It's hard to believe that The Blood Brothers have been at it for nearly ten years. Back in about '98 they were a high school age hardcore band with a penchant for cutesy vampire themes. And although their early Velvet Elvis shows certainly weren't musically groundbreaking, their ferocity was undeniable. I got tired just watching them. Obviously the band has developed a lot since then and I'd venture to say they're the most important punk(ish) band in Seattle right now.
Those fortunate enough to have caught the ‘90s hardcore under-underground will hear The Blood Brothers as a band that likely cut their collective teeth on Drive Like Jehu, a mish-mash of mid-late 90s Gravity or GSL bands, The Get Hustle, The VSS and maybe a little Fugazi.
Fortunately they've retained their own identity as they give their due props. But the difference between the Blood Brothers and their predecessors is that the Blood Brothers are willing to experiment with an accessible musicality that the others weren't. But we'll get to that later.
The overarching strength of this CD is in its cohesiveness. Not in the sense of marketing or production values (though each are notable) as much as Young Machetes being a collection of songs that gels thematically. The sound of loud, frantic, claustrophobic music at its base level should mean the same thing philosophically. So, when the Blood Brothers effectually say something like "we're all fucked" the music means it at the same time.
Of all the hordes of bands fueled by disagreeableness, far too many take the easy way out by targeting something obvious like bad foreign policy (which the BB's do pull off pretty effectively on "Street Wars / Exotic Foxholes" and "Huge Gold AK47"). Thankfully, Young Machetes is more complex than that; it's an exercise in opposites for the sake of gaining moral clarity. Yes, moral clarity. Observe: A lyrical image of something beautiful and pure is propped up next to the rotten corpse of its opposite. Take the following snippets as lyrical examples: Cemetery claws racking at the infant's jaws. Vacant as a womb that's miscarried. I couldn't see the love and affection, it was camouflaged as a jungle of erections. Skull shaped balloon. Dress my corpse in a low cut dress. We live in a glamorous mansion with napalm in the walls. Etcetera. Though the imagery may seem vile, in actuality — as has been said of Black Sabbath, William Burroughs and The Sex Pistols — the Blood Brothers are communicating moralistically. This depth is a far cry from the spoiled brat excess of most of their peers that are simply regurgitated teenaged tantrums.
Musically speaking the production work of John Goodmanson and Fugazi's Guy Picciotto on this album is stellar. Even though the tones are great I'd like to hear more guitar — they are a rock band after all — as the vocals sometimes sharply dominate the mix. Vocally both Jordan Blilie and Johnny Whitney have come a long way. At one time — pre Crimes era releases — it was as if they were using their voices as weapons rather than instruments. For straight hardcore sometimes that's the most appropriate approach but the Blood Brothers have thankfully moved into more creative vocal textures. Between the dual shrieking — which is either the most caustic substance on earth or a punk kid's take on the shrillest black metal vocals you've never heard — Whitney and Blilie trade off on the "melodic" parts to great effect. Whitney has a sort of sauntering, snotty cabaret style while Blilie vocalizes in a lower register in a sort of soothing albeit perverted phone call at 2 am kind of way.
Neither one of them ever rarely carry a conventional melody, but I'm not convinced they're trying. While I can't attest to Blilie's ability to "sing well" Whitney has a way of teasing you as he plays with a vocal phrase. In the vocal/keyboard breakdown of Camouflage, Camouflage Whitney uses a breathy falsetto and aptly hits every intended note, but during the closing when both vocalists double up, Whitney purposefully sings, not sharp, not flat, but somewhere in the middle. It's almost as though Whitney is intentionally singing in quarter tone intervals which can make for a pretty disorienting listen.
But the Blood Brothers strength is a double-edged sword. I love me some noise violence but sometimes the no-wave anti-music noise freak-outs that follow the melodious, danceable segues are a little too obvious. It's as if they're trying to remind the listeners that while they're introducing more accessible elements into the mix, they won't be pigeonholed. And the remedy? Momentarily destroy the song with noise. But given the overwhelming onslaught of their previous material, it's exciting to hear the tension that's created as they're learning to self-edit. This inherent tension may have been created by the value the band has put on the need for a democracy. Egalitarian band ethics is great when it works well but a strong song should be written as if the song is the star, not the individuals in the performance. Sometimes that means that a certain player's opportunity to impress the listener with musical ability has to take the back seat for the integrity of the song.
Similarly the lyrics are interesting in a hallucinogenic-deranged-nightmare-Naked Lunch-beat-poet kind of way, but each song lyric packs about three songs worth of content, which becomes a little overwhelming. It's not the dirth of the content that's the problem though it's the density of it. But then maybe they're going for excess to make a point.
A band aiming to subvert conventional ideas of music should be willing to steep in that conventionality. That way the subversion actually means something to an audience larger than a few dorky intellectuals with bad cases of genre fetishism. I know that the angular haircut Spock Rock circuit that lay claim to bands like the Blood Brothers would probably disagree but the more poppy and conventional this band gets, the better. Not because I don't like disjoined, loud, a-melodic music — I do, as my music listening habits attest to — but because they've already done loud and frantic well, maybe it's time to move on. Imagine if Sonic Youth, Blonde Redhead, or even the Yeah, Yeah Yeah's kept putting out the same records year after year. Sure, they'd keep their "cred" with the scene police but they'd also have to settle for preaching to the choir.
"Imagine where we could go with music," bassist Morgan Henderson ponders in the Blood Brothers press kit "if we always said 'yes' and not 'no.'" To that I say imagine where the Blood Brothers could go with music if they said 'no' a little more often for the sake of the song. But most importantly as this great band continues to develop, they should learn how to strategically say 'no' because they're too damn good to disappear into arty hardcore obscurity.