Classic Album Review


The U-Men- Step on a Bug

Best Tracks: 2 X 4, Willie Dong Hurts Dogs, Solid Action

To call the U-Men a precursor to the Seattle Grunge scene is extremely tempting, but ultimately sloppy.  Admittedly they had all the check marks: a hardcore punk foundation that had been warped into its own separate entity, a charismatic front man in John Bigley and a disgustingly mysterious otherness. This otherness, however, was so pronounced that to categorize the U-Men as “grunge” or “proto-grunge” would be an offense to the band and all of its fever-addled, swamp-o’-billy greatness.  Their sole full-length album, Step on a Bug, is half a half hour trip of humid lunacy; a moment where fuzz-drenched guitars and rockabilly drum patterns build a surprisingly stable arena for Bigley to writhe as if his skin were melting off right there in the studio. It should be required listening for, well, everyone.

Conceived in 1981 Seattle adjacent to the “second wave” of west-coast punk which was becoming harder, more subversive, and (somehow) even less commercial than its mid-70s parent, the U-Men stood among out even among the most libertine acts, like the Germs, in their ultimately holistic embodiment of chaos.  They didn’t appear so much as rebels as they did an unstoppable entity which existed completely separate from reality. Their sound wasn’t just speed for the sake of aggression; it was a bastard of western swing and grimy, overdriven guitar; it was the sonic equivalent of a bloated frog with an oversized cowboy hat doing an Elvis impression after inhaling too many cursed swamp vapors. They called it “swamp-o’-billy”.

The U-Men were Seattle’s flagship band from the early to mid-1980s.  That’s right, less than a decade before the Northwest became an American Mecca for dirty melodrama, before even legitimate precursors like Mother Love Bone or Green River, its underground was ruled by a gothic hillbilly quartet whose lack of explicit metal influences were replaced by a drunken swing.  And their popularity, at least before Kurt Cobainification, was strictly limited to Seattle simply because of their complete inability to tour. Unsurprisingly, any U-Man effort to take on the globe was hampered by a combination of drugs, mischief, and destruction which followed the band’s condensed chaotic energy.  So Seattle was the only place to be.

Again, Step on a Bug’s greatness lies in its throbbing, pronounced otherness.  Take, for instance, its opening track “Whistlin’ Pete”. Pete begins with an overdriven, mid-heavy guitar blast, and is followed up by a moan. Oh yes, a moan.  A moan eases into a growl by the next blast. The drums kick in: Bigley’s cue to slip comfortably into an unhinged persona who dry heaves out poisonous gravel.   His (or hiss) vocals lurch while his rhythm section doubles his vocal line, proving that his performance isn’t meandering by adding a distorted structure to the song’s belching path.  The U-Men sound as if they are panicking through their caricature of Americana romanticism. But Whilstin’ Pete is only an introduction to the rest of the album, and by the time its growls are fully audible the listener has likely surrendered to a feverish catharsis.  The remainder of the album offers episodes of the same ridiculous frenzy in Juice Party or Flea Circus. Unflinching, the Brothers U only begin to slow things down in Papa Doesn’t Love His Children, a mocking ballad which acts as another reminder of the bands’ classic country blues, uh, roots.  Solid Action is crazy.

The U-Men’s, and Step on a Bug’s, popularity has unfortunately been relegated to a study of the conditions which made bands like Nirvana, Soundgarden, and Pearl Jam possible.  It’s not a malicious connection, they could fill the hypothetical gap between hardcore punk and the Seattle sound, but it is an oversimplified one. To afford the U-Men a proper appreciation, they have to be treated as a force of themselves. Their unbridled madness is unlike anything I’ve ever listened to.  There is no discernable goal within it: no violent rebellion and no camp for the sake of theatrics. The U-Men seemed to have been sick and depraved before they recorded their first song.

Cliff Jenkins

Classic Album Review

All Hail The New Flesh

There are many great metal albums that were released in the decade known as the 1990s. However when you ask many metal heads to name some of their favorite albums, and what they think some of the best ones are, you generally hear the same albums listed. Generally the albums mentioned are Death’s Human, Sepultura’s Arise, Carcass’ Heartwork, Megadeth’s Rust In Peace, Cannibal Corpse’s Tomb of the Mutilated, Slayer’s South of Heaven, Blind Guardian’s Nightfall In Middle-Earth, Iced Earth’s Burnt Offerings and many many more. Now don’t get me wrong, these are all great albums and I enjoy them every time I listen to them. However everyone I talk to about this always seems to leave out one album, and not even mention it. Or if I do mention it, will say that they have not listened to it. This album is Strapping Young Lad’s City.

This is one hell of an album, and quite possibly one of the best albums of the 90s. Every song on this album flows perfectly, and Devin’s rage is controlled, but at the same time wild and untamed. From the opening bells of “Velvet Kevorkian”, we are set up to some of the most intense 40 minutes I have ever listened to. As soon as Devin kicks in screaming “HEY! I WANT TO BE WHERE THE ACTION IS!!”, we get a picture of the rage that Devin has pent up and he wants to release on us. With his tirade on how fucked up we are, and how much our society is pissing him off, we then get sucked into the vortex of “All Hail The New Flesh” with swirling guitars falling out as he wails into our ears with a piercing scream before telling us to go fuck ourselves.  With blistering guitars and drums just pelting us sonically we are then thrown to the ground to be kicked in the stomach by “Oh My Fucking God”.

This song adds to the one-two punch that goes with the song before it.  With the sound byte saying how they can’t fail, the drums suddenly kick in with a brutal solo, until Devin screams and his wall of sound comes in and blows us away with his guitars.  A nonsensical tirade of words that are nigh untelligable until he gets to the chorus screaming “OH MY FUCKING GOD!!” Until it suddenly cuts off and leaves us with “Detox” and quite possibly the catchiest song on the album. This song showcases perfectly all of Devin’s abilities. From his brutality to his ability to express his pain while still being heavy as hell. A catchy riff, and catchy lyrics make this a catchily brutal song.

As soon as the song quietly goes away, “Home Nucleonics” blows you away with a wail and blistering guitar wall. Belting to us about how we have failed as a society. With stop and go riffs, the song feels like it is picking you up and slamming you on the ground with its sonic assault. Constantly beating you until it dissolves into all the members of the bands screaming madly, fading into to “AAA” which is a catchy song about Devin’s various addictions, slowly building up intensity until it hits you square in the face with its chorus screaming “NO ONE! NO ONE FUCKS WITH ME!!”. “Underneath The Waves” then blasts us in the face with double bass pedals and Devin taunting us with his voice repeating “on and on”. Until kicking in with the signature wall of sound and Devin singing about how he’s tired of the shit of world, making this not only intense sonically, but also vocally. After this song, the album begins to slow down it’s sonic intensity for a more brooding intensity.

“Room 429” is a cover of a Cop Shoot Cop song. It’s very dark and very mid tempo, but it still has all the intensity of the earlier tracks.  How dark and empty the city is, how we go through the motions of life. “Spirituality” is the final track of the album, with layers and layers of guitars stacked upon each other. This sheer heaviness of the stacked guitar tracks just seem to pile up on you, putting all the wait of city on you, making you feel overwhelmed. Which is the purpose of this album, to make you feel insignificant and tiny. That you are really nothing in this world, an insignificant speck in the grand scheme of things.

All these songs are catchy and instantly memorable. As soon as you hear one of these songs, you will be humming along with it, singing along with it, or just going buck wild. It is a classic album, and it should be remembered as one of the best albums of the 90s, if not one of the best metal albums ever made.