Album Review: Black Flag – “What The…”

Before I begin, I’m going to issue a challenge:

Let’s ignore all the controversy and snarky comments surrounding the reunited Black Flag and What The…. Just for a moment. Let’s imagine that Black Flag got back together and peacefully co-existed alongside FLAG. Let’s imagine that Greg Ginn never attempted to sue the members of FLAG and Henry Rollins. Let’s imagine that Ron Reyes hadn’t been fired in the middle of a performance only days before the release of this album. Let’s listen to What The… and judge it based on its musical content alone. It will be easier said than done, but I think we can do it.

Challenge accepted? Good, let’s move on.

The good news is that What The… is the closest thing to a straight-forward hardcore punk album that Black Flag has released since 1981’s Damaged. Gone are the sludgy heavy metal riffs, the free jazz influences, and the experimentation with spoken word and instrumental tracks. A good number of the songs are structured around the standard guitar-bass-drum set up (okay… Ginn’s theremin shows up about half the time, too), and a roughly two-thirds of the tracks don’t even surpass the two minute mark (and only a handful of the remaining ones even make it to two and a half minutes). So far, so good, right?

Then comes the bad news. The songs might be shorter and faster than the majority of Black Flag’s latter-day discography, but What The… manages to be Black Flag’s longest album to date, not to mention their cleanest sounding as well. Hardcore and high production values have gone well together before (lookin’ at you, Dischord Records), but it sounds very uncharacteristic for Black Flag to sound this way, making What The… a very appropriate title, as it’s the reaction that longtime fans are likely to have to the music. And at 22 tracks, What The…  doesn’t contain enough variety to keep it interesting for very long, quickly wearing out its welcome.

Many of the tracks feature Ginn playing similar sounding guitar riffs over and over, to the point when it almost becomes difficult to tell the songs apart based on the instrumentals alone. Ginn, credited as Dale Nixon, also recorded all the bass on the album and he proves to be competent enough to lay down a rhythm, but there are never any big “Six Pack” or “Best One Yet” moments that really display the bass to be as important of an instrument to Black Flag as the guitar. “Slow Your Ass Down” and “It’s Not My Time to Go-Go” start off with prominent basslines, but both times it eventually just gets lost underneath the guitar leads. As for the vocals, Ron Reyes delivers an admirable performance as the first Black Flag vocalist that isn’t Henry Rollins to sing on a full length (and let’s admit it, that is kind of exciting to hear). Reyes manages to powerfully bellow out every word, but he doesn’t show a whole lot of range from track-to-track, much like his time during the Jealous Again-era. These are all things that work well on a four or five song EP (like Jealous Again), however it begins to wear thin about halfway through What The…, and by the time you reach track twenty it’s just plain exhausting.

Despite my complaints, What The… still has its shining moments. “Wallow In Despair” plays like a geriatric parody of punk rock, directing anger toward the youth that “say they care”. It’s a funny tune even though there’s no direct evidence of it being a tongue-in-cheek reference to how youthful punk bands take their anger and target the elderly. Mid-album track “This Is Hell” uses a slight tribal drumming build up, leading to the whole song melting away to a very electronic sounding guitar tone before bouncing back into its momentum. “The Chase” and “No Teeth” both offer vicious guitars that could be comparable to the band’s earlier days. Do these songs live up to the Black Flag legacy? Not quite, but they do break up the monotony of the rest of the album (actually, “No Teeth” is pretty good).

All-in-all, What The… isn’t quite as terrible as everyone might have been expecting. It’s certainly not going to be ranked alongside any hardcore classics any time soon… but it’s really not that bad. It’s a middle-of-the-road album that would benefit a lot from being shorter- if Black Flag had released it as a five or six song EP, it could have been a respectable return, even with all of the outside factors occurring. Unfortunately, when the album’s runtime and repetitive nature already drag it down to average level, combining it with Ginn’s actions outside of the studio (particularly the copyright infringement action and the firing of Reyes on stage) make What The… an unfocused mess surrounded by plenty of negative press.

Black Flag has always been seen as a huge influence for many punk and hardcore bands alike, setting examples of sticking to DIY aesthetics and ethics, and challenging what “punk” really means and what it could encapsulate. What The… still challenges expectations of what “punk” is and can be, but overall what Black Flag has really done was set an example of how not to stage a comeback: A sub-par album combined with bad publicity.

2 / 5 Stars

RIYL: Good For You, Minuteflag, Greg Ginn solo

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