Disaster Amnesiac must note that any reviews of What The... that I have seen have been thinly veiled character attacks on Greg Ginn, perhaps with a bit of musical critique thrown in, and that, mostly of the "it's not Punk" or "stop it old man you're embarrassing our scene" variety.
And, let's not forget the cover, but more on that later.
Let me say that sound wise, my perceptions of music are very evenly divided between "before Black Flag" and "after Black Flag". The band, and Greg Ginn's guitar tone and approach, changed my perceptions, changed how I hear music, what I hear in music. That's been a constant since that first exposure to the band in 1984 or thereabouts.
So, that said, Disaster Amnesiac would like to give this already much maligned LP a listen, from a musical perspective, and to try and be a bit more objective about the non-Soap Opera aspects of Black Flag's 2013 output.
For fans of Greg Ginn the guitar player, there are tons of sounds, riffs, and solos to enjoy. One song in, and Greg rips out a definitive Black Flag-styled noise blast on the album's opener, the rampaging My Heart's Pumping. One will also find similar Ginn-shard mid-song solo blasts on Slow Your Ass Down and Go Away, along with a song ending fret fingering on To Hell and Back. All of the sound elements that made Greg Ginn's solo turns so dramatically mind destroying are there: the "wrong" notes in the scale, the abrupt stops, and the dripping angst emanating from his guitar vocabulary. His solos have always reached high levels of abstraction, and he's clearly retained his ability to do so on What The...Punk and Hardcore, rooted as they are in early Heavy Rock and Metal, are, of course, riff-based forms of guitar music. Greg Ginn always brought the great, circular, machine gunning repetitions to his riff crafting, and, along with his solo style, they are in full effect on the album. Take for example Down in the Dirt, Blood and Ashes, Now is the Time, and the rollicking The Chase as just a few of the band's really powerful moments on the LP. Disaster Amnesiac defies any Rock listener to listen to these songs and not feel that energetic body buzz that results from a great riff. Elsewhere, we get strange icicle-like sounds on This is Hell, crazed cross-rhythmic writing on same, clicking riffage on Bitter End, and even post-Hardcore Art Rock in Off My Shoulders. Say what you will about Greg Ginn's business practices, or his personal habits, but if you say that the man has lost a step from his guitar stylings, and Disaster Amnesiac will have to opine "you're full of crap" and then rock some more to his sounds, in mind and in body.
Seeing as the tunes on What The... were recorded before touring bass player Dave Klein came on board, Greg also handled the bass chores. Disaster Amnesiac knows, from seeing him play entire sets on the bass, Ginn has pretty much mastered that axe as well. He provides pumping, often double timed (and doubling the six string riffs), thick bass, holding down the melodic structures and rhythms of the tunes. Come to think of it, the whole affair starts with the bass, those low end sounds kicking off My Heart. Incidentally, I've read interviews with Ginn in which he states a love of bass playing equal to that of guitar playing.
Drummer Gregory Moore has endured almost as much slung mud from the Official Punk Rock Voices as Ginn over the past seven months or so. The attacks on him being posted at the Flipside Facebook page were particularly noxious and mean spirited at certain points. Disaster Amnesiac tried to really focus on Gregory's drumming on What The..., tried to listen as closely as I could to his beats and creative ideas, along with his overall feel.First and foremost, Gregory's feel strikes this listener as being "behind the beat". In that, I mean that if, when put up next to a metronome, his hits would likely land just a bit off of the actual beat. Punk rock rhythm just can't accommodate that sort of feel, so, of course the punks are going to hate on his playing for that. I just want to say that Armando Acosta had pretty much the same tendency, and no one ragged him. Anyway, when listening to the LP, Disaster Amnesiac is impressed by Moore's ability to roll for extended periods over a bar on Down in the Dirt, along with the drum part's nice 16th note high hat beat. Moore's snare sound is pretty great in Blood and Ashes, his right foot kick gives punch to I'm Sick and The Chase, his rampaging double time drumming pushes My Heart's Pumping and No Teeth, among others, he mixes it up seriously with the guitars on Give Me All Your Dough and keeps pace with the weird compound meter of I'm Sick. The way Moore's ride cymbal playing matches with his high hat playing is also impressive in it's smoothness. In short, there's a lot to enjoy in from his drumming, and he's clearly not the talentless hack that so many have accused him of being.
One thing that strikes Disaster Amnesiac as I listen to Ron sing on What The..., maybe for others, too, is the "what if" factor. What if Reyes had never quit the band, had remained the singer into the 1980's? How different would things have been for Black Flag? One for the Speculative Fiction genre writers, of course. Reyes the Black Flag singer of 2013 was powerful and present live, the guy had swagger. On the LP, it's great to hear his Puerto Rican Punk Rock shout not diminished. His delivery is still powerful and emphatic. At times there seems to be a possible Iggy influence (him too, eh?) If they do put out another LP, who will Black Flag use to replace Ron? Anyway, his presence will surely be missed.
Lastly, about the cover. Disaster Amnesiac sort of likes it, in that it's so far from the norm, Punk Rock wise, as to be truly head scratching. Perhaps Ginn was trying to use the Manga-like image to appeal to a younger demographic? Only Greg knows, I guess. Oh, and the image looks a bit better to me on the vinyl cover.
So, there you go, one non-scene Punk Rock fan's impressions of what I find to be a pretty damn good album from Black Flag. Disaster Amnesiac finds the sideshow aspects of the Black Flag 2013 saga to be tedious at best, and tragic at worst, but, then again, tragedy has always been an essential component of that saga. As for the band post-Reyes 2.0, who knows? There's only stony silence over at SST, and Black Flag on Facebook is posting essential tunes from Adrenalin OD and similar bands. Perhaps they're having secret meetings, plotting a reunification of the Ginn/Dukowski/Migdol/Morris unit? Or the Ginn/Roessler/Stevenson/Rollins road show? I guess we'll find out in 2014, or maybe Greg will just bench Black Flag for a few years and work on new solo stuff. Regardless, Disaster Amnesiac will be listening.