By Joe Gross

Punk’s devotional element is a crucial part of its myth. Hell, it is the myth–after your first punk epiphany, you’re supposed to realize you’ve found the one true Way. Of course, in reality most punk bands can’t deliver three-chord transcendence on a consistent basis.

Lungfish is one of the few that can, and they have, over a 13-year career of sound-almost-alike records and dense, no-really-it’s-poetry lyrics. Imagine a gnostic Ramones or an AC/DC peopled by Kabbalah scholars. Perhaps taking too seriously the old Lou Reed dictum that anything over three chords puts you into jazz territory, the Baltimore-based quartet has built whole, mesmerizing albums out of four or five notes. And as a lyricist, front man Daniel Higgs, at least according to Alan Kaufman, editor of The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry, is nothing less than the intellectual heir to poet Kenneth Patchen. (Memo to R. Meltzer: if you’re still looking for visionary postbeat rock music in the 21st century, buy the entire discography tomorrow.)

A veteran of the late-80s and early-90s performance-poetry scene, Higgs is 36 going on infinity. He cuts a striking figure with his rabbinical beard, myriad tattoos, and head-to-toe heavy clothing (he’s been known to wear two pairs of pants at once). Onstage, in front of the pathologically repetitious guitar-bass-drums drone of Asa Osborne, Nathan Bell, and Mitchell Feldstein, he’s riveting; if he’s not standing stock-still, he’s fiendishly contorting his face or trying to climb an invisible ladder. Sometimes he’s a preacher, preaching the gospel according to the plants and the animals; sometimes he’s the flowers themselves, opening their mouths and screaming.

Lungfish’s early records–1990’s Necklace of Heads EP, 1992’s Talking Songs for Walking, 1993’s Rainbows From Atoms–were the uplifting, expansive manifestoes a thousand lightweight emo bands would kill to make, infused with that romantically triumphant, magic-hour-in-July D.C. guitar sound. On songs like the surrealist Catholic “Parthogenesis,” the death-defying “Broadcast,” and the hallucinatory “Descender,” Higgs mixed images from sex, biology, technology, the Bible, and nature with genuine spirituality. And “Abraham Lincoln,” from Rainbow, may be rock’s most abstract and beautifully powerful reflection on history’s weight: “What’s gonna free you to see / What you were always free to see through?”

But 1994’s Pass and Stow and 1996’s Sound in Time, the band’s most cohesive and consistently powerful records, marked the end of what I once heard a D.C. musician affectionately call Lungfish’s “pre-bunker period.” Higgs’s lyrics became increasingly disquieting. On Pass’s majestic “Cleaner Than Your Surroundings,” he rambles, “Telling lies, apologizing / For our love of country / Dirt and tree bug river / Blue jay chair leg / Parking meter pinwheel sport coat / Rudder bucket TELESCOPIC!” And from Sound’s raging “Jonah”: “I beseech your long locust leg / Lust against a cloak of organs.” His stuff scans well even on the page; read it out loud and it rolls off the tongue, even if you do sound delusional. The band accordingly stripped down its songwriting, eliminating choruses and vamping on one or two chords: lather, rinse, repeat, always repeat.

Like a mystic version of the Fall, Lungfish know how to wring every ounce of power and majesty out of their chosen form, and for a while each new album was a chapter in a massive poem-prayer. The dark, obscure Indivisible, from 1997, and 1998’s desolate, paranoid Artificial Horizon (which starts with a tune called “Black Helicopters”) are considered by some devout Lungfish fans the band’s best work, but I find Higgs’s scorched-earth worldview hard to take in such large doses. “Don’t shun the world, shed it” goes one song; “Oppress yourself!” Higgs screams on another. Oh, and on “Ann the Word” our narrator vomits up a blinking eye. You might read that on paper as a metaphor for the rebirth of cognizance or something, but the tempo is so uniformly sludgy and Higgs’s voice so craggy that the band still sounds dead on its feet.

The Unanimous Hour, from last year, was a welcome reembrace of the world, featuring superfan Ian MacKaye on minimalist extra guitar. On the beautiful closer, “Hallucinatorium,” Higgs even takes a family–though of course his wife “has a leg of flame,” his daughter “is a complex creed,” and his mother “excretes a reality.” Still, the relative placidity of the band’s ninth album, Necrophones, comes as something of a surprise. The inner sleeve photo shows the band in a field doing what can only be called frolicking. The oppressive cast of the middle period has receded, and it’s amazing how rhythmic variation can agitate the good humors in the blood.

The album opens with “The Words,” a triumphant tribute to the redemptive powers of language: “The sea greets the sewer with a perfect kiss / The kiss embalmed for state display / The state as defined by broken minds / The mind a concentric mirror maze / The mirror swirling begins to drain / A drain sucking at its own remains / There remains an echo migrating through space / The echo draped in a bridal gown / The gown reveals a fist of vapor / The vapor fractures into alphabets / The alphabets align to form the words / The words the words the words the words.” And in a double-tracked, almost monastic chant, Higgs traces yet more spiritual spirals on the vaguely psychedelic “Shapes in Space”: “Shapes arranged in the shape of space / That we may harvest the name from the named / The name gives shape to shapeless states / This name was created that it may create.”

Osborne still believes that one should never use three chords where two will do, but his melodies are brighter and folkier than they’ve ever been, and Feldstein is finally backing off his midcareer obsession with midtempo triples. “The Way” is a graceful ballad, a throwback to their stately early records in tone if not in tempo. “Occult Vibrations” is a sea chantey sung under waves of telephonic distortion: all Higgs can see is “oblongs of language,” and the band throws him a rope of chugging riffs. The acoustic “Sex War” is downright tribal, and the four instrumentals, from the lullaby “Necrophones” to the parallel mating dances “Eternal Nightfall” and “Infinite Daybreak,” sew the album together like sinew. Lungfish seem to have hit on a rougher, less bombastic way to achieve the sublime simplicity of their earlier work. Of course, it’s nothing tremendously different than what came before, but on such a monochromatic canvas, the smallest variations can be spellbinding.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Antonia Tricarico.