Monday, October 14, 2019

Black Sabbath Saturday


Total Chaos come across as a bit of a cartoonish parody, a vision of what the headliners might have become had their growth stunted around the time of Damaged. The members have spiked their hair and surrendered their surnames for punk substitutes; the letter "A" in "CHAOS" on the backdrop banner is an anarchy symbol; the songs rail against cops, the lust for war and the US, branded "the most repressive dictatorship in the world" (Amnesty International might be inclined to disagree).

The showmanship and shredding guitar solos help to give Total Chaos' hardcore its distinctly LA flavour, as opposed to the smart, austere assault of Washington DC pioneers Minor Threat. The chaos is actually for the most part carefully controlled, except when the bassist comes perilously close to knocking over the guitarist's amp in his overexuberance. Nevertheless, the boots they repeatedly aim at your face rarely miss the intended target altogether, and they deserve credit for doggedly sticking to their guns for three decades.

Black Flag are the subjects of the very first chapter of Michael Azerrad's exceptional book Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes From The American Indie Underground 1981-1991, and with good reason. Having initially established themselves as a ferocious hardcore act, they quickly grew bored of the genre's paradoxical championing of personal and political freedom within a rigid form that demanded slavish adherence to musical and aesthetic rules. The second half of 1984's My War was their Dylan-goes-electric moment, its slowed-down sludge inspiring a whole generation - including Melvins, The Jesus Lizard, Kurt Cobain and Mudhoney's Mark Arm - to explore the fertile ground between metal/hard rock and punk.

In addition to putting out Black Flag's albums, guitarist Greg Ginn's labour-of-love label SST released influential records by everyone from Minutemen, Husker Du and Meat Puppets to Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr. Meanwhile, his brother Raymond Pettibon came up with the band's instantly recognisable logo, subsequently inked onto countless arms and sewn onto countless jackets, before going on to design the iconic cover of Sonic Youth's Goo.

Suffice to say, then, that anticipation for Black Flag's first UK tour in 35 years, even in the absence of any new material, is high.

Ginn may be the only original member, but then that's been the case for years - he is, to all intents and purposes, Black Flag - and from the moment the current line-up (vocalist Mike Vallely, bassist Tyler Smith and drummer Isaias Gill) rip into 'Depression' without a word of introduction, it's clear he's in very good company. Vallely in particular has huge shoes to fill, given that his predecessors include Henry Rollins and Keith Morris, but he does vein-popping intensity with aplomb, especially on 'Black Coffee'.

Ginn, though, is the focal point - an idiot savant guitar genius whose love of both three-chord punk and freeform jazz come through in his unique, uninhibited style. His bandmates regularly converge in a huddle around the drum riser to allow him to stand centre stage, wobbling his head from side to side before pausing to towel his face down and take a restorative sip from the teacup atop the amp.

Times may have changed - the sarcastic satire of 'Slip It In', for instance, feels dangerously open to misinterpretation - but 'Gimme Gimme Gimme' and 'Six Pack' stir up the moshpit much as they did in the band's youth. Total Chaos emerge to lend vocal support to a raucous 'Nervous Breakdown', but the night isn't quite over. A meandering cover of 'Louie Louie', performed while the crowd thins and hardcore purists grumble about the songs omitted from the set, simply peters out after about 20 minutes when Ginn decides he's had enough: the perfect punk gesture from the band who ripped up the rulebook.

(An edited version of this review first appeared on the Buzz website.)

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