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Short Takes on Recent Reissues

Detroit rockers Death presaged punk, Indiana's Zero Boys epitomized it, and Volcano Suns carried it into the indie era.




. . . For the Whole World to See

(Drag City)

This obscure Detroit trio—brothers David, Bobby, and Dannis Hackney, who started playing together as teenagers in 1971—managed to record only seven proper studio tracks in their six years, and only two of them were released, on a 1976 single. Still, a devoted cult has kept the band's flame alive: when record collector Robert Manis, who worked with Drag City on ...For the Whole World to See (he's also behind the label's recent J.T. IV reissue), found an original copy of that single online, he had to offer $400 and several other rare records to persuade the seller to part with it.

Initially the Hackneys, who were African-American, played soul and R&B, but a live show by the Stooges turned their heads around. The youngest of the brothers, guitarist David, pushed the group in a hard-rock direction that presaged punk, and while this certainly didn't help them find a following in the mid-70s, today it makes them look like visionaries.

Unlike Black Merda, another black hard-rock band that came out of Detroit during that era, Death didn't retain even a scrap of their R&B roots, opting instead for steamroller directness and adding an explicitly political dimension to their lyrics. With the help of soul producer Don Davis, in 1975 the band booked time at Detroit's United Sound Studios with engineer Jim Vitti, best known today for his work with Parliament/Funkadelic. Early results caught the ear of Clive Davis at Columbia Records, but he insisted they change their name. The Hackneys refused, sinking the deal and souring their relationship with Don Davis. The seven tracks on ...For the Whole World to See were all they finished out of a planned dozen.

The 1976 single, "Politicians in My Eyes" b/w "Keep on Knocking," came out on a small regional label. Within a year the band had decamped to Burlington, Vermont, where the brothers had relatives, and what started as a vacation to clear their heads turned into a more or less permanent move. They changed their name to the Fourth Movement and adopted a gospel-rock sound. In the early 80s David returned to Detroit (where he died from lung cancer in 2000), and not long after that the other brothers started the reggae band Lambsbread, which is still active in Vermont.

The Drag City CD clocks in at just 27 minutes, but the music—which ranges from wild, brutally tight protopunk to sweepingly dramatic psych rock—is ferocious. The vocals, from bassist Bobby, remind me of HR from D.C. punk greats Bad Brains—they can swing in a moment from contemptuous sneer to tender almost-croon, and on "Freakin Out" Bobby zips from frightened shouts to soulful questioning to paranoid whispers. In fact, if there were just a little reggae in it, Death's music could pass for a blueprint of Rock for Light. Bobby and drummer Dannis lay down jackhammer rhythms at tooth-rattling speeds—if anything they're faster and more precise than most punk bands—and David's nasty riffing and terse solos could go blow-for-blow with anything Fred "Sonic" Smith and Wayne Kramer played in the MC5.


Vicious Circle

(Secretly Canadian)

Bloomington, Indiana, hardly looms large in the annals of music history, but three decades ago it gave birth to one of American punk's finest bands. Naked Raygun and the Effigies at their best were better and more innovative, but the sharp, fun, blitzkrieg-fast tunes on the Zero Boys' 1982 classic, Vicious Circle, capture all the dizzying energy of the moment when hardcore punk began to spin off subgenres like thrash and the mutant strains chronicled by labels such as SST and Touch and Go.

At the time, though, people didn't seem so willing to believe that an important punk band could come from Indiana. "We were completely unaccepted by the Chicago and Minneapolis scenes," recalls front man Paul Mahern in the notes to Secretly Canadian's reissue. "We had trouble getting out of Indiana. We did get to New York once."

Loosely influenced at the outset by the Ramones and the Sex Pistols, the Zero Boys were inspired to adopt a much harder style by the biting anger and unbridled speed of west-coast acts like Black Flag, the Circle Jerks, and the Dead Kennedys. When they entered Indianapolis's Keystone Recording in August 1981, they gave the engineer, John Helms, a copy of the Germs' GI, and he got it: Terry Howe's guitar creates an unholy metallic buzz that carves out the progressions like a chainsaw, driven by the breakneck rhythm section of drummer Mark Cutsinger and bassist David "Tufty" Clough.

Mahern's singing was the icing on the cake—he could actually carry a catchy melody with his precisely articulated screams and shouts. The title track is little more than a rant, but "Civilization's Dying" and "Livin' in the 80's" have a tunefulness similar to what the Descendents were bringing to west-coast punk—a great sound in the right hands, though since the 90s it's been disgraced by a cavalcade of execrable pop-punk bands.

The record was released on Bloomington's Nimrod Records, and the band supported it by touring on the emerging underground circuit pioneered by the likes of Black Flag. But things fell apart once they got home. They were broke and exhausted, and when Clough quit to join Dayton's Toxic Reasons it was the beginning of the end. They recorded songs for a second LP, but that material didn't come out till after the band split up, and then only on a cassette released by Mahern's label. Secretly Canadian has reissued it too, as History Of.

The band reunited in the early 90s and released two more albums, but Vicious Circle remains the core of its legacy. It was reissued in 1988 on Arizona's Toxic Shock label and again by Lookout! in 2000; the current reissue, like the 2000 version, includes two tracks from the original sessions ("She Said Goodbye" and "Slam and Worm") that the band had left out the first time around because Dead Kennedys singer Jello Biafra persuaded them they were "too pop." History proves him wrong—just as wrong as the Chicago punks who looked down their noses at the Zero Boys 30 years ago.


The Bright Orange Years

All-Night Lotus Party


Boston's Volcano Suns, led by Mission of Burma drummer Peter Prescott, were a product of the diversity blossoming in and around hardcore punk in the early 80s. A hard-rocking trio that forced pop melodies and noisy chaos to coexist, they fit right in with their labelmates at Homestead—including Sonic Youth, Dinosaur, and Big Black. Their first two albums, recorded by Prescott, guitarist Jon Williams, and bassist Jeff Weigand, were among my favorites when they came out in 1985 and '86, and they still stand up today.

Prescott has always played the drums as if he were trying to drive them through the floor, and he sings with the same spirit, in an energetic shout that conveys plenty of tunefulness even when he's clearly not sweating the notes. Coupled with the heavily distorted grind of Weigand's hollow-body bass and Williams's raw, coloristic noise guitar, Prescott's shambling exuberance makes the songs sound thrillingly close to total disintegration.

Despite the rough edges, though, the Suns aren't a particularly threatening band. Prescott's playful lyrics combine profundity and absurdity. "Jak," the first song on The Bright Orange Years, splices threadbare aphorisms into a commentary on multitasking: "Eighteen things at once, you spread yourself too thin/ You could not find a basket to put all your eggs in." On the beautiful "Balancing Act" Prescott juggles irony and fear as he contemplates the delicate grind of socialization: "I can't balance and I can act too well."

The follow-up, All-Night Lotus Party, is darker and more unkempt. The opener, "White Elephant," sharpens the line between tunefulness and noise: Williams accompanies one of Prescott's catchiest vocal melodies with feedback and serrated string slashing. The Suns tone things down for the tender "Room With a View," but they crank the tempo and volume on "Engines" and the hyperactive "Walk Around."

Both Merge reissues contain bonus tracks, but aside from two superb songs from a 1986 single, "Sea Cruise" and "Greasy Spine," tacked onto The Bright Orange Years, they're for completists only—covers, early versions of tunes from later records, and most painfully a dub version of "Walk Around." Still, the albums themselves are worth reissues, not only because they've never been available on CD before but because they've both been remastered by Bob Weston (a Volcano Sun himself in the late 80s), who does an excellent job of bringing clarity to music that resists it—he somehow makes the band sound even louder.v

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