Review: Off! – ‘Off!’

offPunk rock has always been a young man’s game, and understandably so.

From the unchecked aggression of its three-chord primitivism to its inherently anti-historical aspirations, the genre as a whole has continuously relied upon a certain wild-eyed ideology that only the raw energy of youth seems to provide.

So it would appear nearly impossible that a band fronted by a guy who holds a considerably closer proximity to senior citizen discounts than the legal drinking age – not to mention the three middle-aged fathers who back him – would be capable of injecting life into a sound that has long since lost its sense of urgency.  But that is exactly what Los Angeles supergroup OFF! managed to do with the release of 2010’s ‘First Four‘ EPs, a compilation of angry, airtight tunes that didn’t so much redefine the belligerent zeal of early-80’s hardcore as it did masterfully re-appropriate it.

That appropriation was probably more muscle memory that anything for singer and underground icon Keith Morris, who as a founding member of Black Flag and the Circle Jerks helped build the blueprint for the full-throttle force that his new act is now fueled by. Along with fellow veteran rockers Dimitri Coats (Burning Brides), Steven McDonald (Red Kross), and Mario Rubalcaba (Rocket From The Crypt), Morris has taken said force even further into the future with the group’s latest self-titled LP for Vice Records.

The first hint of the record’s instant street cred, other than the quintessential Raymond Pettibone cover art, is the runtime. Sixteen songs come in at just under sixteen minutes, and not a second here is wasted.  Coats’ guitar is all pinpoint chord changes and bullet train solos, while McDonald’s bass and Rubalcaba’s drum work mesh together into a frenetic blur of starts and stops, fits and freak-outs.

The whole thing is a hurricane of controlled chaos, and Morris is every bit the center of the storm. He yells, screams, pleads, rants, and cackles his way through a swell of vindictive threats and paranoid nostalgia, keeping a constant stream of sputtering hostility from the in-the-red unease of opener ‘Wiped Out‘ to the paint-peeling shriek that eulogizes the nihilistic visions of closer ‘I Need One (I Want One)‘. Each breath feels like a last gasp, and the intensity behind his unbridled delivery matches the blunt immediacy of the music in the way only an album of this concision can.

As with the collection of songs that made up ‘First Four’ EPs, every ounce of OFF!’s official debut is West Coast to its core. The skateboard stride of ‘Cracked‘ and ‘Borrow & Bomb‘ could easily stand up among any of the old Frontier Records catalogues, whereas the squat house memoirs of ‘Jet Black Girls‘ read like an ode to Flipside-era L.A.

Yet Coats still works in his own alt-rock variations on the theme, slipping out slivers of squirrely metallic riffs that careen across ‘Wrong‘ and ‘Vaporized‘, as well as a few ominous build-ups and breakdowns like the spacey bridge at the heart of ‘King Kong Brigade‘.

The entire throwback vibe of the record, and of OFF! in general, doesn’t leave much room for wholesale innovation, but that’s hardly the point.  There’s an arguable lack of visceral attitude in the current musical climate, and it’s fitting, if not ironic, that Morris is once again bringing that to attention.

The very fact that the man who at one point penned ‘Live Fast Die Young‘ is still alive is indeed impressive enough, but to be as furious and enigmatic at age fifty-six as he was three decades earlier is evidence that the pulse of punk rock will never truly die, even if it does eventually grow old.

(Beau De Lang)

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