It starts with one quizzical sound. With a pluck of a string, Steven McDonald’s bass vibrates with fraught tension, its reverb left to linger alone for an extra second or two before the rest of his bandmates in OFF! spring back into form on “Void You Out”.
So begins Wasted Years, the 16-track third LP from the punk lifers, who between them boast past or current membership in Black Flag, Circle Jerks, Redd Kross, Burning Brides, and Rocket from the Crypt, among others. It’s an ominous start, but then again, so what? Anyone who knows OFF! knows that loud guitars and an overarching sense of anger and paranoia drive the band’s music, so is it even worth mentioning that they’d start things off in such menacing fashion? But there’s also a suggestive quality to that lone note that nudges you, letting you know that maybe this won’t be quite the same trip as their 2012 self-titled full-length or 2010’s First Four EPs collection. It primes you for an album that’s perfectly set in the band’s wheelhouse while stretching one foot out into slightly different territory.
That’s a lot to say about a band who thrive in large part on their basest punk sensibilities. OFF! songs are like bank robberies. They strike quick, do what they need to do, and get out of dodge before the fuzz shows up. They work fast, packing huge sonic punches in small packages. To that end, Wasted Years still does a remarkably effective job of getting right to the point. The band knocked out 19 tracks in two days in its own studio, only three of which were left on the cutting room floor. The songs that do appear here barely tiptoe past the 1:15 mark, and the 2:14 “Hypnotized” feels like a King Crimson deep cut by comparison.
Dimitri Coats’ guitar still rips like a table saw while drummer Mario Rubalcaba keeps well-timed racket behind the kit. Then there’s the show. Keith Morris, all 5’4″ of him, still belts his anti-authoritarian rants with the same kind of brute power that he brought to the table when he was going wild in the streets with the Circle Jerks. Never one to sugarcoat shit, Morris digs into his caustic lyrical mindset as deeply as ever here. “There’s a two-by-four in my hand/ There’s slaves in my eyes,” he bellows on “Time’s Not on Your Side”. “Carbon dioxide is in my lungs/ Time’s not on your side.” If you even remotely represent the establishment and find yourself in a dark alley with Keith Morris, turn and run the other way.
Those elements are a second skin for OFF!, and that much is unlikely to ever change. But other parts of Wasted Years drift out of the band’s tightly confined pocket. Whereas earlier records motored perilously at one speed like a freight train without brakes, there are songs here that manage to ease off the throttle. “Legion of Evil” is savvy enough to incorporate a few Sabbath-like metal breakdowns, while follow-up track “No Easy Escape” is littered with erratic tempo shifts, starting with slow, stomping fits of hardcore fury before evolving into almost math rock-ish time signatures at the chorus. Even tracks that largely stick to the band’s hardcore roots (“Void You Out”, “Red White and Black”) have a jerkier edge to them that can’t be found on anything the band has done before. These aren’t exactly tectonic shifts in OFF!’s formula, but considering how the band’s previous efforts were saddled with a deliberate kind of sameness, these small deviations give this album a little extra dimension.
Wasted Years is technically sharper and more pierced with misanthropy than its predecessors, and in many ways it’s a record that had to happen. OFF!’s bullshit-free, workmanlike approach has always been the strongest weapon in its arsenal. But hardcore can be a constrictive genre, and it was only a matter of time before the band started kicking their way out of the box, if only a little bit. Fortunately, the growth that’s showcased on Wasted Years doesn’t come at the expense of the urgent brand of nuts-and-bolts hardcore that makes OFF! such a refreshing commodity in an era when purist punk and hardcore bands are a rare breed. Here, OFF! prove that they can still lay claim to being the realest, rawest band in the land without handcuffing themselves creatively.
Essential Tracks: “Void You Out”, “Time’s Not on Your Side”, and “Hypnotized”