Hardcore stalwarts OFF! waste no time on Wasted Years 

Sounding OFF!

Sounding OFF!

OFF! may have proven themselves of their own merit many times over, but their relationship to hardcore punk progenitors Black Flag is akin to a law of nature, written in their musical DNA. Setting aside the stylistic overlap between the two groups, OFF!'s bespectacled and dreadlocked frontman Keith Morris was a charter member of Black Flag, though he left after their debut EP to form Circle Jerks. That makes it all the more unfortunate that Black Flag has recently been less than kind to itself.

Following a trademark application filed by Morris and Henry Rollins (Black Flag's best-known former frontman), guitarist and Black Flag co-founder Greg Ginn filed a lawsuit against Rollins, Morris and Morris' bandmates in FLAG, a side project that performs classic Black Flag songs. FLAG's roster features four former Black Flag members, while Ginn stands alone in his current incarnation (which retains the name "Black Flag"). Ron Reyes, also an early frontman, performed on 2013's What The ..., the first new Black Flag album since 1986, but he was fired onstage during a show in Australia. The band then issued a public apology for the album, which they characterized as subpar. Meanwhile, the suit was settled out of court in April, allowing all parties to continue touring as before, though FLAG may no longer use the iconic "four bars" insignia; Ginn retains the rights to the songs. Black Flag, by the way, will play Exit/In June 27.

While Ginn's contributions to the group and its legacy go without question — he wrote many of the songs, and his squalling pyrotechnic guitar technique remains second to none — today's Black Flag has veered far from its original course. Whatever Ginn's intentions, this kind of infighting comes across as a convoluted pissing contest, having little to do with giving a voice to the disaffected and disenfranchised, and diverting resources and attention from the abrasive, cathartic music that is the group's real trademark.

Little wonder, then, that Morris chose to sidestep the kerfuffle, channeling the full force of his creative energy into OFF!, a collaborative effort of well-seasoned players that emerged from a scrapped Circle Jerks reunion in 2009.

"It was really invigorating for these guys who have all this experience to strike out like we're teenagers," explains bassist Steven McDonald. "The only way we were able to do that is by relying on other people as little as possible, and trying to utilize the experience we've all garnered."

McDonald's own experience began in formative grunge unit Redd Kross, a group he joined at the tender age of 11; as a nascent Black Flag took the youngsters under their wing, Keith Morris was one of the first musicians McDonald knew well. Though their paths diverged, a broad spectrum of work — including touring with Beck and The Black Keys and producing Be Your Own Pet, early standard-bearers of the Nashville punk renaissance — left him primed and ready when Morris invited him to help OFF! take shape.

"[The lawsuit] just made Keith even hungrier to get back in the studio and get down to business with something that has no old baggage attached to it," says McDonald. That determination, coupled with a willingness to stretch beyond a purist ideal of hardcore, is evident throughout Wasted Years, OFF!'s second LP. Though more than half of its 16 songs clock in under 90 seconds, the pace is leisurely compared to the band's self-titled debut full-length and First Four EPs collection, on which a full minute felt like a long stretch. McDonald and drummer Mario Rubalcaba are a well-oiled Gatling gun of a rhythm section, matched in volume and fury by guitarist Dimitri Coats' crisp, biting riffs and Morris' turbo-charged vitriolic outpouring.

Though the group has support and distribution through the substantial indie label Vice Records, the album is also a thoroughly DIY venture, recorded by McDonald on an 8-track tape machine in the group's practice space, then mixed at a home studio owned by friends The Bronx. While Wasted Years' fidelity is a cut above landmark hardcore releases, and the relative thickness of its sound reveals OFF!'s heavy blues and trad-metal influences, the attack is still full-strength; instead of cutting like a knife, it chops like an ax.

It's possible to time-stamp hardcore punk to the Reagan administration, to commoditize it and turn it into a tourist destination. Importantly, OFF!'s lyrics, penned by Morris and Coats, convey a vigorous outrage fueled by injustices that have been around as long as there has been power to abuse. "The slave trade never left / It's just better dressed," rails Morris in "Red White and Black," an indictment of greed that draws parallels between consumerism and fascism. A tongue-in-cheek promo video for the song, featuring comedians Dave Foley and Brian Posehn as a pseudo-Nazi lounge act who get their comeuppance Inglourious Basterds-style, slyly showcases the middle-aged band's mastery of contemporary media.

Excluding Morris, everyone in OFF! has children, and they feel it's important to spread an inclusive message, even if the medium is an intense emotional outburst.

"Fly your freak flag," says McDonald. "If you're mad about something, don't keep it in — that's going to give you a disease."

Email Music@nashvillescene.com.


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