Knife Fights - “I Am Neither A Whole Nor A Half Man” (2016)

I’d seen a few posts online about a new digital release by Reykjavik’s Knife Fights, so when I got an email from the band about it as well I made a point of checking it out.

I Am Neither A Whole Nor A Half Man is comprised of five tracks and currently is only available digitally, both for free streaming and download purchase (only $6) HERE.  The band tags their sound as indie rock and pop punk, and I’d agree with that.  The opener “Place Your Bets” reminds me of the more poppy and jangly tunes by Velvet Underground and Violent Femmes - simple, well-structured, and super catchy.  When I heard the second track, “Panic Later,” I was struck with a strong sense of recognition… but I don’t own any Knife Fights albums.  Could it be a cover?  Damn it’s fantastic… where do I know it from?  Turns out it was included on last year’s great Icelandic comp CD Iceland Whatever Vol. 1, and I even remarked how much I liked this tune when I reviewed that CD last year.  If you never got a copy of Iceland Whatever Vol. 1, they’re still available through the label’s website FOR THREE BUCKS.  Dudes and dudettes, it’s a bargain at five times the price, so I don’t know what you’re waiting for.  You need this CD.

“Gray Clouds” takes us in a darker direction with its simple percussion and melancholy synthesizer, a song that gives a sense of despair, but also just a hint of hope, as if we’ve bottomed out and things are going to start to get better.  “Don’t Be A Man” brings us back to that catchy, poppy place before the closer “Tails” brings it back down a notch, a methodical number that seems about to break lose of it’s bonds at any moment in a fit of Hulk-like rage, but just keeps on moving, slow and steady, winning the race.

I don’t see Knife Fights on the roster for Iceland Airwaves 2016, but I’ll be keeping my eyes open to see if they make an appearance or two off-venue - because if they do, I’m going to be there.

Grandmaster Melle Mel and the Furious Five - “Grandmaster Melle Mel and the Furious Five” (1984)

Many many moons ago, an 18-year-old Life in the Vinyl Lane traveled from his home in Seattle to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to go to college.  It was an exciting time.  I was brimming with confidence, setting off for a new adventure that would usher me into adulthood.  So I packed up a trunk full of stuff, including a curated sample of my big CD collection, and headed east.

After arriving on campus and watching my parents and Holly leave to head back to the airport and Seattle, I quickly realized I might be in over my head.  During freshman orientation they told us that only maybe a third of us would eventually graduate from this school.

I was not among that one third.  I lasted one semester.

While that seemed like a soul crushing defeat at the time, I look back on it now as a great experience.  I learned a bit about navigating the world on my own, as well as what things  were important to me.

What made that semester most tolerable for me were the friends I made during that brief time, both in my dorm and through the fraternity that I pledged.  I know the Greek system has a very spotty reputation with many, and a lot of it is completely deserved.  But for me the support I got from the other members, both socially and academically, is the only reason I don’t go full-on Chernobyl during that fall and early winter.

Parties were a normal occurrence at the fraternity house, and in the late summer/early fall most of of the activity was on the house’s massive front patio, which became a dance floor.  Spinning the wax behind the open front windows was usually a house brother named ‘Bama (♥), and given that I was hopelessly in love with a girl in Seattle and therefore not interested in meeting girls at the parties I often spent time hanging out at his DJ setup.  Eventually he taught me a thing or two, and when he wanted to take a break he’d let me spin a few songs, but always reminding me that “the girls want to dance, so no rock!”  I think I tried playing the Eagles once.  Once.

There were three songs that defined that time and those parties for me, songs that were in heavy rotation and got everyone out onto the patio.  All had their own quasi choreographed dances that went with them.  The first two were “Stayin’ Alive” by the Bee Gees and “Bust a Move” by Young MC.  The third is one that I’d never heard before those patio parties, and for some reason I never took the time to find out what it was.  And I’d never heard it again over the next 25+ years.

Until last night.

That song is “White Lines” by Melle Mel.  I almost broke my neck when my head snapped over to look at the stereo when that song came on.  Now, I’m not sure that the re-mix version on 1984s Grandmaster Melle Mel and the Furious Five was the same one we used to spin at the fraternity; it seems more likely that we had a longer 12″ version, but maybe not.  It doesn’t matter, not really.  What mattered in that moment was a flood of memories coming back to me, specifically the happy ones from that aborted east coast experience.  The time we all drove out into the woods and came back with tons of branches and other crap that we used to decorate the porch for our annual Jungle Party; the brothership dinners when we’d splurge for a keg of “the good stuff” (♠); learning the uneven parts of the house pool table and eventually using that knowledge to help make shots; the time a couple of our engineering students built a full-on water slide that started from a third floor bedroom window and went down into an above-ground pool they built in the front yard (♣); and even post-party mornings when each pledge was paired with a brother to contribute to clean-up duty.  Those guys kept me sane.

Grandmaster Melle Mel and the Furious Five is definitely early hip hop, and by that I mean the record is actually a blend of hip hop and non hip hop songs.  “Yesterday” is most certainly not hip hop, and stuff like “At the Party” is more like soul dance.  The Furious Five aren’t always all that “Furious,” but this is still  great party record, albeit a bit of a dated one.

In the last few days before the semester ended, the guys at the fraternity knew I was transferring to the University of Washington and headed back home.  They were all cool about it, though I specifically remember one of the seniors pulling me aside and asking me with the utmost, nonjudgmental sincerity, “Are you sure you’re doing the right thing?”  My answer was a simple “No.”  He thought about that for a few seconds, nodded, and we went to the basement bar and had a beer.

It turns out I did make the right choice.  I went to UW, Holly and I moved in together and eventually married, and things seem like the turned out pretty damn good.  Melle Mel certainly didn’t cause any of that to happy, but he played a part in his own way.  So thanks for the good memories, Melle Mel.

(♥)  Who was, of course, from Alabama.  And to this day I’ve never seen anyone who can throw down a beer as fast as ‘Bama could.

(♠)  The good stuff was Moosehead.  Which might not sound like much, but consider that (1) it was the late 1980s and there weren’t many microbrews on the east coast, and (2) our “regular” beer was Old Milwaukee, aka The Beast, aka Old Swillwaukee.

(♣)  I was in that third floor room with one of the brothers who was just about to get onto the side for another test run when the wall of the pool we’d built in the front yard gave way, sending thousands of gallons of water down the road.  Thankfully he wasn’t on his way down when it happened, and the two guys in the pool were able to hang onto the side and not get swept out with he water..  Needless to say, the police showed up shortly thereafter and shut the slide down.

Wehrmacht - “Biērmächt” (1988)

I’ve written before about my group of high school friends and about how during most of our senior year we hung out at John’s house.  We hung out there because he shared the house with his older brother Dave, and it was just the two of them, their mom having taken a job overseas for a few years.  We listened to music, skated the backyard halfpipe, and did the normal teenage guy stuff.

Sometimes Dave would open his bedroom window and put one of his big Cerwin-Vega speakers on the sill, pointed outside, and blast music bound to piss off the neighbors - Butthole Surfers, Motörhead, what have you.  I remember pulling into the driveway one afternoon, getting out of my car, and being serenaded by Dave’s speaker playing Wehrmacht’s “Suck My Dick”.

That was my introduction to Wehrmacht.

Wehrmacht’s 1989 Biērmächt album quickly became a favorite for us.  I managed to find a cassette copy, though never one on vinyl, and songs like “Suck My Dick” and “Drink Jack” quickly became part of the regular rotation, as did the absurd trilogy “Everb,” “E…!,” and “Micro-E!,” three songs with a combined run time of somewhere around 5 seconds. Wehrmacht’s blend of thrash and hardcore was something we hadn’t heard before, plus they sang about beer and Jack, so that was plus as well.

Most of the songs on Biērmächt incorporate one of two themes - violence and alcohol.  They don’t praise violence, but it does feature prominently.  They do, however, praise beer and drinking in songs like “Drink Beer and Be Free,” “Beermacht,” and the appropriately named “Drink Jack,” a brief song whose only lyrics are, in fact, Drink Jack.  “Munchies” is more about food than alcohol, though beer does make a brief appearance there as well (If you don’t have beer / We’ll gladly drink your pop).  “Suck My Dick” breaks the mold in that it’s basically a song that just tells the world what it can do, and the “E” song trifecta is just nothing but the letter “E,” quite literally, making it quite possibly the most intriguing part of the album.

Musically Biērmächt is some pretty decent thrash, with songs played at a blistering pace.  It also doesn’t take itself too seriously which is refreshing sometimes, especially in this genre.

As soon as I saw this clean original pressing at Seattle’s newest used vinyl mecca, Daybreak Records, I knew I had to have it.  Holly rolled her eyes, but there are just too many memories tied to this album, and since I no longer have that tape nor a copy on CD, I felt kind of justified in buying it.  When you’re a vinyl junkie you get used to making up reasons to justify your purchases.  If you track down an OG pressing, make sure to check inside for the one sheet lyric/photo insert.  And if you’re a mega-Wehrmacht fan, there’s also the The Complete Beer-Soaked Collection 1985-1989 box set that includes five records and two CDs.  I have to admit I almost bought this a while back due to my frustration at not being able to find a clean copy of Biērmächt, plus the fact that it includes a live show from the town I actually live in, but I couldn’t justify the $80 price tag to myself.

Glad to finally have this one on the turntable.

GG Allin & The Holy Men - “You Give Love a Bad Name” (1987)

GG Allin’s Hated in the Nation was one of the first records I ever wrote about on Life in the Vinyl Lane, which is weird in that I’m not any kind of GG Allin fan or anything.  But I had just watched the documentary Hated: GG Allin and the Murder Junkies and I have to confess a long-standing fascination with the man as a performer and dirtbag.

Now, I’m not a psychic or anything.  That being said, there are some things in life that are easy to predict.  One of these is that if you’re (1) raised in a log cabin without running water or electricity and (2) your given name is Jesus Christ because your dad said Jesus told him you would be a Messiah-like man, you pretty much have no shot in life, or at least no shot of any kind of “normal” life.  Look, I get it that a lot of people don’t want a normal life, and that’s cool; but with an upbringing like Allin’s he already had two strikes against him right out of the gate.  He didn’t really have a choice.

What can I say about the man that hasn’t been said already before?  Not much probably.  He certainly seemed pretty batshit, what with the nude performances, pooping on stage (and subsequently smearing it on himself and throwing it at others), cutting, rolling in broken glass, excessive drinking, friendship with serial killer John Wayne Gacy, and widely acknowledged lack of personal hygiene, though having seen some of his interviews and such I sometimes wonder how much of it was real and how much was performance.  Look, I have no doubt Allin had legitimate problems, and they almost certainly contributed in some ways to his behavior; but some of it seems like being shocking for the sake of being shocking.

In fact Allin received a court-ordered psychological evaluation in 1990 following his arrest for allegedly holding a female fane captive over a period of days while performing physically injurious and sexual acts on her, charges that eventually got him a year and a half in prison.  The evaluator noted that “…Mr. Allin was courteous, cooperative, and candid…” and “…that he functions with at least average intelligence…”  They further wrote that GG was able to have a reasonable and normal conversation, though “Affect was exaggerated, but not bizarre in a pathological sense.”  I get the sense from this that he could have a perfectly normal conversation with you if he wanted. However, he was also pretty matter-of-fact about what he was into:

…Mr. Allin states his sexual performance is strictly heterosexual but he “enjoys doing kinky things: such as “being tied up by, crapped on and pissed on by women”.  He states he enjoys self mutilatiuon on stage “because people suffer a lot int he world and this way I do it to myself and when I leave the stage I don’t have to suffer any more.”

While standardized psychological testing indicated that people with similar test scores to Allin are “…described as angry, hostile, individuals who may exhibit grandiosity and egocentricity”, ultimately he was not mentally ill in a legal sense of the word.  “He is very comfortable in his chosen life-style and does not view his behavior as helpful to others.”  You can read the entire two-page report HERE.

So why bring up GG again?  Well, the other day I made my first visit to Seattle’s newest used record story, the fantastic Daybreak Records with its small but impressive inventory of reasonably priced gems, and one of the records on the display wall was GG Allin & The Holy Men’s You Give Love a Bad Name (they also had GG Allin & The Texas Nazis’ Boozing and Pranks, but I figured one GG record was enough for one day).  I tried to resist the urge to buy it but ultimately figured that if nothing else it was good blog material, plus it was the early pressing on colored vinyl (edition of 2,000), so out came the credit card and into my trunk went GG Allin. (♥)

The entire album was rehearsed and recored in one session in May 1987 and released later that same year on vinyl, with CD and cassette re-releasees coming out in future years.  To call it raw would be an understatement, and an incredulous engineer named Jaques Kralian actually asked during the recording session, “You guys aren’t planning on pressing this into a record, are you?”  And I mean, I kind of get where Jaques was coming from.  Six of the 10 songs have at least one profane word in the titles, and every track has profanity used liberally throughout the lyrics.  If there’s a redeeming quality here it’s  that they have GG’s voice up in the mix, and he is clearly enunciating his words… so he’s certainly getting his point across.  The musicians, a group cobbled together specifically for this session, are actually halfway decent as a raw, heavy punk band.  But it’s really all about Allin’s profane words.  That being said, there are a pair of covers on You Give Love a Bad Name, a song called “Beer Picnic” by The Bad Tuna Experience (♣) and another called “Garbage Dump” by none other than Charles Manson, because why not Charles Manson.

It’s hard to believe Allin made it to the age of 36, succumbing to a heroin overdose in 1993.  His funeral turned into a complete mess, though one I’m sure that Allin himself would have fully appreciated.  He died like he lived.  At least he was consistent.

Every time I play a GG Allin record I feel like I need a shower and should reconsider that whole religion thing specifically so I could go to confession and somehow have the stain his music left on my psyche washed away.  But you know, sometimes the world is an ugly place, and our 1st Amendment rights mean that people like GG have the freedom to spew forth their art.  It’s strictly up to us whether or not we want to listen to it. (♠)  The bottom line for me is that I find him fascinating, a train wreck that I can’t turn away from, and a train wreck in progress that knows full well it’s a train wreck.  It’s interesting to see how far limits can get pushed.  GG Allin was the precursor to our era of reality TV, except, you know, with all the poop and stuff…

(♥)  If you do buy a copy, make sure to check and see if the lyric insert is included.  Not because you need to read these words… you don’t.  But just to ensure it’s complete and you’re getting what you’re paying for.

(♣)  Which, perhaps not surprisingly, is probably the best song on the album.

(♠)  I don’t think society will ever get to the point where GG Allin songs will be played in sports arenas and supermarkets.  At least I sure as hell hope not.

Otto Von Schirach - “Boombonic Plague - Chopped Zombie Fungus Vol. 1” (2002)

Otto Von Schirach is a Miami based, half German, half Cuban, music-making trip.  You don’t get more than five seconds into the four-song Boombonic Plague - Chopped Zombie Fungus Vol. 1 EP before you realize that this is something completely foreign and different.  And after about 30 seconds, you’ll be sure your brain is about to explode.  In interviews Schirach indicates that he used to write a lot of music while tripping on acid, and that absolutely comes across sonically.  Beats that have a very loose organization and that sometimes fly apart before coming back together (sort of); one-off trippy flourishes; things that sound like they’re happening underwater.  All of it designed to leave you off-kilter and force you to think about music differently than you have before.

This isn’t just noise, mind you.  There’s a purpose here, a vision, a thread that holds each of the songs together, sort of like how string theory can both explain how the cosmos works and yet make no sense at all to your rational mind with it’s model of a universe comprised of 11 dimensions of vibrating strings.  In fact, it’s a lot like that.

I appreciate Von Schirach’s weirdness, and I kinda want to hear more of it.  Boombonic Plague - Chopped Zombie Fungus Vol. 1 is an ear-opening experience, and while I can imagine many would find it unpleasant, to me it was a bit liberating, a freedom from the standard song structure done in a way that didn’t come across simply as a disorganized mess.