Burn, Piano Island, Burn
Screams just ain’t what they used to be. At South by Southwest a few weeks ago, just days before the war, I was searching for shouts of joy, anger, anxiety–any signs of emotion. Instead I found the Rapture, a well-hyped New York band that screams over disco beats for no other apparent reason than it seems like a cool idea to scream over disco beats. And it is a cool idea. When I stopped listening too closely, the music achieved a pleasant oppressiveness–not quite the precursor to apocalypse the band’s biblical name suggests, but at least as much fun as a mild plague of frogs.
Screams in rock ‘n’ roll used to emphasize something; now they rain down indiscriminately. (The Rapture emphasize nothing more than how little emphasis their words deserve.) But at least the Blood Brothers have a sense of what constant shouting is good for: the Seattle band’s knotty, shape-shifting punk sounds like “Bohemian Rhapsody” rendered by torture victims, which makes for some entertaining Muppets-meet-Murphy’s Law art rock live. Unfortunately the Brothers epitomize a questionable trend–“screamo”–even as they make it seem more promising than it is.
For a long time screams were rarer in rock ‘n’ roll than you might expect, reserved for punctuation or expressive flourish. The great exceptions screamed like they sang: James Brown to show you how there he was, Jerry Lee Lewis to show you how gone, Little Richard to show you how pretty. And they all inspired the Sonics’ Gerry Roslie–as good a place as any to start talking about punk–who sounded like the geek who wanted to be all those screamers, to get that ’64 Beatles response, to teach the world to curdle in perfect harmony. Thing is, the Sonics had a girl or something they were angry about–when Roslie sang “Now I wish I was dead” he sounded like he wished he was dead. The Blood Brothers sound like they wish they were alive. Imagine the most chilling howls from Yoko Ono, Busta Rhymes, Y Pants, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Kat Bjelland, Prince, Roger Daltrey, and your little sister. Now picture Dan Rather reading the news that way, all the time. For the Blood Brothers, screams are just a way of emitting lyrics–without intonation, without emotion.
Somewhere along the way, punk and metal turned the scream from one vocal element among many into a full-blown vocal style. In the best of American posthardcore–Husker Du, the Minutemen, Minor Threat–screams retained the weight of their real-life associations (sex; neighbors fighting; the horror, the horror). Punks yelled, shouted, chanted, and offered what really boiled down to loud talking. But as the cliche goes, they had something to say. In contrast, the punky influence of Slayer and Die Kreuzen cooled off heavy metal’s wail. By the time Pantera started barking orders, screams had become sort of…abstract. They were blasts of noise. Death-metalheads managed to sound like Cookie Monster drowning in tar without seeming, you know, upset.
Screamo might be even less expressive than death metal. Its roots (both etymologically and musically) are in emo, the D.C. hardcore variant that grew weirder and weepier in the glow of Reagan’s sunset, and which, like punk metal, made lyrics incomprehensible to the naked ear. Where Husker Du raved in tune, D.C.’s Rites of Spring stretched their voices on the rack until Guy Picciotto’s throat seemed ready to sprout three new Adam’s apples. (In Fugazi, he still bats the ears of a melody before smacking it in the nose, though his hooks are unmistakable.) It took a succession of good bands, from Drive Like Jehu to Song of Zarathustra, to refine this sound into the impersonal thing it is now. But some of those bands’ grandeur can be heard on the Blood Brothers’ third and latest album, Burn, Piano Island, Burn. “The Shame” has a fine melody–they’re not always screaming, you know. But the lyrics are less fine: “My heart is a black haunted loom, weaving jackets for children who’ll never be born / My hands are abandoned factories manufacturing heartbreak and hate for the world…”
Anyone who uses the word “loom” as a noun and expects us not to think “fruit of the” is wearing his whities a little too tighty. And I say this as someone who doesn’t require a ton of smarts in yowling young bands from Cobain’s drizzly home state. Tacoma boys the Sonics were as sweaty and dumb as a prom cummerbund. Burrowing into their limitations was their genius. Today, our most prominent and promising rock screamers write call-and-response epic slam poems in Picciottoese and scamper through their labyrinthine song structures like stoners in a supermarket, endlessly boring and bored with rock. Even Captain Beefheart fought off writer’s block with more economy.
If I’m making the Blood Brothers sound good, well, sometimes they are. The screams on “Fucking’s Greatest Hits” update T. Rex’s “Bang a Gong (Get It On)” with enough references to blood and chlorine to make its come-on feel nicely backhanded. “Every Breath Is a Bomb,” which absorbs ska, leaves no doubt that the drummer plays like he breathes. Burn, Piano Island, Burn is invigorating at first, but it feels more than anything else like a novelty record, as likely to clear a party as Atari Teenage Riot and as unlikely to inspire screamy sex or genuine rage.
At least producer Ross Robinson lets the Blood Brothers have a Slipknot-size good time in the studio, rocking hard enough to make the album suggest U2’s Boy being run through a blender. But no matter how much I dig the Zappa-esque vocal back-and-forth of “I Know Where the Canaries and the Crows Go,” they inspire in me absolutely no interest in learning the fate of those stupid winged beasts. The louder they shout, the more obvious it is: they’re hardcore without the punk, which is to say, the worst of all possible worlds.
The Blood Brothers open for AFI at the Riviera Theatre, April 12. See Section Three listings for more details.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Pete Starman.