So what’s the most shocking aspect of Black Flag’s sudden reunion album, the appropriately titled What The…? The simple fact it exists after two decades of minimal stirring? The shiteous cover art that I think we all want to believe is awful on purpose? My vote goes to the astounding truth that the music within sounds like it’s being played by the real Black Flag, the tank-like ’80s outfit we all hoped would magically appear at our high school and start a police riot with their unique brand of disturbed, violent punk rock.
Not only is What The… better than it has any right to be twenty-eight years after the fact, it comes offensively close to being great in various pockets. Raw, nutty, heavy—these guys roll over the gate like they’ve been locked in a storage closet since In My Head. Founding guitarist Greg Ginn can still warp your mind with his playing, be it with gobs of gluey riffage or pointedly fractured soloing (Ginn also handled the gut-slapping bass lines that lay the foundation for What The…). Similarly, returning Flag singer Ron Reyes can still summon up that angry wayward teen who splattered his vocals across several of the band’s early lynchpin releases.
Unfortunately (you knew that was coming), What The… dampens its fire by handing out too much of a good thing. Forgetting that brevity is the soul of punk, Ginn and Reyes force us through twenty-two angry noodles when an offering a third that length could have comprised one of this year’s more invigorating EPs. It’s never a good sign when the listener needs to take a lunch break midway through an album. It’s even worse when the listener wants to. The contents of your refrigerator are sure to excite on a James Bond level once you’ve been confronted with the malaise that hangs over backend What The… cuts like “Lies” and “Give Me All Your Dough.”
As of this writing, Reyes is already out of the reformed Flag, having been ousted in favor of professional skateboarder Mike Vallely (who can also sing, apparently). Based on the meandering, circular nature of What The…, Black Flag doesn’t need a new singer so much as they need an editor. Of course, this is the band (the punk rock band) that released four albums in one year during their heyday, so I guess in a certain light we were spared the true onslaught. Twenty-two songs—can you imagine how much shit might be cluttering the cutting room floor?
FINAL SCORE: Two pastrami sandwiches on honey wheat (out of four).
Euro friends: you too will soon have the opportunity to see each version of the reunited Black Flag as both factions are scheduled to invade your shores this spring. Greg Ginn’s “Black Flag” featuring Ron Reyes and Dale Nixon is booked for the Ruhrpott Rodeo on 5/18 in Hünxe, Germany; Keith Morris and Chuck Dukowski’s “Flag” featuring Bill Stevenson and a Descendent will be appearing twice at Deutschland’s Monster Bash Festival (4/26 in Munich, 4/27 in Berlin) and once at Belgium’s Groezrock Festival (4/28 in the scenic municipality of Meerhout). What’s next, showdowns in Canada, Japan, and the Falkland Islands?
Now, the $64,000 question: which Black Flag would I see if someone put a gun to my head? I’d be inclined to choose the Ginn / Reyes situation only because I’ve never seen either of those guys in concert. What if by some miracle they blow the doors of the place? Also, the possibility of viewing a robot bass player in a sombrero excites me. Keith Morris, Bill Stevenson, and S. Egerton are all really talented and fun but I’ve seen them loads of times performing with other bands, and I get the distinct feeling their “Flag” performances won’t have the same element of surprise or danger (read: a robot bass player in a sombrero malfunctioning).
In a related story, I’ve come up with a few more great titles for the new “Black Flag” album Ginn and co. are finishing. Hey Greg and Ron, feel free to swipe any of the following: Jealous Again (Again); Oh, That’s Who Had The 10½, Thanks For Letting Us Know; The Process Of Smoking Tons Of Weed & Deciding This Is A Good Idea; Slip It In Again But Not Too Far (I’ve Got Work In The Morning); My War 2: Fight For Your Right To Artie Lange.
This question courtesy of my own nagging subconscious.
As a teenager / young adult who clung to Everything Went Black like it was the Rosetta Stone, I never imagined the powerful, no nonsense unit that called itself Black Flag would ever exist as two separate factions on the punk rock reunion circuit a la Ratt or Steppenwolf. Yet here we are, staring down a festival season where “Flag” (founding members Keith Morris and Chuck Dukowski plus drummer Bill Stevenson plus Stephen Egerton from the Descendents) will perform at a Las Vegas bowling party in May while “Black Flag” (founding guitarist Greg Ginn plus second BF singer Ron Reyes plus nobody knows yet) is set to play the U.K.’s Hevy Fest in August. The sad part is this is not the first time this has happened.
In 2002 Henry Rollins (BF singer #4) assembled the benefit album Rise Above to help raise funds for the West Memphis Three, and it was a big deal in part because several former Flaggers—Morris, Dukowski, mid-period bassist Kira Roessler—agreed to participate. Noticeably absent was Greg Ginn; It’s unclear (at least from preliminary Google searches) if Hank reached out to him for the album, but I’d be surprised if he did considering the well-documented glacier that formed between the pair following Black Flag’s 1986 disbanding. What can be confirmed is Ginn’s lack of immunity to the nostalgia bug. The guitarist also had his own charity to champion. Thus, in 2003 Greg Ginn reformed his version of Black Flag, with a robot, for a one-time concert to benefit wayward cats. It didn’t go so well.
These previous situations both benefitted worthy causes, so it was hard to be very angry at what was going on generally. Now, however, it looks like a different ball game. I don’t fault these guys for doing their separate things with the members they still get along with because, hey, we all like to have fun and get paid if we can, but as a fan it’s just the worst. I want to believe Black Flag was at some point a sacred order, the one thing upon which all its varied members could agree—let’s do the band this way or not do it all—and that maybe one day in the near future they’ll go back to this mindset. Of course, I suppose you want to believe that about every musical group you see. The hard truth is none of these people are monks and they’re all on the wrong side of fifty. So what shall be shall be.
It could be worse. The Ramones could be reforming with the Geico lizard on vocals. It’s all about perspective.
Image swiped from blackflaglogo.tumblr.com.