1. singer of Richmond, VA -based heavy metal four-time Grammy losers lamb of god. 2. 42-year-old skateboarding, fly fishing, and bullwhipping enthusiast. 3. amateur photographer currently writing his first photo-essay book. 4. author of currently untitled memoir to be published by Da Capo/Perseus (U.S.) and Random House (everywhere else), spring 2014. 5. proud husband, son, grandson, and brother. 6. fairly righteous dude.
Normally, when a band I love decides to release an album after over 20 years of no new output, I get nervous. A lot of things could go very, very wrong with a band in two decades: drugs, divorce, intra-band drama and a sad refusal to come to grips with the pathetic reality that is the current state of affairs of the music business. I don’t like cringing when I hear a new record from once-cutting-edge players. I don’t like having to say “Well, they tried…” I really, really hate having beautiful memories of mind-opening bands tarnished by a lackluster album that has “mid-life crisis” written all over it. This sort of thing happens fairly often, so I greet news of this sort of effort with a masochistic mix of anxiety-riddled anticipation and sinking dread.
But I wasn’t too worried when I learned about Before Ever After, Blind Idiot God’s first album since 1992’s Cyclotron: it was not only improbable that the album would suck, it was also a safe bet to assume that it would do what it does, which is to kick a crushing amount of ass, very loudly. I had two solid reasons to be so assured of this: 1) as with their previous two albums, this record was co-produced by B.I.G. guitarist Andy Hawkins and Bill Laswell, and Bill Laswell does not screw around with bad music, and 2) from the group’s inception (aside from being superlative players), B.I.G. have always thought outside the box when it comes to writing and recording music —waaay outside the box. It’s like having confidence that a chess master known for unorthodox strategy will always be several moves ahead of most players, even after long time away from the board — he hasn’t been slacking, he’s just been thinking of new ways to fuck you up. And Before Ever After will, indeed, fuck you up.
Formed in 1982 in St. Louis, Missouri, Blind Idiot God arose from the nascent American hardcore punk scene. A three-piece, the band conducted a fruitless search for a vocalist who would fit their style before deciding to forge ahead permanently as an instrumental act. Viewed historically in the broader stylistic context of the hardcore scene at the time, this might seem perplexing — I mean, how hard could it be to find some angry Midwestern kid willing to shout anti-Reagan invective over three distorted chords and jackhammer drumming? However, Blind Idiot God stood apart from the fairly straightforward sped-up punk of their peers — not many teenage hardcore bands in the ’80s (or today, for that matter) cited influences like Stravinsky, Coltrane, Funkadelic and Black Uhuru along with the obligatory Black Flag, but B.I.G. did, and the complexity of their music reflects that fact.
Blind Idiot God have been referred to as heavy metal, noise rock, post-hardcore (whatever the fuck that is), math rock and tech-prog. I don’t know exactly what to call them (beyond beautifully heavy instrumental rock), but I do know that there is absolutely no need for a vocalist in their music. As a vocalist, I view my primary function within a band as the layer conveying clearly the truth of an emotion or a point through my words and delivery. B.I.G. are one of the few instrumental rock bands I have listened to that do my job exceedingly well without a single word being sung — that’s why their songs don’t come off as mere exercises in technical prowess; instead, each tune sounds as if it was written about something, the same way I write songs about whatever socio-political/economic disaster du jour is currently pissing me off. Their ability to convey specific emotions wordlessly, with just a single guitar, bass, and drum kit, has astounded me ever since my very first listen to their 1987 self-titled SST debut on through Before Ever After, and their musical lexicon has only expanded over the years.
A double LP clocking in at 74 minutes, Before Ever After takes the listener on an extended sonic journey that blurs the lines of demarcation between punk, metal, jazz, funk, rock, ambient and plain old noise (and not “noise rock,” but actual noise) to the point that the starkly different elements become protean components of an ever-shifting, yet somehow entirely singular whole.
Andy Hawkins once again shows that he is a guitar player of prodigious talent, wrenching an astonishing array of sounds from his instrument, while bassist Gabe Katz is monstrously steady with the low end. The nearly nine-minute-long opener “Twenty Four Hour Dawn” could be seen as a microcosm of the entire album — it moves all over the place, through abrupt tempo changes, tonal shifts from abrasive to ambient, and vast, pulsing waves of dynamics that swell over the track, building and ebbing like ocean tides during hurricane season, but it never wanders into the realm of self-indulgent wankery. (Always a distinct possibility with players of such high caliber.) More crunching, straightforward tracks like “Strung” and the lumbering “Earth Mover” display B.I.G.’s ability to showcase the primacy of the almighty riff, while the frenetic “Barrage” is just that: a pummeling fusillade that leaves the listener feeling slapped around. The creepy, feedback-drenched noise track “Voice of the Structure” sounds like the prelude to an ax-murderer’s rampage, while the next number, “Under the Weight,” is the unnerving follow-through — the song sounds like some sort of futuristic violence binge.
(Laswell’s production sounds superb, but to anyone familiar with his legendary and extensive catalogue, that should come as no surprise. Every instrument on the album is balanced, crystal-clear and natural-sounding — the recording and mix nicely capture the musicians’ actual playing, not an endless digital cut-and-paste punch session.)
My only concern as I read the album’s press release was the replacement of their original drummer, Ted Epstein, with Tim Wyskida (formerly of drone group Khanate), and I was only really worried about one aspect of the music — could he play the reggae? There is no room for sloppiness within the loping rhythmic backbone of reggae, and the genre has historically produced the most rock-solid of drummers. Wyskidsa handles the crucial rhythms more than admirably.
Wait — oh yeah, I forgot to mention that every Blind Idiot God album has contained dub reggae tracks. In fact, these tracks are the only ones the average terrestrial radio listener could easily identify by genre — “OK, that’s reggae.” Everything else would most likely draw a perplexed “whatthefuckisthis?” Understandably, right about now some of you are probably thinking, “Reggae? OK, you had me up until now” — it’s not as if Blind Idiot God isn’t already a sufficiently diverse band, and on paper the idea of three white Midwestern dudes trying to play Jamaican music seems like an absolutely terrible idea (and more than once I have witnessed other bands attempt this, with tragic results), but B.I.G. actually excel at the form — they obviously respect the roots of the genre, but add their own touch to the dubby grooves, making them entirely their own. Spaced-out tracks like “Night Driver” and “Ramshackle” could very easily have come out of Scratch’s fabled Black Ark had it been a hangout for over-caffeinated punk bands raised on Ornette Coleman. The album’s closer, the stripped-down “Shutdown” is actually menacing — and when was the last time you heard a reggae song that made you think, “It sounds like something bad is about to happen to someone”? I suppose “dub noir” might be an apt description, but like the rest of Blind Idiot God’s music, any attempt at pigeonholing is just an exercise in inexactitude and futility. Throughout Before Ever After, Blind Idiot God sound precisely like Blind Idiot God and nothing else, and for those who are unfamiliar with the band, just trust me, that is a very, very impressive thing to sound like.
My only real beef with the record is the oddly out-of-place, surf-rock-styled “Fub” — it just seems a bit incongruously happy to me — but seven so-so minutes out of a 74-minute, kick-ass full-length ain’t too bad. And Before After Ever can be an exhausting album to sit through — one and a quarter hours of any band can wear you out — but it is, after all, an album, and as such forms a beautifully varied yet cohesive extended musical narrative. That’s something that’s rapidly becoming a rarity in this age of shortened attention spans and platinum digital singles, and B.I.G.’s latest is a rewarding listen for those with a respect for the kind of brutal and sustained creative exertion it takes to make a really well crafted album. After more than 30 years of successfully pushing the envelope and smashing barriers with their work, Blind Idiot God definitely deserve that kind of respect, so crank this record way the fuck up.
A superior piece of work from a groundbreaking band that still makes most others look rather primitive in comparison (the Village Voice’s Anne Marlowe once wrote, “Blind Idiot God’s soundchecks are better than most bands’ entire shows”), Before Ever After doesn’t inspire nostalgia in me — it just inspires.