Album Review: OFF! – “First Four EPs”

Album Review: OFF! – “First Four EPs”

“First Four EPs,” the so-called compilation by hardcore supergroup OFF! (only the first EP was ever actually released), was finally available this past week on CD, and it is the type of record that leaves you breathless. The album has an immediacy that sounds as if it might have been recorded overnight, in a musical and personal frenzy. Keith Morris, frontman for pre-Henry Rollins Black Flag and the Circle Jerks, offers his wonderfully throaty and emotive voice, and co-wrote the album with guitarist Dimitri Coats, of Burning Brides. All four members of the group—including bassist Steven Shane McDonald and drummer Mario Rubalcaba—are well-credentialed and able-bodied veterans of the somewhat incestuous hardcore punk scene, who demonstrate their considerable, blistering chops on this album, which stands as a worthy exemplar of hardcore in all of its vitriolic, impassioned, confrontational glory.

The first track, “Black Thoughts,” is an immediate standout, in which Morris wails so loudly that his voice seems to strain the limits of the microphone’s recording capacity, while Coats lays down seriously crunchy guitar and the rhythm pounds ceaselessly forward. It feels like a victory over studio machinations, proof that raw power can win out over production technique. Hot on the heels of the minute-long opener comes “Darkness,” which ratchets up the volume and intensity, and from there OFF! never lets up. And though the album looks and sounds as though it could have been unearthed from somewhere on the West Coast in the mid-80’s (even the artwork was done by Raymond Pettibon, Black Flag’s resident artist), the music has the punch of something brand-spanking new.

This is hardcore in its very essence. The songs go by at breakneck pace—sixteen in all, the longest among them barely longer than a minute-and-a-half—all of them utterly succinct and brutal in their attack. The lyrics are concise, blunt, impressively poetic and entirely effective—it’s all social dysfunction and existential angst, as it should be (titles like “Fuck People” and “Panic Attack” are fairly representative). And despite the raucousness of the playing, OFF!’s musicianship is precise, and the players do not leave a second of wasted space. Every note feels entirely necessary, serving to drive the music forward, ever forward—I’ll go for one of the most well-worn adjectives in hardcore punk’s literary canon and call it “relentless.” Morris’s vocal work either dangles on the edge of sanity or else is flailing on the way down. Never has a sonic beating been so consistently satisfying. The full album clocks in at under eighteen minutes, and as Morris menacingly draws out the final vocal on closing track “Peace in Hermosa,” while the music slows ominously, catharsis sets in. And repeat.

The fact that OFF! recently joined Twitter seems strangely appropriate; “First Four EPs” are the short, furious songs of a band working within a perpetual 140-character limit, the clipped, reductionist product of our weird, digital age. I can’t recall many albums that have had this visceral an effect on me. There’s nothing truly groundbreaking here, but the music nonetheless feels refreshing, and you wonder why there isn’t more of it being recorded nowadays. It’s a damn inspiring record—the entire philosophy of a genre, encompassed in eighteen minutes. If I had any semblance of musical talent, just hearing this CD would have sent me out to start up my own band. Hell, I still want to, even given the no-talent thing.

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