OFF just dropped a new album, which means everyone else cutting wax in 2014 can only aspire to second best on this review’s end-of-year list.
Yes, those hardcore hooligans from Hermosa Beach are back, and the results of last year’s recording sessions at Whisky Kitchen Studios are just what the doctor ordered. The band’s eponymous 2012 disc was a glorious low-fi fist to the face of both contemporary pop and consumers who celebrate such pabulum, an angry release littered with aural landmines that thrust a middle finger to big government while cautioning listeners to avoid complacency and ignorance.
Punk icon Keith Morris (Circle Jerks, Black Flag) may be in his late 50’s, but the vitriolic vocalist remains as pissed off and fired up as ever on Wasted Years. OFF’s second full-length effort (third if you count 2010’s First Four EPs, which—as the title suggests—gathered the band’s first singles on one disc) finds the singer raging against the status quo with the energy of a man half his age and taking it to The Man as if his resistance (and ours) never mattered more.
The mayhem Morris and friends kick up here has never been timelier or more topical, given today’s headlines, and Keith’s never been the kind of guy to sit idle while the world goes to hell in a hand basket—past drug problems and diabetes be damned. Morris knows Big Brother is still watching, so he dedicates at least half of Wasted Years’ too-brief 23 minutes to exposing the empirical machinations Huxley, Orwell, and Bradbury warned us about years ago.
“Void You Out” lambasts the bar-code culture that reduces human beings to account numbers—even as said individuals occupy themselves with semblances of expression on social networks. We may think we’re free, but Morris surmises “barbed wire fences and guns” on every corner: “Red White and Black” envisions a fascist society where surveillance ensures submission and “the slave trade never left; it’s just better-dressed.”
Paranoid? Maybe. But that doesn’t mean we’re not being spied on. Hell, even the President has admitted the NSO has every one of us pegged.
“Legion of Evil” and “No Easy Escape” further the theme, with Morris setting his sights on mass media vulture-culture and “manufactured public opinion.” He cuts to the quick with “Hypnotized” and “Exorcised” by skewering militaristic law enforcement (“you can’t argue with the troops, or the cops in riot suits”) and foreign policy advisors with shoot-now, ask-later agendas (“manipulative destruction”).
Indeed, the two most important questions raised in Morris’ lyrics this time ‘round are “Who are the real villains?” and “You ever feel you’re being used?” More significant, however, is his implication: “For Pete’s sake, pay attention!”
Bankers and stockbrokers come under fire in “Over Our Heads” and “Mr. Useless,” whereon Keith marvels how American policymakers project blame and deflect scrutiny even as they “loot vaults and wave cash.” Wall Street and Washington, D.C. aren’t his favorite places, we gather.
“All I Can Grab,” “I Won’t Be a Casualty,” and “Death Trip on the Party Train” send up consumerism, with Morris drawing the curtains on politicians’ shady, scratch-my-back deals and poking fun at their constituents’ (meaning our) collective quest to keep up with the Joneses. “Meet Your God” and “You Must Be Damned” argue against mob mentality (cities are portrayed as “colonies” and “hives”), calling instead for unified—but coherent—words and deeds to offset the government’s current “crash course plan.”
But nobody’s perfect, and Morris performs a little stereoscopic self-assessing amidst his democratic diatribes, and is just as angry when the subject is himself (or at least his past self). He recalls his misspent years as an alcohol and drug-ravaged fiend on “It Didn’t Matter to Me” and the title track, simultaneously mourning the time lost and reveling in physical self-improvement and wisdom gained. The Keith Morris fronting OFF is older and wiser than the one who helmed Black Flag 35 years ago, but he’s no less loud, wired, or hungry—squirrel-skittish, yet shark-toothed and panther-eyed.
Speaking of aggression: Guitarist Dimitri Coats (Burning Brides) weaves more magic, laying out dozens of monstrous new riffs and chord progressions that simply wouldn’t (and possibly couldn’t) have occurred to any other musician, guitar hero or not. Coats’ controlled chaos dominates the mix once again, buzz-sawing away beneath Morris’ frenetic outbursts while bassist Steven Shane McDonald (Red Kross) and drummer Mario Rubalcaba (Hot Snakes) keep the rhythmic pistons pumping overtime. The tunes on Wasted Years are a little longer than those on First Four EPs and OFF!, with most clocking in over a minute, but now the songs have recognizable verses, hooks, and bridges. Coats even indulges in a couple guitar solos—but he seems to know his strength lies in cranking out these pulverizing, pugnacious rhythmic (anti)patterns.
Accordingly, Wasted Years sounds enough like its predecessors to delight the initiated—yet different enough to sidestep accusations of “more of the same.” The best part? Now we can rip all three OFF! Discs (and a few bonus tracks) and dump ‘em onto a single mix disc for our new 2014 Steering Wheel- Smacking Soundtrack.
Whether one buys into Morris’ rants and raves is beside the point (though one suspects OFF wouldn’t be on the radar of anyone not already familiar with the band’s punk pedigree). Wasted Years is a call to arms, certainly, but it’s mostly about creative catharsis through hard rock music: Art as rebellion. Morris and the gang may take issue with the local constabulary and remote regulators and legislators in D.C., but it’s clear they’re not quite ready to nuke L.A. (or the United States, or Earth) from orbit and start again.
Freedom to rage is quintessentially American, and nobody rages like OFF!
OFF! are currently on tour, with dates and cities listed on their website.