Everybody needs a little devastation
For two years, I lived three blocks away from the Ottobar, at the time the one club in Baltimore that regularly booked decent touring bands. I went there a lot, often three or four shows a week. Shows in Baltimore are different from shows in New York. People in New York, for the most part, don’t go off the way people in Baltimore do. Unless things have changed significantly since I moved away (entirely possible), nobody records Baltimore shows for posterity on digital cameras on notepads. Instead, they bug the fuck out. I’ve got a sort of greatest-hits reel of visceral Ottobar show-moments in my head: twenty drunk rednecks at a sparsely attended Tuesday-night Avail show taking turns jumping on each other’s faces, the spontaneous moshpit that sprung into life the second M.O.P. started doing “Ante Up,” Dillinger Four staging a contest to see who could most convincingly dance like a drunk homeless person (I won a T-shirt and a couple of CDs). But I can only remember two shows where the entire packed-in mass of humanity at the Ottobar became a flailing, indistinguishable tornado of limbs for the entire hour-plus the headlining band was onstage. One was a surprise last-second Andrew WK show, and the other was the Blood Brothers. The Blood Brothers, who announced their breakup yesterday and confirmed rumors that had been spreading for a couple of weeks, were a Seattle band who took the basic building blocks of early-00s post-hardcore (jagged slashing guitars, sudden tempo shifts, ecstatically pissed-off vocals) and turned them into a sort of convulsive day-glo sound-collage. The band’s two vocalists, Johnny Whitney and Jordan Billie, both roared in incomprehensible cat-screeches, so snotty and nasal that they always sounded like they might be making fun of themselves or each other. If you didn’t consult their lyric sheets, you had no idea what they were saying. And if you did consult those lyric sheets, you found delirious strings of non-sequitur images: “There’s a man behind bars milking abandoned cars,” that sort of thing. But the weird thing about that one Ottobar show I saw was that their audience (mostly high-school hardcore kids) knew all their lyrics and treated all their dizzy smashalongs like absolute anthems, sort of the way I’d done with more linear songs from the likes of the Bouncing Souls or (yeah) Avail a couple of years before. It looked like a lot of fun, causing teenage riots by piling musical and lyrical absurdities on top of each other. But nothing lasts forever.
The Blood Brothers broke up. It feels weird writing that sentence; the name itself denotes an unbreakable lifelong bond. Onstage and on record, the guys in the band always sounded like they were having a blast. In his quick Blood Brothers eulogy yesterday, Idolator’s Jess Harvell noted that the band had once told him of their love of Basement Jaxx. You don’t have to look too hard to find parallels between those two groups. The building blocks might be totally different (Gravity Records hardcore vs. lush, euphoric disco-house), but at their best, both groups gave the sense that everything was happening all at once, that every song came packed with enough melodic ideas to fuel an entire album. Neither group had the inclination to separate all those ideas out into their component parts, so both of them just smushed all of them together into chaotic messes. The Blood Brothers’ melodic hooks were thrashy and obscure, and they popped up in truly unlikely places. But the hooks are there, which is probably what convinced V2 to make them one of the most unlikely major-label signings of the past decade. Those hooks are probably also what convinced Ross Robinson, the onetime Korn/Limp Bizkit impresario, to produce their 2003 album Burn Piano Island, Burn, their major-label debut. Robinson is, unfortunately, a really shitty producer, and he’s ultimately responsible for that album’s unconscionable sound: super-compressed high-contrast mud. 2004’s Crimes, on the other hand, remains my favorite of theirs, the album where they finally slowed their attack down enough to let their hooks shine through relatively unmolested. Listening to it today, I actually feel sort of drunk. It’s hard to tell where one song ends and another begins without constantly checking my iTunes, and its clanging, clashing melodic elements surge up against each other so quickly and violently that the mind races to keep up. If you’re not in the right mood, it can feel like landmines going off in your skull, which is why you should basically never listen to it on a crowded city bus. In the right setting, though, those unpredictable adrenaline-spikes can be furiously exciting.
I have no idea why the Blood Brothers decided to break up. The notice that the group posted on their website offers only that “we feel it’s best that our futures move forward on separate paths,” which could mean any number of things. Those of us who have never toured the country in a cramped van for years at a time can only imagine the sort of mental strain it involves. And by all accounts, it’s not easy to be a low-selling, experimental musician with a major-label contract. Most of the former Blood Brothers had side-projects going anyway, and maybe they were just sick of playing the same songs over and over again. Still, I’m awfully tempted to blame the creeping Sufjanization that we’ve seen over the past couple of years. It’s not an across-the-board thing, of course, but the dominant voice-tone in underground rock music isn’t the strangulated scream anymore; it’s the contented sigh. Hardcore, meanwhile, has further polarized itself into grunting tough-guy fare and eyelinered-up MySpace emo, a process that was already well underway when the Blood Brothers were at their peak. Bands that don’t spoon-feed us their pleasures seem to be having a harder time of it, and most of us are part of the problem. Last year, the Blood Brothers released their final album, Young Machetes. I barely noticed. Listening today, it sounds sort of great, and I feel like an asshole for not paying enough attention.