When evil isn't really evil - NME and the comfort found in darkness

by Graham Scala

It starts slow, dissonant guitar squalls emanating forth, an atonal mattress of sound onto which shrieks, howls, feedback and a pitched-down spoken word salad of “evil” imagery so disjointed in its arrangement it almost seems Dadaist. Its title - “Of Hell” - could hardly be more appropriate, and the album it introduces, NME's 1985 release Unholy Death, sustains this infernal ambience through a garbled, messy take on metal from start to finish.

unholydeath.jpeg

Even by the standards of heavy music's extreme fringes in 1985, NME was something of an anachronism. Whereas bands like Possessed and Slaughter were helping push the still-nascent thrash metal of the day into heavier, more sinister realms through previously-unattained speed and militaristic precision, NME opted for something closer to what Venom and Hellhammer had done years earlier. Their interest seemed to lay not in selling out stadiums like Metallica or playing on Beastie Boys albums like Slayer, but rather concocting the noisiest, harshest take on the music imaginable, almost as if traditional ideas of musicianship were somehow too studied, too tame, too far from the primal pounding in which they traded.

Underneath their blackened veneer, there's a punk-ish, almost catchy quality to the music that renders it far more listenable than the majority of the proto-death/thrash/etc bands that have found favor in recent years. But despite that, the music rages and howls, the songs' noisiness almost acting as a fifth member. Small wonder that, of the small fanbase they had during their existence, much was found in the early Scandinavian black metal scene (Euronymous was a vocal proponent of the album), a milieu whose earliest works were possibly NME's only real aesthetic contemporaries.

But just as the output and lives of so many black metal originators were cut short by violence, so was that of NME. Unlike that scene, where the murder and mayhem tended to be more ideologically-driven, NME guitarist Kurt Struebing's musical career (as much as the word “career” could apply to something like this) was cut short by incarceration for murder. Three months after their album was released, due to some combination of mental illness and large quantities of hallucinogens, Struebing became convinced that he and everybody around him were actually robots. In order to prove this to the world, he murdered his adoptive mother with a hatchet and scissors. His mental instability was factored into sentencing and he was given a twelve-year term, of which he served eight years. Upon his 1994 release, he became active in music again, worked as a graphic designer, became a father. Despite this turnaround, in March 2005 he drove his car through several barriers to plunge off of an open drawbridge over the Duwamish Waterway and died on impact.

While the band's back story ensures them a degree of notoriety (and possibly more retroactive attention than they may have gotten had everyone involved been law-abiding and stable), its lurid qualities overshadow the real message that can be drawn. While a certain facet of metal certainly fetishizes anything shocking, Kurt Struebing didn't commit murder for aesthetic purposes or to further his band's agenda, he committed murder because he was deeply troubled. That he could fight that unsettled nature as hard as he did – by all accounts after eight years in a psych ward he emerged a relatively stable, nice guy who organized benefit shows for friends in financial trouble, helped young bands get their footing, and generally tried to pull his life together as best he could – and still succumb speaks to both the depths of his torment and the means that heavy music acted as a sanctuary.

nme86.jpg

It's easy to forget in the post-Nirvana world in which underground culture gained a higher degree of commercial and cultural acceptance than at any point previously (not that Nirvana has much to do with bands like this, though their signing opened to floodgates for major labels to dip their toes into heavier waters, releasing bands like Morbid Angel, Napalm Death, and Entombed), but this type of music was more than just music, it provided a haven for people who didn't fit elsewhere. People who looked different, felt different, had no place else to go, and ultimately people so possessed by their own demons that they could find comfort in little other than an overdriven amplifier.

NME's legacy lies less with their sound or whatever limited influence they might have exerted on various sub-sub-genres of heavy music than it does with the manner in which they acted as a sort of a security blanket for somebody whose instability rode him to the point where he did things his nature might not have otherwise permitted. Despite the over-the-top sinister ambience of the music, it ultimately comes off as something more cathartic than evil, a primal scream into the bleakness of a lonely world that would sideline anyone committing the cardinal sin of standing out. Nobody will likely ever know the true depths of what Kurt Struebing experienced, but in between the notes of “Unholy Death” one can hear somebody truly at home, safe for thirty short minutes from the brutal caprices of a society that doesn't care about those crushed by alienation and suffering until it's too late.

Don Rickles and Bobcat Goldthwait Once Starred in an Episode of “Tales from the Crypt” Involving a Ventriloquist’s Symbiotic Hand-Twin

by Brent Eyestone

“I’m making an asshole casserole, pal, and you’re the main ingredient!”

Okay, that actually kind of looks/reads funny on paper. Maybe that’s how this episode actually got approved and eventually to air on June 5, 1990? Either way, by the time that line is dropped (by Bobcat Goldthwait, oddly using his Police Academy 2-4 “Zed”-voice for no apparent or logical reason), one's 2018-level of television and entertainment-consuming sophistication overrides any sort of enjoyment out of the line as it’s delivered on the front end of the climactic attempt at bringing the episode home.

“The Ventriloquist’s Dummy” was the tenth episode of the second season of Tales from the Crypt. Richard Donner, best known for the Lethal Weapon franchise, Goonies, and the original Superman films, directed it. What many wouldn’t know is that Donner actually had decades upon decades of television directorial experience prior to his film career, including shows that would have suggested that the man was beyond capable of crafting three solid episodes of Tales from the Crypt just before the twilight of his career: six episodes of The Twilight Zone, two episodes of The Fugitive, seven episodes of The Rifleman. If you named a decent show from the 60’s or 70’s, it’s likely that Donner did an episode or two.

And yet… “The Ventriloquist’s Dummy” is just a mess that can’t seem to figure out its tone. In one moment, it seems to want to go in a slapstick direction in a ham-fisted attempt at utilizing Don Rickles and Bobcat Goldthwait’s comedic chops. Then, in transitions akin to yanking a parking brake on lap 184 of the Indy 500, the tone attempts to shift to dark, reclusive, murderous, and sinister within the next line spoken by the same actor. The performances vacillate wildly from the top and nothing ever quite sets in. Never mind the fact that Goldthwait’s character is supposed to be 26 in the episode, all characters are able to freely flee from and/or interfere in murder scenes (with witnesses) without any resistance, the various breakouts of straight up Kabuki moments, and on and on.

 Rickles' character "Mr. Ingels," moments before performing an act he apparently could have easily done many decades earlier in order to make his life easier...

Rickles' character "Mr. Ingels," moments before performing an act he apparently could have easily done many decades earlier in order to make his life easier...

Apologists attempt to cite Rickles and Goldthwait as “not being real actors” in terms of why the episode doesn’t work before celebrating it with the played out, couch stoner copout-speak of it being “the best kind of bad.” I’d counter that Rickles and Goldthwait’s talents (see: the rest of their legendary careers) are not what sinks the episode, but rather poor, absent direction on a script adapted from a flimsy comic book series wherein the network ordered far too many episodes in a minuscule amount of time to allow for anything actually good or of any modicum of quality.

On a meta level, it’s almost like there was a gap between the end of The Twilight Zone and the start of Black Mirror where we, as a society, were just incapable of creating dark, standalone, episodic series’ wherein things go unexpectedly wrong for the protagonists amidst an inevitable, and ultimately decent plot twist. Toward the former, I’d cite the inherent genius, work ethic, and cohesive vision of Rod Serling. Toward the latter, I’d cite services like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon affording creators the leeway to determine how many episodes they can realistically create while keeping the content of a certain level. Through the same lens, the shortage of content being created in the 60’s seemingly allowed for focus and execution on what was being made. The over-abundance of content being created in modern times effectively raises the bar on the creatives and the various networks to create something impactful that will break through the clutter.

Either way, for better or for worse, here’s the half-assery one could apparently get away with in the 90’s:

Why pre-internet beef was the best beef: HICKEY v. VOODOO GLOW SKULLS

by Brent Eyestone

It occurred to me lately that the internet of things has made beef completely boring, predictable, and unimaginative. A couple of years ago, we were booked to play a hardcore festival at the Nile Theatre in Mesa, Arizona. The Friday night lineup was pretty nuts, capped off by CRUDOS and and INFEST. We drew the Saturday card lineup, which was to be headlined by CHOKEHOLD featuring Scott Beiben with a lab coat and.. a trumpet? Needless to say, it was a rather steep climb to make draw-wise versus the previous night's firepower. Adding a layer of difficulty, CHOKEHOLD’s guitar player Jeff Beckman gave a rant about “All Lives Matter” at a VFW show that ended in him punching a trans person who called him a “racist grandpa" just a couple of nights before the gig with us. 

Common sense dictated that the right move in this case would be to apologize to person that was struck and maybe offer at least some clarification on the “All Lives Matter” take via some sort of online statement. This simply didn’t happen and, as we began the several-hour drive to Mesa from San Diego, I became more and more agitated at the stupidity involved and exemplified via Beckman. Messages were coming in from friends saying they weren’t going to go because they didn’t want a dime going to CHOKEHOLD at that point, people were asking us to drop off and not play with them, Black Lives Matter advocates were organizing a protest, and it felt like we were driving into a complete bust because of one guy’s extremely fragile ego. 

Like a typical 2017 middle-aged American, I expressed that frustration via a post on Facebook on my personal account. Naturally, Beckman screen-shot it and posted it on his Instagram, replete with a bunch of low-intellect drivel and misspellings. As these things go now, once we got there, dude wouldn’t even make eye contact or say anything, even after walking into the bar across the street he had holed up in and sitting in plain sight of him. Annoyed by the avoidance, I started the set with some clear, direct words about/for Beckman and closed with “…so lets’s see: aging white male hanging out at a VFW and screaming ‘All Lives Matter’ before punching a smaller person… sounds like a racist grandpa to me!” 

Even with that, nothing happened. No retaliation. No obese meathead in a hockey jersey getting in my face or so much as throwing something at me while we played. It was the most boring and pathetic beef I could ever have tried to manifest. It all felt so… “internet.” 

(As an aside, a few months went by and Beckman turned into a full-blown alt-right, pro-Trump dipshit via the same Instagram account. All the people that “good dude, backed hard” him over the incidents before suddenly tried to pretend that they had my back in real time.)

  The author performing at the Nile Theatre in Mesa, Arizona in 2015

The author performing at the Nile Theatre in Mesa, Arizona in 2015

By stark contrast, twenty years prior and in the same venue, a DIY punk band from San Francisco called HICKEY was in a similar role opening for an Orange County band on Epitaph called VOODOO GLOW SKULLS. Like myself, the singer for HICKEY, Matty Luv (RIP), was simply not feeling the headliner. This was not too long after Epitaph crossed over into the mainstream via the OFFSPRING and had the budgets to market punk on the same level as the majors of the time. There was a tour bus parked in front of the venue, meat trays backstage, and just an overall air to the VOODOO GLOW SKULLS that simply wasn’t present at other punk shows HICKEY was playing at the time. So Matty took to the mic and buried VGS from the stage in a speech decrying the commercialization of punk and the VGS as garbage people.

This wasn’t too uncommon for the time. I remember letting THE PROMISE RING bring their AT&T-sponsored tour to the venue I booked on campus during my time at college. I also remember turning a blind eye when the local punks kept running into the fuse closet and cutting the breakers every time a song was about to hit its peak. Sometimes I just like watching spectacles and shit-shows unfold (if not partially encouraging such things out of pure boredom at shows I'm not feeling). 

Stories vary, but it all boils down to the VOODOO GLOW SKULLS eventually informing the promoter that they would not take the stage or perform until HICKEY was kicked out of the building without pay. HICKEY obliged and, in the process of loading out, intentionally stole the trumpet essential to VOODOO GLOW SKULLS’ ska-punk sound. You can imagine how that night went for VGS, as one does not typically travel with a backup trumpet and the Nile Theatre certainly isn’t the kind of venue that would have a spare trumpet lying around with the backline. 

In and of itself, this was a hilarious move by all accounts. Just thinking of VGS's "trumpet guy" throwing a tantrum in the middle of the desert makes me laugh uncontrollably. 

And yet, the story merely begins here.

  Voodoo Glow Skulls

Voodoo Glow Skulls

In the following months, the members of VOODOO GLOW SKULLS of course got increasingly pissed at HICKEY to the point where they began calling the house where at least some of the HICKEY guys crashed in San Francisco. They left threatening, homophobic, and dare I say Beckman-level commentary on the answering machine. We’re talking drivel like: 

"If you have any money right now, you better invest in a fuckin' bar of soap and wash your ass because... y'know, your ass is gonna have to be clean when I fuckin' stick my dick up your ass, you fuckin' cocksucker, faggot motherfucker.

HICKEY stayed silent and just collected a bank of these answering machine messages.

And then, one day, they hit the recording studio with their gear, the VGS trumpet, and the answering machine tape.

A couple of months later, VOODOO GLOW SKULLS & HICKEY “Split” 7”s started showing up everywhere, all seemingly released as a split release on Probe Records (HICKEY's label) and Epitaph Records (the logo was on the back of the sleeve, after all).

  Back cover of the "Split"

Back cover of the "Split"

What purchasers found on the record itself is nothing short of genius. The A-side kicks off with a legitimate HICKEY song called “Food Stamps and Drink Tickets.” At this point, if the purchaser hadn’t checked out the 28-page zine inside just yet, the record’s authenticity, while unexpected, still seems entirely plausible.

Things go completely off the rails once the HICKEY song draws to a close and the VGS “song” (titled “Me and My Homies”) begins. It turns out the what comes next is, in fact, Matty and his band taking turns trying to play the VGS trumpet over an edited montage of the voicemail messages left by VGS... about 8 minutes of it. 

To top it off, once the record was out and circulating, HICKEY decided to finally "give in" to the threats and demands from VGS and affiliates by agreeing to send the instrument back via registered post.

Eventually, VOODOO GLOW SKULLS got their trumpet back…

…and the trumpet was filled entirely with chocolate pudding.

You can hear the entirety of the VOODOO GLOW SKULLS/HICKEY “Split” here (the "VOODOO GLOW SKULLS" side starts at 1:45):

Asleep in the Wild Kingdom (1990 DIY short film) & Fallout Records/Skateboards

by Brent Eyestone

A little while back, I digitized a VHS tape for my friend Peter Whitley. It was a short DIY film called Asleep in the Wild Kingdom that he helped his buddy Benjamin Beebe with back in 1990. Benjamin lived in Seattle and rode for the Fallout Records/Skateboards team. He attended shows, made zines, and constantly pushed himself to create things. I never knew him, but it was nice getting a peak into his brain via the film.

From the back cover of the hand-made packaging:

'ASLEEP IN THE WILD KINGDOM' is the only film I know that successfully integrates themes of media addiction, alienation, and Tolstoyan redemption with 'The Price is Right,' 7-11, an especially manic junk food scene.

The Man's television is his electronic siamese twin, his perception filtered through the dull red-green-blue of its six inch screen. Even in his dreams, the television is an alter (sic) at which he sacrifices his will.

'ASLEEP IN THE WILD KINGDOM' is the 'Reefer Madness' of television addiction, a provocative parable of... uh, I gotta go. 'Sgt. Bilko's on.

- W. Shellabarger

Digitizing this tape triggered an inspiration to try to dig up my old Fallout Records newsprint catalogs from the late 80's and early 90's... those things kept me tremendously occupied as I tried to learn and understand the punk/hardcore/underground stuff going on at the time. I remember the selection being rather comprehensive and I would spend hours wondering what Pussy Galore or Big Black even sounded like. Here's Robert Crumb and Husker Dü hanging out in front of the store before it ultimately closed shop in 2003.

From the Fringe: February 19, 2017

by Brent Eyestone

We've got a couple of BLACK ARMY JACKET reissues coming up on digital and streaming platforms via Magic Bullet Records on 2/22. The response from music press has been excellent and I've enjoyed seeing the guys get their just dues. Metal Hammer over in the UK ran an interview with Carlos Ramirez and a full stream of 222 here. Noisey did the same with Dave Witte and the 50-song Closed Casket compilation here.

 BLACK ARMY JACKET reunion at Best Friends Day in Richmond, VA: circa 2010

BLACK ARMY JACKET reunion at Best Friends Day in Richmond, VA: circa 2010

Decibel Magazine took notice of the VHS tape digitization project I've taken on this year. All of the tapes tend to be from the 90's and early 00's and the individual sets have been uploaded to YouTube. I've been pulling from Larry Herweg (of PELICAN)'s collection heavily, but am also in the process of digitizing tapes from Charles Maggio (RORSCHACH) and my own collection. It's been a fun and nostalgic process that should go on throughout the rest of the year. If you're sitting on a stash of your own and would like my to include it into the queue, drop me a line for an address to send to. I can currently work with VHS, VHS-C, and Hi8 tapes. Decibel's curated playlist of videos to watch is posted here

POWER TRIP's new album Nightmare Logic is almost upon us via Southern Lord. Riley had sent me an advance some months back and I've been relentlessly playing it ever since. If you don't pick up a physical format of this one, please consider streaming via Spotify, as that platform publicly displays the number of total plays. A high number of plays leads to better tours. Better tours yield more opportunities and stability for one of the most underrated bands currently out there. Check out the premiere of "Executioner's Tax (Swing of the Axe)" via Stereogum here.

Huell Howser: Godfather of Public Television Bedlam

by Brent Eyestone

Somewhere around the advent of video tape and subsequent, affordable video production, there was an alarmingly sharp spike in grown-ass men with no prior experience just completely going for it on the weekends; self-producing their own slice of life and hobby-driven content. I remember my dad and his military buddies starting some sort of custom fishing rod-decorating side business that delved headlong into video production in hopes of standing out at trade shows and perhaps getting picked up by whatever regional sportsman programming opportunities they imagined were available at the time. Like all things baby boomer, much of the small-production video programming of the era was marked by cocksure, surface level narratives and all the compelling grit of a deleted scene from “The Andy Griffith Show.”

And then there was Huell Howser.

Huell Howser (right) with his friend Bill Esparza

A man whose given name was an amalgamation of his parents (Harold and Jewell), Huell was clearly on some other shit when it came to his contemporaries in the baby boomer video production auteur movement of the 1980’s. While his hosting and production style had nearly all the markings and common practices of the times, there was a diabolical waggishness at the core of his creativity. One could even perceive of Huell as an early progenitor (if not outright inspiration) for the chaotic pseudo-documentary-comedy style later brought into mainstream television and film by Sacha Baron Cohen via his Ali G, Borat, and Bruno characters.

Check out this clip of Huell completely pushing every button of a United States border patrol guard in December of 1991:

Invasiveness. Feigned lack of comprehension. Repetition. Straight up SETTING A PICK for a Mexican guy to sprint into the country unchecked. Soft yellow fleece… Huell Howser was all about that life and set the template for Cohen, Tom Green, "Wonder Showzen," "Loiter Squad," and countless others to pick up and run with on much wider platforms years later.

Sadly, Huell passed away on January 13, 2007. Most of his productions were regional in scope (“California’s Gold” being the most notable at 24 seasons on KCET in Los Angeles), so he never got full credit and appreciation for what he was doing at the time. If you check out the all-knowing smile toward the camera at 0:22 in the clip above, I’m not even so sure adulation mattered that much to him. Regardless, roughly thirty years after the home video revolution that gave us Huell Howser, we celebrate his work via another form of revolutionary video distribution: countless clips archived around the web. You can check out out any number of his episodes and outtakes via a simple search for his name.

Long live Huell Howser.

02.13.17 Update

On the music side of things, we are currently completing The End of Everything Good, which will be the band's first 12" release. Essentially, I need to finish the vocals and then it's off to gang vocals, mixing, and mastering.

We are also currently working on the first issue of a print zine. A portion of the copies will be accompanied by a 7" lathe featuring an exclusive song called "I Killed A Werewolf Once (It's On Film)."

Today, I created this website for the band (you're on it). The discography section will keep up with our recorded output and the online zine section will feature articles and updates written by us and our friends. The online zine will focus heavily on articles and features that are impractical for the print zine (for example, pieces that feature a lot of video references) but will also eventually archive most of the print zine content once the physical copies are gone.