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Black Eyes - Cough

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Artist: Black Eyes

Album: Cough

Label: Dischord

Review date: Oct. 18, 2004

How are we to weigh influence? It's so elusive as to almost entirely defy categorization, and yet the legacy left by a band is perhaps its most definite yard stick. A recent Sonic Youth show in London found a riveting, wild band that both asserted their place in history as well as their claim to a stake in the future. Surrounded once again by young groups intent on supplanting them as noisemakers (as they were in the early '90s), the Youth came out on stage with a new sense of purpose and played some truly inspired shit. In the rare position to be influenced by bands that they themselves helped to inspire, Sonic Youth’s influence is not a bright, brief flash, but rather a continually changing set of relationships between other bands and their own sound.

Black Eyes will never be such a band. Having broken up before the release of their second album, Cough, whatever impact they have on the sounds around them is almost entirely out of their hands. It’s possible to chalk up their move to some kind of attention-seeking stunt, but as such a young group (all five members are in their late teens or early twenties), it seems rather that their restless energy has simply taken them somewhere the band can’t follow.

In 2003, Dischord released their self-titled debut, the label’s strongest release in years. A roiling, spitting post-post-punk album, Black Eyes was as notable for its musical invention as it was for its political focus and intensely danceable grooves. Here, finally, was a way out of mere Fugazi-ripping for D.C.’s punk community. Black Eyes were insanely young, ambitious, and nervy enough to take big risks. High expectations followed.

So, only a year later, it’s strange to hear Cough. What could be the follow-up to an extraordinarily promising first album is now the band’s final statement. It is, however, a memorable statement. Ditching their second bass for saxophone, the band have opened up entirely new vistas on this release, conjuring up vast swarms of sound that recall everything from Albert Ayler to Kraftwerk. Much more processed and produced than its predecessor, Cough works a dizzying amount of textures, with loops, sax noise, reverbed beats and dual vocals battling for space. It’s a difficult, heady listen at first, but it demands and repays repeated listens, revealing a punk record that actually suggests new directions for the form.

This music didn’t appear out of a void; Fugazi have been incorporating experimental influences and dub textures in their sound for years. But Black Eyes have evolved further, largely eschewing conventional instrumentation and here, song structure. The impetus behind the move seems to come from a dual sense of frustration and empowerment. The momentum offered by punk’s ideals has been lost; its template has run out of steam. And if punk is going to continue to mean something, then it must evolve, the language has to change. Black Eyes seem acutely aware of this.

From the first track, “Cough Cough/Eternal Life”, it’s clear the band has something in mind other than recycling tracks from Fugazi’s Repeater. In the space of seven minutes, the band shifts through a stunning amount of tones, touching on everything from whispery drones to double-timed drumming with freeform sax solos and apocalyptic screaming. For its sheer audacity, it’s exhilarating, but the band actually make it work through the intensity and confidence of the performance. Lyrically, the focus is more abstract than on their debut, which had a pronounced political edge. A visit to Cough’s liner notes will elicit a slight sense of panic; the band have quoted the Bible in more than one song. However, they don’t appear to have converted. Rather, they seem engaged in an exploration of a wide range of ideas, and the concept of God appears to be one of them (sample lyric: “God’s will is not love but a hammer…”). Most bands would blanche at this kind of approach, fearful of coming off as pretentious. Black Eyes are confident and brave enough to dive into making serious music, to take risks, and as a result many of the songs here come off like a high-wire act, a constant balance that threatens to tip at any moment.

It’s an admittedly difficult listen, but there are flights of inspiration on this record that are simply breathtaking. With so much new ground opened up, it’s difficult to understand why the band has called it quits. There are occasional missteps, but overall it makes for one of the more exciting records to have been released this year, a surprisingly cohesive batch of songs that contain enough ideas for three albums. Black Eyes might never play another show, but it would be surprising if their influence didn’t trickle down through other bands. Records like this are rare.

By Jason Dungan

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