Black Flag’s 1984 album My War has an ambiguous and controversial status in the history of American rock music, punk and hardcore more specifically. At the time of its release “punk audiences hated it” (Margolis, 2012), Black Flag alienating their core group of listeners. This is arguably because the album itself is a tale of two stories. On the one hand, there is the A-side of the original LP, which is a quite standard collection of six up tempo punk rock and hardcore songs, that are by and large better examples of the genre.
On the other hand, it is the B-side of the album that inspired the controversy, consisting of three slow tempo songs, which recalled heavy Black Sabbath riffs and leader singer Henry Rollins’ almost spoken word like performance, screaming nihilistic lyrics against the backdrop of Greg Ginn’s Tony Iommiesque guitar. But it is this B-side which, surprisingly, has aged well the most, becoming “a key influence on the later development of indie metal and grunge.” (Margolis, 2012) Listening to this album on and off over the years, however, it is precisely this B-side, so criticized at the time of its release as the reviewers tell us, which does something different, setting an original path, demonstrating that creativity in the evolution of rock music comes from not falling within the cliches of a given genre.
The cover art of the album always has an impacting and sinister quality: a cartoonish like hand puppet holding a knife sinisterly points in a threatening manner, Black Flag’s iconic logo adorning the top of the album cover, the »My War« album title printed along the bottom. An atmosphere is established at the very outset, something threatening and angst-ridden. Certainly, this is not unique to Black Flag, but typical of hard rock genres, but there seems to be something more than an adolescent shock factor.
This »something more« already begins with the first track on the album’s A-side, which bears the same title as the album. If the sights of the album, its visual element is sinister, this is immediately perfectly captured by the opening guitar melodies, down-tuned in minor key, played by the iconic player of punk guitar, Gregg Ginn. This approximately thirty second opening builds atmosphere and tension, demonstrating how music is not only about sound, but the creation of an entire experience. This thirty second almost reflective and melancholic introduction then explodes into the frantic and fast-paced sound of Black Flag, with Henry Rollins’ rabid and aggressive vocals drawing the listener in. I do not think that it would be an exaggeration to say that for a listener of this genre of the music for the first time that they would generally feel a sense of fear in this opening track.
If the album is a tale of two stories, then it is here on the remainder of side A, that the weaker, more typical selections of punk rock appear. Certainly, a fanatic of the genre would appreciate the faster tempos, the crunching guitars, staples of what would be come the unique sound of U.S. hardcore punk. But here there is a familiarity in the playing, in the atmosphere, which takes away from the album. My sentiment when listening to this album is always that “My War” is the song to listen to on Side A, while, if listening to the album in its entirety, I wait in anticipation for side B.
The first track on side B, “Nothing Left Inside”, begins the slower tempo instrumentation and song structure which would have such a profound influence in other music genres. The song itself begins with a sparse drum solo, establishing the framework of the piece, then being joined by Ginn’s repetitive guitar playing, recalling Black Sabbath, and strumming and the use of distortion which is also more heavy metal than punk. Rollins’ bleak lyrics join, creating the dirge-like atmosphere that characterizes side B. Seven minutes later, almost unheard of for the genre, the next song begins, “Three Nights”, also with the same drum solo, but now accompanied by Rollins’ whispering some indecipherable lyrics. Here, poetry and spoken word now integrate with a sound that is more metal than punk. But this would also be an incorrect characterization, as this is more than metal. The instrumentation works as the creation of an atmosphere, a bleak and depressive one, which seems to try to communicate with Rollins’ equally depressive lyrics, speaking out some type of breakdown. “Scream”, the third and final song from the legendary B-side, follows the same pattern, the drums now joined by a bass that uses meditative repetition to build atmosphere, joined by Rollins’ vocals which become more primal as the title of the song anticipates for the listener.
The energy of the A-side and the energy of punk rock music in general is shown to have another part of its narrative in the B-side, one that is much more insecure, but also introspective. This music cannot properly be compared to something called rock music, although in terms of instrumentation, the use of vocals, bass, guitar and drum follow a typical and unoriginal pattern. In this album, these basic forms, however, evolve, into a type of experimental poetry jam session, which is perhaps in one sense more akin to jazz than rock music, although unlike jazz, the voice plays a pivotal role in telling the story, working with the down-tuned music so as to create an introspective and bleak atmosphere, which is more sophisticated than punk, and is demonstrated in the influence this album has and continues to have outside of any one genre.
- Margolis, Daniel. “50 albums that were unfairly hated on.” www.complex.com October, 23, 2012. Retrieved December 4, 2017 at http://www.complex.com/music/2012/10/50-albums-that-were-unfairly-hated-on/