For a relatively new band, OFF! doesn't shy away from comparisons to fellow Los Angelean hardcore punk progenitors Black Flag. Like Flag, you can see OFF!'s name (exclamation point and all) adorning cans of a popular household insecticide. Black Flag's beginnings are captured on 1983's famed The First Four Years compilation, while OFF!'s are captured on last year's First Four EPs comp — their de facto full-length debut. Black Flag's first EP was called Nervous Breakdown; OFF! has a song called "Panic Attack." Black Flag's original name was Panic. Black Flag was co-founded by vocalist Keith Morris. OFF! was too.
The band itself may be a mere two years old, but don't be mistaken — this is your daddy's hardcore punk rock band. Nevertheless, with their breakneck tempos, punishing, rapid-fire power chords, seething singer, naked aggression and relentless volume, your actual dad would hate OFF! The one thing ol' Pops might appreciate, however, is that First Four EPs' 16 blistering tracks blast by in a brisk 18 minutes.
Featuring Burning Brides guitarist Dimitri Coats, bassist Steven Shane McDonald of LA power-pop nobles Redd Kross and journeyman punk drummer (and former professional skateboarder) Mario Rubalcaba — whose credentials include Hot Snakes, Rocket From the Crypt, Pinback, The Black Heart Procession and Clikatat Ikatowi — many dubbed OFF! a supergroup upon arrival.
It's a tag that set a high bar for the band, as Coats — at 41, the band's second youngest member — tells the Scene, "It immediately puts this pressure on you to be something great, and luckily we delivered." But OFF! is far from contrived as hardcore's answer to Audioslave, he says. "It certainly was not what we set out to do [laughs]. We just wanted to play parties ... maybe release a couple 7-inches."
In late 2009, Coats was commissioned to produce an ill-fated (and eventually aborted) comeback record with Morris' other classic punk band, Circle Jerks. While those sessions collapsed under the weight of inner-band skirmishes, downtime writing sessions between Morris and Coats — already longtime friends — revealed an explosive, no-bullshit creative kinship. The seeds for OFF! were sown. According to Coats, the band's formation was "totally accidental, and that might be why it's so honest."
"He would tell me, 'That [riff] sucks, but that one's pretty good,' " says Coats, "And then I'd get to tell him that 'those lyrics suck, but that one's good.' ... And it's cool, because we were such good friends going into this. He was the DJ at my wedding. He's one of the first people to hold my children — he's, like, Uncle Keith to them. So there really is like a brotherly, family vibe to all this."
Inspired, Morris soon scrapped the Circle Jerks sessions, tapped Coats and put in first calls to McDonald and Rubalcaba — both also longstanding friends. "I remember we played, I think it was 'Darkness,' and Steven just put down his bass and he's like, 'Well, that's classic,' " Coats recalls of the band's first rehearsal.
While many are quick to focus on the transparent aesthetic similarities to Morris' punk beginnings, Coats hazards that looking to '70s classic rock and metal influences like Blue Oyster Cult and Black Sabbath — whom, he points out, influenced both his band Burning Brides and Black Flag — explain the hardcore return to rock form. "Definitely our approach and the way we present ourselves is a nod at Keith's early roots, but I write all the songs with him, and I didn't come from hardcore. ... To me it's just like Black Sabbath sped up really fast," he says. Or as Morris describes it, "Led Zeppelin playing Black Flag."
At worst, at his tamest, Morris sounds every bit the angst-ridden young punk he did on classic Flag fist-pumpers like "I've Had It" and "Wasted," and at best — like when screaming a top-of-lungs "WHAAAT THA FAHHHHHK?!" with boiling-point volatility midway through First Four EPs opener "Black Thoughts" — the 56-year-old sounds more tightly wound and charged than at any point in his 35-year career in punk. But that's not to say he isn't acting his age. Take for example "Fuck People," on which Morris rants not against the government or corporate America, but against folks who drive while talking on cell phones and take too many items to his supermarket's express checkout line.
Coats says of his singer's circle-pit-cueing, NIMBY rants, "Once you get him going, he'll just keep talkin'. It's a little bit of a malfunction, but he's a brilliant guy ... he just needs a little bit of editing once in a while."
Signed by Vice Records, having received accolades from the likes of Pitchfork and having been the talk of the world's music festivals from South by Southwest (where they debuted in 2010) to England's recent Reading Festival, there's little question that OFF! — a new band with a young band's vigor — has 10-thousand-fold made for a better comeback endeavor than a throwback Circle Jerks record would have.
"I think this is a lot more exciting," says Coats. "Just my input alone, wanting to pull everything into a darker direction, I think maybe that's how it ended up sounding more like early Black Flag accidentally. ... [Circle Jerks] were trying to twist those songs around because they wanted to put their stamp on it, and, you know, there was nothing that needed to be changed with them. I think they would've fucked them up. And honestly, this band just kicks way more ass, and everybody knows it."
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