An eclectic punk-rock style was pioneered in San Diego by Pitchfork, the band of guitarist John Reis and vocalist Rick Farr, who recorded Eucalyptus (1990) and went on to form Drive Like Jehu, one of the most innovative punk bands in the world. They first turned angst into a shimmering cascade of emotions on Drive Like Jehu (1991), and then proceeded to compose the soundtrack of a nervous breakdown on Yank Crime (1994), one of the most catastrophic and excoriating albums of the time, whose vocabulary was so complex and effective that guitar-based punk songs began to sound like hyper-dramatic mini-symphonies.
(Translated from my original Italian text by Nicholas Green)
During the 1980s the San Diego hardcore scene was kept alive by two groups: Pitchfork - who put out Eucalyptus (Nemesis, 1990 - Swami, 2003) - and Night Soil Man. Their merger in 1990 gave rise to Drive Like Jehu, with singer Rick Farr and guitarist John Reis from the former, and the rhythm section from the latter. Influenced primarily by Black Flag, Minutemen, and Fugazi, Jehu came to embody the state of the art of intellectual hardcore in the 1990s.
The tracks on their early single Bullet Train To Vegas b/w Hand Over First (Merge)
do not do justice to the group. On their debut album Drive Like Jehu
(Headhunter, 1991) other songs in that same ultra-anguished style make a good showing (Caress and especially Atom Jack and Good Luck In Jail),
but the highlight is the nearly ten-minute O Pencil Sharp, an explosive powerhouse of excruciating tension that follows a tortuous dynamic;
the seven-minute If It Kills You, which Farr's continued wailing and Mark Trombino's relentless drumming turn into a kind of raga; and finally Turn It Off, a less devious but even more atrocious sonic agony.
These are tracks that ring out effect after effect, all without resorting to any means unavailable to a power trio. The combined effect of all these effects is devastating, as in Led Zeppelin's best blues exhibitions, but with the harshness and intensity of hardcore, and at times an awareness of Sonic Youth's experiments (especially in Reis' technique).
With Yank Crime (Interscope, 1994), they are destined to be one of the greatest punk acts still around, with a dense, fast and solid sound, centered around extreme emotions, a Fugazi-like "emocore" catapulted into even deeper circles of hell. Golden Brown and New Math
are not only thunderous and intense, they are also spectacular and captivating, thanks in large part to John Reis' guitar.
However, the seven-minute-plus tracks are their forte, in which, while retaining the same ardor and wild attitude as before, the group manages to compose hyper-dramatic mini-symphonies (Super Unison), worthy of Black Flag at their most vehement and visceral. Defining their style is the way the guitars trudge along, sparring and urging each other on, showing off a style as eclectic as it is anarchic. The higher the temperature rises (up to the critical value of Here Come The Rome Plows), the less space they have and the more they are forced to collide with one another. Their musical vocabulary, which ranges from the most exhilarating hard rock to the most strident dissonance, is immense. This results in Luau - a catastrophic blues of rare rawness which virtually recasts the genre under the banner of hardcore (or the end of hardcore) by lapping up tones of epic scope in the instrumental coda - and Sinews, a nervous breakdown which borrows the insights of Slint and Bitch Magnet for an extremely violent excursus on repressed urges.
What is most striking about the group is its frenetic, uncontrollable pace, which is unrelenting without falling back on the stale beats of so much hardcore. Jehu's music absorbs ten years of punk rock experimentation, from Black Flag to Fugazi, stripping itself of any exhibitionism or over-intellectualism, and hinting at the future of rock and roll.
Guitarist John Reis would enjoy far more success with Rocket From The Crypt.
(Original new reviews by Piero Scaruffi)
Drive Like Jehu's saga was continued, years later, by the Hot Snakes, the band
formed by guitarist John Reis and vocalist Rick Fork.
After recruiting drummer Jason Kourkounis (of Delta 72),
the duo released Automatic Midnight (Swam, 2000),
a mellow, garage-psychedelic album that only occasionally evoked the punk-rock of their old band.
If Credit's What Matters I'll Take Credit sounds like Creedence
Clearwater Revival, whereas
Automatic Midnight and Light Up The Stars are lightnign-speed
The energy of Hot Snakes' first album is partly defused on
Suicide Invoice (Swami, 2002),
which harks straight back to Drive Like Jehu's restrained angst.
In fact, I Hate the Kids and Suicide Invoice sound like
played by a different band, one that has more technical skills
and less vulnerable psyches than the former Hot Snakes.
Bye Nancy Boy, Why Does It Hurt and Paid in Cigarettes
raise the level of frenzy, but they still remain way below the demented
level of the first Hot Snakes album.
John Reis and Rick Froberg recruited
Black Heart Procession's drummer Mario Rubalcaba and
bassist Gar Wood for Hot Snakes' Audit In Progress (Swami, 2004).
Despite lethal bullets such as
Braintrust, Hi-Lites and
Plenty for All, the album is less poignant than the previous
ones. Reis' superhuman drive is somewhat tempered by mature musicians
who may or may not be the best catalysts for his chemical reaction.
Hot Snakes' Thunder Down Under (Swami, 2006) documents a live show.
Hot Snakes' drummer Mario Rubalcaba, bassist Mike Eginton and
guitarist Isaiah Mitchell formed Earthless, a power-trio devoted to
progressive guitar-heavy stoner-rock jams, two per album.
Sonic Prayer (Gravity, 2005), recorded live in the studio, features
Flower Travelin' Man and Lost In The Cold Sun.
The former is Mitchell's show: over a steady pattern of
hypnotic drumbeat and majestic bass lines, Mitchell's guitar unfurls his
frenzied raga-like verbosity out of which he hatches rudimentary garage riffs
with acrobatic dexterity.
The latter is a far more restrained affair, a burning blues dirge with
fluorescent psychedelic overtones.
Their second album, Rhythms From A Cosmic Sky (Tee Pee, 2007), contains
the five-movement Godspeed, a slightly more orthodox
Black Sabbath-inspired and Hendrix-inspired artifact although the guitar inventions
at breathless speed of the second half are still mindblowing,
and (confusingly) Sonic Prayer, whose rhythm shifts from mechanical midtempo to full-fledged gallop to support a range of guitar runs.
Sonic Prayer Jam (Gravity, 2012) documents a live 2004 performance.
Earthless also included the 23-minute improvisation
Living in the Cosmic Nod to the split album
Earthless / Premonition 13 / Radio Moscow (2012).
Earthless' virtuoso guitarist Isaiah Mitchell formed Golden Void with
keyboardist Camilla Saufly-Mitchell and released
Golden Void (Thrill Jockey, 2012). Its tunes recall
California's psychedelic sound of the late 1960s, bands like
Iron Butterfly and
Spirit, or, at their best,
the Cream (notably Jack Bruce's bass riffs and vocal delivery), as in Shady Grove.
Occasionally, they sound like the lighter cousins of Black Sabbath (Virtue and Art of Invading).
Best is the pounding space Deep Purple-ian rock'n'roll The Curve with a soulful guitar solo a` la Jimi Hendrix.
Nothing original, but diligently executed.
The Hot Snakes split but three of them continued as
the Night Marchers with John Reis as vocalist on
See You In Magic (Vagrant, 2008).
In 2019 Isaiah Mitchell joined the Black Crowes.
Rick Froberg and Edsel's guitarist Sohrab Habibion
formed Obits that specialized in mature but old-fashioned roots-rock elegies on
I Blame You (Sub Pop, 2009) and
Moody Standard And Poor (Sub Pop, 2011).
Earthless returned with
From the Ages (2013), that contains bloated and cliched mega-jams like Violence of the Red Sea (14:44) and
From the Ages (30:55),
the 15-minute blues improvisation Acid Crusher on the split album Earthless/ Harsh Toke (2016),
Black Heaven (2018), a humbler effort on which Mitchell also sang,
a failed attempt at playing songs in the traditional verse-chorus-verse format,
Night Parade of One Hundred Demons (2022), which contains more than one hour of psych-jazz jamming divided in two gargantuan pieces,
the 41-minute Night Parade of One Hundred Demons
and the 20-minute Death to the Red Sun.
They are all displays of great synergy and amazing instrumental dexterity (especially the guitarist), and also of seamlessly wandering from one leitmotif to the next.
The sinister, vicious Death to the Red Sun in particular showcases the best that these veterans can offer.