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Black Eyes - Black Eyes

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Artist: Black Eyes

Album: Black Eyes

Label: Dischord

Review date: Nov. 20, 2003

It is perhaps singularly unique that Fugazi has cast such a large shadow over Washington, D.C.’s music scene. When has another band maintained such a profound and lasting influence over a city’s various strands of musical output? Doubtless this has a great deal to do with the band’s Dischord label, and their continued involvement with the D.C. scene; indeed, the label has played an enormous role not only in supporting bands but in inspiring new ones to form. The label’s exclusively local focus must make things exciting for local bands, but daunting as well: imagine having Ian MacKaye come to your show and thinking you suck.

Everyone knows that small labels mean more money for artists, less pressure, and more creative freedom. But the specifics of Dischord’s focus, including its local base, its political leanings, and the fact that it’s band-run make it perhaps the most vital label in America today. Dischord supports an entire musical community, and as such it provides a unique inspiration to the bands in its orbit. Putting out records is not a far-away dream but a manageable reality, assuming that you have the goods. The recent output of Dischord suggests that quite a few D.C. bands have them, most notably Q And Not U and Black Eyes, two bright young bands that have channeled and absorbed lessons learned from Fugazi into their own unique musical visions.

While Q And Not U initially borrowed more heavily from Fugazi’s start-stop dynamics and howling guitars, the band has now embraced a more fractured, beat-heavy sound that relies on a larger assortment of instruments and the interplay between its two vocalists. Black Eyes have taken this approach even further, making a scorching punk-rock record that seems to feature almost zero guitar. Black Eyes do indeed have a six-string (and two basses), but what sticks is the spastic, explosive rhythmicality of the record, and the howling, almost unbearably intense vocals, provided by each of the band’s five members, who go by first names only: Dan, Daniel, Hugh, Jacob, and Mike. “Someone Has His Fingers Broken” begins with abstract guitar noodling and a pounding, furious beat. Above the noise and an insistent bass pulse, someone (Dan?) lists off threats that sound like a snapshot of Bush’s America: “Someone will kill you for a secret kiss / Someone will kill you for second-guessing…For a secret, yeah, they drag you down…Layed out on the concrete, I saw him bleeding / I heard his mother screaming.”

It’s a mind-blowing opener, all the more startling because you can’t decide whether to write a letter to your congressman or start dancing. It’s this element, the infectious, rhythmic quality of the record, that makes it so effective. We might think that the world is on fire right now, but Black Eyes make you feel it – a primal sense of urgency that things are very wrong and that apathy simply will not do.

While New York is always ready to champion hedonism, there has always been something a little slight about the apolitical nature of the city’s current crop of “dance-punk” bands, in part because they leave out a major chunk of their own influence. Bands like PiL and Gang of Four were interested in dance music because of its power and its implicit sense of community, not simply because it was “fun”. So while the technical adeptness and restless energy of The Rapture is exciting, it’s far more exciting to see a band like Black Eyes trying to take that energy and do something with it.

Songs like “Pack of Wolves” and “Speaking In Tongues” possess a manic, insane energy, a visceral explosion of immediacy. The former track is defined by its angular, pounding rhythms, the latter stands out because the vocalists’ shouts become intertwined to the point of being completely indecipherable. Politics, in every sense, are all over the record, with the band pleading, accusing, and questioning in equal measure.

Rather than simply point fingers or expound leaden diatribes, Black Eyes are keen to foster an air of merciless doubt. Even punk-rock bands are suspect. On “Letter To Raoul Peck”, the singers shout: “Disconnected screaming / I was only screaming / Stupid-sounding screaming / With my voice we leave out everything…The city’s burning, burning / While we’re screaming.” How can music or a rock band be enough right now? How are we to surmount the apathy and hopelessness that our current political and social situations leave us mired in? A band isn’t enough by itself, but music is a means by which things can be questioned, a way to initiate change. It’s an ambiguity that the band doesn’t try to resolve, nor should it, but it gives the album a real sense of weight, the feeling that band is at least trying to come to terms with some rather large issues.

This kind of restless questioning is what gives the record much of its power, as Black Eyes wisely steer clear of political dogma or easy answers. However, it’s also important not to overemphasize politics, as the record is just as much about its own strange sounds and rhythms. The band possesses a real gift for wrong-sounding percussion and song structures – your ear both recoils and becomes fixated on the band’s incessant weirdness. Black Eyes have learned from both early and late-period Fugazi, it seems, and they aren’t afraid to drop in a quiet, pulsing bass line or an eerie cloud of feedback. Hardcore is no longer defined by guitars, and it’s much the better for it.

Black Eyes are also smart enough not to overuse their vocal and instrumental tics, confident enough to let the songs survive on a less-is-more approach. This debut album is the sound of five young men who have already discovered a powerful voice and are ambitious enough, in the musical sense, to try to do something with it. It’s a stunning beginning for a band, and if they actually get better their next record should be a monster.

Engaging politics musically is by no means a new idea, but Black Eyes aren’t merely attempting to inject some slogans into their lyrics. They are, instead, trying to redefine how we think of politics and what that can mean in the context of a band. It could mean simply dancing, it could mean writing a letter to your congressman, or it could mean starting your own band. Like Black Eyes’ lyrics, which sometimes mean everything and sometimes become an indecipherable element of the percussion, the music here is meant as a beginning, as a question, not as an answer or an end. Great art simply starts something. The rest is up to us.

By Jason Dungan

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