Muhammad Ali/Black Congress, and that’s how i forgot about the bomb
In my later years, I have to confess that I’ve taken to cringing whenever a split release comes through my door. Which is sad, because I used to like that sort of thing, honestly; it was the DIY way to go, back in the day, pooling your money with your compatriots in another band so you could both get something, anything, out there for people to buy, hear, and (hopefully) adore. I’d hear some of a band I’d seen a few times and liked, plus some of a band (most likely from the same scene) I’d never heard before.
In these days of Myspace, MP3 blogs, and cheap-ass CDRs, though, on the rare occasions when I get a split release, it’s generally because I already like Band A on the album/EP/whatever but couldn’t give a shit about Band B, so why in the hell wouldn’t I buy an all-Band A release, instead, and cut out the filler? Besides, there’s no guarantee that the two bands will share anything but maybe a practice space — I don’t necessarily want my mid-fi indie-pop colliding head-on with breakneck neo-thrash. That’s what mixes are for.
Split releases for me have become a “necessity” buy, as in, “okay, Band A’s got nothing out but this, so I’ll get it and just pretend Band B’s tracks don’t exist.” I’ve usually heard Band A before, but maybe I want something of theirs to listen to in the car or rip to my iPod, and I can’t get it any other way.
And yeah, and that’s how i forgot about the bomb, the split CD (originally only available on resolutely-old-school cassette) from Muhammad Ali and Black Congress, kind of is for me, albeit times two. In this case, I’d seen both bands previously and had been dying to find something by either one that I could hold onto and stick on my CD shelves, so the split was a surprisingly welcome thing to see, allowing me to easily slip past downfall #1, above. I could feel somewhat fulfilled, without having to shell out for two separate albums; a definite win, at least for me.
Of course, there’s still downfall #2 to contend with: the fact that bomb essentially shoehorns together two bands that don’t have much at all in common beyond the fact that they both use guitars, bass, and drums. Except that here, as with #1, the two bands have again bucked the odds. Muhammad Ali and Black Congress may not sound all that much alike, no — the former is fuzzed-out and hooky, with a gleeful, crashing abandon that’s near-impossible to ignore, while the latter is all-out post-hardcore menace, hammering and metallic and ready to punch you in the fucking face — but they both point big (middle) fingers backwards to the same musical era, stylistically speaking.
Muhammad Ali come off slightly the better of the two, mostly because the musical throwback they’re mining is one that’s nearer and dearer to my own little heart. They sound like the early, early days of grunge, back before it even really had a name to tag onto it, storming through each song like drunk teenagers that don’t give a fuck but are just out to have fun and happen to be talented as all hell when it comes to writing songs. They’re as noisy and messy and unruly as a house party, with a great melodic undercurrent that grins wickedly through the squall. Think the Afghan Whigs circa Up In It, before Greg Dulli’s soul stylings really took hold, or a more melodic Drive Like Jehu, and you’ll get in the neighborhood.
Lead-in track “I Believe” is one of my ultimate favorite tracks of this past year, hands down, with its awesomely catchy, repetitive riff sending things skyward while the drums, bass, and guitar roar all thunder along like a freight train headed off a cliff. I love the barely-controlled chaos of “Cumincide,” too; it’s noisy and raw but still holds together, and that crashing, stomping, Mudhoney-esque chorus of “I’m sorry, Mom / you’ve got it all wrong” is fucking awesome. “Mysterious Skin” is frantic and scraping, while “Livin’ in a Japanese Daydream” is droning, sweet, and harried at the same time.
Then there’s “Here To Go,” which is the prettiest track on here, a solidly forward-moving chunk of drone-rock that brings to mind Poster Children more than anybody else; the guitars buzzsaw the air, jangly and distorted all at once. The band’s final track is back to the crazier stuff, a pell-mell sprawl entitled “Whata We Gonna Do About Ruben Ortiz?” that nails that fuck-it-all feel to the floor and leaves it there. My favorite thing about this band is that while there’re definitely beautifully-crafted melodies lurking beneath the noise, that never stops the band from playing full-tilt, like their collective life depends on it. They’re lo-fi and wide-open not as a selfconscious pose, but just because, well, it’s how they themselves like to hear it.
On the Black Congress “side” of the split-release, the sound is far more menacing and, in spite of the band’s notoriously rowdy live shows, more throttled-down than the Muhammad Ali tracks. The noise is crushed down, the guitars turned into solid, sharp-edged slabs of heavy bassiness, all thick and metallic beside the aggressive, NoMeansNo-esque drums. The Black Congress crew points backwards to the heyday of folks like The Jesus Lizard, Unsane, and Barkmarket, although with less of the off-kilter timing of the latter, and maybe a bit to bands like Frodus. I keep coming back to Four Hundred Years, too, although definitely not that band’s more emo tendencies.
Of course, there’s also the obvious comparison, to Houston forefathers the Fatal Flying Guilloteens — it’s difficult to avoid standing these guys up next to the noisy, dangerous, snarling sound of the Guilloteens, particularly since guitarist Roy Mata did considerable time in the FFGs himself. And hey, I mean no slight by the comparison; in my book, any band that can come close to the Guilloteens’ level of raw, in-your-face energy is well worthy of respect. Taken as its own entity, the Black Congress half of this thing comes off like a bitterly angry facepunch of an EP.
The tracks start off with “The Knights of the Castle’s Court,” which is all crushing guitars and snarling/shrieking, sometimes Blood Brothers-ish vocals from (since departed) initial vocalist Clif, and veers further into the screamo realm (I think, anyway) with “The Trial of Dred Scott” and its murky, spoken-word bits thrown on top. “Bombs Over Buckingham” is the high point here, with the band unleashing more feedback and new singer Bryan Jackson making an appearance — he shrieks less and screams more, spitting venom over the dissonant, stabbing/grinding guitars.
It’s probably partly due to the song being recorded with Jackson at a later date than the rest of the tracks, but the sound itself is miles and miles better on “Bombs,” especially when the “EP” shifts back into an older track, “Floater” that sounds more restrained and metallic. The latter throws out even a bit of melody, somehow, amidst the hammering, sludgy rhythms, before abruptly side-stepping into the Guilloteens-y twang-noise at the start of final track “Crooked Faces.” Then the sludgy guitars re-emerge, over which the feedback just sits and hums, creating a nicely hypnotic drone, with things staggering to a close with tinny electronic drums and a seemingly misdirected, rambling-as-hell bit of voicemail left by Don from Rusted Shut about baseball. (Which, given the circumstances, feels weirdly appropriate, although I couldn’t tell you why.)
Granted, this release is likely to be harder to find than a first-edition, signed Harry Potter book (or something similarly coveted), considering that it was initially a limited-edition cassette that later got re-released under the radar as a CDR with a handmade cover (which is the version I found). If you can make the effort, though, you’ll have one of the best, jaw-droppingest, most addictive things I’ve heard in years right there in your hands.