June 23rd, 2012 | Published in TCS Reviews
By Pete Roche
It’s 2012 and Keith Morris is fronting another hardcore band named after bug spray.
The punk gods are smiling.
Morris, 56, was the first vocalist for Black Flag, the legendary Hermosa Beach band that found later success with Henry Rollins at the microphone. Morris’ tenure ended too soon; many never heard his work until The First Four Years compilation was released, long after his departure. Even Rollins agrees Morris was the group’s best singer.
The dreadlocked, hyperkinetic Morris also fronted the similarly confrontational Circle Jerks between 1980-2009, during which time the former speed-freak got cured, tamed his adult diabetes, and found a new lease on life.
Morris tapped Burning Brides guitarist (and sometime-actor) Dimitri Coats to produce what was supposed to be the next Circle Jerks album. Instead, the two wrote so much new material together so quickly that Morris (already peeved by the other Jerks’ constant criticism) repurposed the tunes. A studio was booked. Steven Shane McDonald (Red Kross) and drummer Mario Rubalcaba (Hot Snakes) were called in for rehearsals. OFF! was born.
Morris may cringe at the term “super-group” and resent labels like “punk” cropping up in discussions of his work. But if ever there was a punk super-group, it’s OFF!, who craft bite-sized songs whose punches and lyrical lineages pay tribute to the band’s L.A. pedigree without sacrificing the defiance and spontaneity expected of such revered players.
The sixteen songs released by the band across four 7-inchers in 2010 (and compiled on the 2011 disc First Four EPs) were just as compact and defiant as anything done in Morris’ previous groups, and those in on the secret hailed OFF! as rock’s new messiahs.
And rightfully so.
The eponymous new album broils with the pugnacious pedigrees of the still-pissed off middle-aged musicians, bludgeoning listeners with sixteen scathing tracks in as many minutes. Morris, Coats, Rubalcaba, and McDonald have left another satchel of sonic hand grenades on the nation’s doorstop (sans pins) and darted off into the night after thumbing the bell.
“Wiped Out” kick-starts the catharsis, with Morris giving voice to the “disconnect” of modern living. “I Got News for You” is his indictment of musical up-and-comers who carry on as if they’re responsible for the West Coast scene cultivated by Morris and his Black Flag cohorts three decades ago. “Cracked” lets him blow further steam over the record business, which played him “for a chump,” over the years, pigeonholing the aging punker into a “hardcore karaoke retirement home.”
Set to Coats’ slashing chords, and Rubalcaba-McDonald’s karate rhythms, “Feelings Were Meant to Be Hurt” and “Jet Black Girls” are autobiographical snippets of the “immortality” of night life in Hermosa, circa 1982. Morris isn’t referencing breakfast cereal when he sings of “Coco Puffs with Mr. Scratch,” children; he’s talking cigarettes laced with powdered cocaine (‘Scratch’ being a nickname for the devil).
A working knowledge of classic California punk comes in handy. Those unfamiliar with the lore might not make a connection when Morris name-drops punk peers like (Germs singer) Darby Crash. The urban slang is difficult to decipher at times, but Morris’ language—which purloins the lexicon of L.A.’s disenfranchised—makes the whole affair more colorful, interesting, and (probably) accurate. “I Need One (I Want One)” summarizes a junkie’s solitary fixation. “Man from Nowhere” surveys the history of gang warfare along the “Imperial line” dividingInglewood’s Crips and their rivals, the West Covina Bloods.
“Harbor Freeway Blues” and “503” recount the death-wish escapades ofL.A.’s drug-addled, a hard luck contingent of pill-poppers and syringe-pushers whose exploits make it hard for the coroner to tell whether their deaths were accidental or self-induced.
Elsewhere, Morris targets government, institutionalized education, and the media. “Borrow and Bomb” couldn’t be timelier, what with the Obama administration dispatching unmanned droves to conduct its dirty work overseas. “Let’s Get Vaporized” further lambasts the military complex, with Coats channeling (Dead Kennedys) East Bay Ray’s reverb-heavy psycho-surf guitar tone. “King Kong Brigade” laments the American school’s questionable practices and misplaced priorities, such as providing nutrition-deficient lunches and placing emphasis on competition.
“Teach ‘em to shoot before they can read,” observes Morris, and you wind up with a nation of Columbine copycats, a generation emotionally unequipped to reconcile their differences. We’ve nurtured a trigger-happy youth movement whose ostracized are more likely to “staple your scalp to a steering wheel” before talking through their problems.
“Toxic Box” is a not-so-kindly homage to television, where the celebration of tragedy by the nightly news is buffered only by the hawking of useless products and services by multimillion-dollar corporations.
Throughout the disc, Coats displays a knack for arranging feedback-laden barre chords into small-scale symphonies, each one a sixty-second burst of controlled chaos over which Morris spews the poison he’s siphoned from society’s arm.
OFF! may be too much for some folks. For the rest of us, it’s essential listening.