The changing face of American hardcore punk still isn’t very pretty. But in open defiance of the cretin hop that dominates the genre, outlaw bands like the California trio the Minutemen and Hüsker Dü, a threesome from Minneapolis, are now taking punk at its word, resubscribing to the freeing-up of forgotten energies and articulate rage it originally stood for. These two albums — double LPs, rare in a medium that often demands brevity at the cost of expression — are landmark punk works, because the chances they take and the earnest fury that drives them not only challenge the “no future” dictum, they are the blueprint for a brave new music.
Zen Arcade is probably the closest hardcore will ever get to an opera. A kind of thrash Quadrophenia, it traces a young buck’s passage through a series of social and emotional wastelands, whipping like a Japanese bullet train through bristling, unadorned folk (“Never Talking to You Again”), surprisingly poignant bamalama (the icy death lament “Pink Turns to Blue”) and awesome white-noise constructions and backward tape tricks (the trippy raga collage “Hare Krsna”). Hüsker Dü is as hard and fast as they come; an earlier release was called Land Speed Record. But guitarist Bob Mould’s holocaust fuzz attack and frenzied solos are so densely packed with high-jump harmonics — note the metallic, Coltranesque explosions on the LP’s long instrumental climax, “Recurring Dreams” — that less-than-two-minute dashes like “Something I Learned Today” and “Beyond the Threshold” sound practically panoramic. Although the barking lead vocals, which are shared by Mould and drummer Grant Hart, often obscure lyric bull’s-eyes like “With all the ways of communicating/We can’t get in touch with who we’re hating” (“Turn On the News”), there is no mistaking the desperate conviction behind Zen Arcade‘s almighty roar.
The Minutemen’s bitter pill is even harder to swallow. True to their name, they cram Double Nickels on the Dime with an incredible forty-five songs. But within these dizzy spurts (the group’s version of Van Halen’s “Ain’t Talkin’ ’bout Love” clocks in at thirty-eight seconds), they challenge hardcore convention with the abrupt cut-and-swipe of funky interjections like “Political Song for Michael Jackson to Sing” and the softer confessional tone of “‘History Lesson — Part II,” a touching Minutemen autobiography (“Our band could be your life”). The telegraphic stutter and almost scientific angularity of singer-guitarist D. Boon’s chordings and breakneck solos heighten the jazzier tangents he dares to take. Drummer Mike Watt and bassist George Hurley’s playing is just as tight and reckless.
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Double Nickel‘s best moments go by much too quickly. Still, the breathlessness of it all and the brittle, naked production bring the Minutemen’s introspective torture (“Storm in My House”) and prickly humor (“The Roar of the Masses Could Be Farts”) to graphic life. And if neither of these records is particularly easy listening, neither are they arrogant, self-absorbed blasts of childish sloganeering. What hardcore promises, these albums really deliver.