to balloon, it seemed increasingly unlikely that Ginn would jeopardize the Black Flag legend. But, as we’ve seen, 2013 has become the year where music fans’ faintest reunion hopes spring magically to life. With that, Black Flag is back with their first record of new material in 28 years.
What The… is right. That feeling of incredulity summed up many a reaction to news of a Black Flag reunion, and, as such, it makes for a suitably self-deprecating title for the band’s seventh studio album. But, if news of a new Black Flag lineup and music had fans scratching their heads, the end result of What The…‘s 22 tracks will leave them massaging their temples. With its squeaky clean sonic finish and diluted edge, it’s a record that screams musical midlife crisis. If you were worried that a new Black Flag record would sully the band’s sterling legend, your concerns are sadly validated.
Considering how fiercely Ginn has protected the Black Flag name over the years (most recently in his attempts to sue his former bandmates over use of the band’s logo and back catalog), it’s almost shocking how careless and unfocused these new songs are. “Shut Up”, “My Heart’s Pumping”, and “Get Out of My Way” half-heartedly pick through classic Black Flag themes of youthful frustration and social angst, but they sound almost like parodies of the band’s former self. “You crack me up when you say you care/ You crack me up in your easy chair/ You really crack me up when you whine about everything/ And wallow in despair,” Ron Reyes spits on “Wallow In Despair”. Granted, Black Flag lyrics have never turned heads on account of depth, but they used to be blunt and effective. Those anti-social rants don’t hit with the same element of danger coming from an older band trying to reclaim their former glory. Other songs unexpectedly do a bit of uncomfortably foreshadowing. When Reyes talks about “going down hard until the bitter end” on “The Bitter End”, he probably couldn’t have imagined at the time that his second stint as the band’s frontman would come to close before the record’s release.
Musically, things are just as stunted. Ginn’s distinctive guitar sound is as instantly recognizable as ever, but his supporting cast lets him down. Gregory Moore largely keeps the beat at an uncomfortably conservative midtempo, with many songs taking on the stale feel of a Chili Peppers record with a hardcore lean. Ginn, playing bass under his rechristened pseudonym Dale Nixon, lacks the manic, madman energy of Chuck Dukowski’s thunderous, low end thumping. That, in the end, tells the sad tale of Black Flag circa 2013. Ginn might be the band’s creative motor, but What The…. proves that even punk rock visionaries can’t do it all on their own. It’s not a total loss, as songs like “The Chase” and “No Teeth” strike with a ferocity that reaches a little bit closer to the Black Flag of old. But, in the end, the record lacks too many key ingredients of the Black Flag formula to produce something worthy of the band’s name.
So, what have we learned here? First and foremost, we’ve found that Ginn’s initial instincts about reuniting his former band were correct. Getting a group of guys to agree to come together is one thing, but making a reunion actually work and produce something worthwhile is another thing altogether. And, with the Black Flag resurrection taking less the form of a reunion than a bitter divorce between rival factions, maybe there were just too many distractions and compromises at play here to make a successful reunion record possible. Black Flag is a band as deserving as any of taking another victory lap if they see it fit. It’s just unfortunate that the end result acts more as a cautionary tale against reunions than a convincing argument for them.
Essential Tracks: “No Teeth”, “The Chase”