Black Flag’s second full-length was released in 1984, after a long period of imposed inactivity following a long drawn out court case. In theory, their return to the studio should’ve heralded a fantastic release, since it’d been almost three years since any new recordings were made. In reality – maybe as a reaction to their legal struggles – ‘My War’ is, at least in part, a wilfully difficult and oppressive album. This is the only release recorded by the three-piece line-up of Rollins, Greg Ginn and Bill Stevenson (who became Black Flag’s full time drummer while his band Descendents were taking a sabbatical), and as such, presents the band at a transitional time (all bass parts are credited to Dale Nixon – a pseudonym for Ginn). Throughout this release, the band sounds unfocused, with more than half the album meandering into the realms of self-indulgence.
The album starts out well enough, as side one is upbeat as well as aggressive. There’s a noticeable shift away from the more basic hardcore punk elements of their previous sound; in places it’s still evident, but as the album progresses, there’s more focus on an intense brand of sludge-rock. This generally presents a more mature Black Flag, and the fusing of these two styles would become the band’s signature sound on their later releases.
Bill Stevenson drives the title cut with some great hi-hat work and angry drumming. Rollins makes his presence very much felt, his lyrics of delivered with pure anger. Ginn’s guitar work, meanwhile, hovers between edgy riffing and angular soloing. At the track’s close, Ginn bashes out two chords, creating tension as Rollins’s already frustrated delivery steps up a gear, spitting his last few lines as if he were trapped inside the music. ‘Can’t Decide’ follows a similar musical path, but is smoother around the edges, with an extended arrangement allowing Ginn to stretch out a little. Delivering a set of lyrics concerning anger and indecision, Rollins sounds like the ultimate hardcore frontman.
Featuring an arrangement which constantly shifts between the punkier sound of ‘Damaged’-era Black Flag and the sound of mid-paced frustration, ‘Beat My Head Against a Wall’ is one of the album’s truly great numbers. During the slow parts, Ginn and Stevenson deliver grinding rock riffs over which Rollins adds to the tension. It’s during the faster parts, though, where Black Flag show their true greatness. Bill Stevenson’s drumming is tight, over which Ginn churns out great riffs and pointed solos in a manner which would pave the way for the basic sound of his post Black Flag jazz-punk instrumental trio, Gone. ‘I Love You’ steps up the pace and is a throwback to the band’s more classic sound. While it never quite matches the punk throttle of the best moments from ‘Damaged’, it shows that despite a slightly maturer sound, Black Flag can still pack a punch. The straight-ahead driving force of ‘Forever Time’ also shows a no-nonsense Black Flag – the energy of some of ‘Damaged’ is very much present, yet the overall tone (particularly during Ginn’s solo) hints more at ugly guitar based rock. Rollins doesn’t always sound at his best here – his shouty vocal delivery giving way to screaming in places, but as with a couple of the earlier tracks, Stevenson is on fire – his hi-hat work and fills showing far more sophistication than most other hardcore/punk drummers of the era.
‘The Swinging Man’ brings the first half to a close with an off-kilter rhythm and some superb drumming from Stevenson (quite possibly the true musical hero with regards to the first half of ‘My War’. Rollins is at his most frenzied, and the end result is more than threatening. It’s a pity that any subtleties in the musical performance are drowned out by Ginn hammering his fretboard in a manner more jarring than ever before. While the track features some decent musical ideas, there’s no restraint in the arrangement, and as such, it’s very difficult listening – unless, of course, you’re able to focus on that brilliant drum part.
The album’s second side can best be described as intense, but not in an exhilarating sense. Taking the grinding approach explored on ‘Damaged I’ (the definitive version of which can be found on Black Flag’s ‘Damaged’ full-length), ‘Nothing Left Inside’ slows things to a crawl. The guitar riff cranks its way through nearly seven minutes, which shifts between Rollins howling in pain and Ginn’s atonal guitar work. ‘Three Nights’ is marginally better thanks to part of Rollins’s delivery carrying a spirit of an angry poetry reading as opposed to a hardcore punk/rock vocal. By the time he screams ‘I’m going to make you feel the way I feel’, he’s gonna make sure you absolutely empathise with his torment, it’s intensity grabbing you and ripping your senses apart. ‘Scream’ takes a similar approach again, but turns the intensity up as far as possible, with screaming moments taking place for a proportion of the vocal. During this number, Ginn’s jazz-punk noodlings become so grating, that by the end of the track you’ve not so much been beaten into submission, as much as left feeling rather queasy, then wondering what the point of it all was.
Individually, each of these last three tracks would have been tolerable on any Black Flag album (but still unlikely to be enjoyable), but here – sequenced next to each other, with a playing time of near twenty minutes – the intensity becomes almost too much for the listening audience. It’s as if after the long period of studio inactivity, Black Flag are so angry they’ve deliberately trying to provoke their audience into feeling the kind of claustrophobia they may have experienced, not being allowed an outlet for new recordings for so long.
If you want a snapshot of the second half of ‘My War’, the war is one of internal anguish; a sound which takes the slowest moments of Black Sabbath and twists them into almost impenetrable ugliness. This approach undoubtedly became influential to some bands which followed, though – most notably those much-loved sludge merchants (the) Melvins. Although this kind of intensity could be admired, it’s incredibly hard to take when delivered over such a long duration; there’s also a feeling that the pounding, slow delivery of these three songs is a waste of drummer Bill Stevenson’s talents.
The release of ‘My War’ marked the beginning of a rush of releases over the next two years. Over the course of another four studio discs, Black Flag honed their brand of distinctive, grinding hard rock and punk (and even offered some spoken word material on side one of ‘Family Man’). The music on those albums comes across much better than demonstrated here – and often far less sludgy (in part that’s due to the arrival of Kira Roessler on bass, whose playing would show far more style than Ginn’s heavy handed approach). While ‘My War’ features a handful of great moments, overall, it isn’t a great Black Flag release. It has plenty aggression, but even during the album’s best moments (except for perhaps ‘Beat My Head…’) it’s at the expense of that spark which makes their other work so captivating.
March 2010/January 2011