Black Flag – “What The…”

(Photo Credit: Pitchfork)

Grade: D+

Key tracks: “My Heart’s Pumping” “The Chase”

Do you remember Metallica’s “St. Anger” album? Of course you do, it’s unforgettable. If their career was a cup of fine Italian coffee, “St. Anger” was the small bit of unfiltered grounds at the bottom that you accidentally swallowed. And for a while, it’s what you remembered about that otherwise great cup. “What The…” is the “St. Anger” of 2013 – a long-awaited album that has all the elements of the original band, but is just remarkably bad and with a cover so grotesquely stupid that it actually drives down the quality. People waited six years for “St. Anger,” and it sounded like it was recorded inside a trashcan. While the production is better on “What The…,” people that have been waiting for twenty-eight years deserve something better than this.

Much like those in “Some Kind of Monster,” the documentary that accompanied “St. Anger,” public troubles with the band have hurt their image recently. Guitarist Greg Ginn is the only original member left. Two of the other original members are currently touring as FLAG, also playing Black Flag’s music (having lost a court battle to use the name). It’s a mess. Famous skateboarder and early 2000’s video-game star Mike Vallely is currently in the band, and singer Ron Reyes, who sings lead in every song on this album, is no longer a member despite this album just coming out yesterday. It’s really a mess.

It’s got all the components of a Black Flag album – the only two songs over three minutes are the second and last songs. Every song is fast and heavy; urgent as always. It’s really coincidental that I always pick two key tracks, though, because there’s only two stand-outs: opener “My Heart is Pounding” and “The Chase,” which sits exactly in the middle. These two songs are the only two that really capture the band’s original hardcore sound. “The Chase” really captures the power chord brutality that made early Black Flag so great. Otherwise, I’d skip the other twenty songs. They’re all practically identical, and they’re okay at best.

Not to be mean or anything, but it’s probably not a bad thing that Vallely replaced Reyes, because Reyes voice just isn’t that good. Obviously, hardcore punk isn’t demanding a sultry, smooth lounge voice, but Reyes’ vocals just aren’t very powerful, and eventually it kind of drowns into the music. And the music itself is a weird tempo – it isn’t hardcore, but it’s faster than what I’d describe as “mid-tempo.” It’s almost like they’re restraining themselves, or are attempting to do an imitation of what they used to be. Although it sounds much more like the former, some of the song titles suggest the latter: “Get Out Of My Way” and “Go Away,” “This Is Hell” and “To Hell And Back,” “Slow Your Ass Down,” “It’s Not My Time To Go-go,” “Wallow in Despair” and the painful “Give Me All Your Dough.”

And then there’s the cover. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ album “Mosquito” was going to get two year-end awards: Most Disappointing Album, and Worst Cover. But man, we should’ve seen this coming. It looks like a school assignment that was made in ten minutes by some 14 year-old who paused his Call of Duty game when he remembered he had to do it. (That said: it’s still an undecided competition). With a cover like that, you really expect the album to be atrocious. It’s not atrocious, it’s just not very good. There’s plenty of worse albums, and plenty of more boring and unoriginal hardcore punk releases. This just shouldn’t be labeled as Black Flag, both thematically and factually.

If you like this, try: Any other Black Flag album. This is already the asterisk on their career.

-By Andrew McNally


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