Review Summary: Taste of honey, taste of salt.
Black Eyes were fucking weird. They had two drummers, two bassists and vocalists who sounded as though they were purposely trying to mutilate their vocal cords by whining until their heads exploded. They stood in a circle during live shows, drummers and bassists facing each other, with their guitarist in the middle; essentially just sliding his hands around the guitar's neck, creating feedback and playing sharp, angular riffs over the dueling rhythm sections. The lyrics were abstract, yet still pointed and political -- traits they shared with other Dischord labelmates Fugazi and Q and Not U. They broke up after only 3 years of playing together, right before their second album was released. Black Eyes was their debut -- an attempt at capturing the energy of their infamous live shows. It was the band's first endeavor in showing people outside the Washington D.C. punk scene that even into this new century, D.C. still was making insane punk music.
It can be challenging for bands that are known for their energetic live shows to successfully capture that energy on tape. It’s almost impossible to replicate that feeling of being at some basement show in Baltimore on a random Tuesday night in the summer, surrounded by sweaty punk kids trying to grab the mic to scream along, the guitarist throwing his instrument behind his back to generate more feedback, while both drummers beat the absolute shit out of their drums.
Despite how impossible it might seem, this album undoubtedly achieves that goal.
It’s rare to hear something so immediately alluring; the opening moments of feedback bleed into parallel drum beats, dropping out before the dual rhythm sections completely take over. The bass and drums push everything forward, while the guitar is borderline non-existent in any traditional sense. Everything is so loose and free form while remaining urgent in a way that makes you feel like you’re at one of those basements shows, experiencing something completely novel and of that moment.
In contrast to most traditional punk music, rhythm is very much the focal point of this record. Bass takes over as the melodic framework and the guitar provides only a harsh atmosphere, disappearing completely for almost entire songs. Their use of this unique line-up of instruments, along with this textural guitar style, allows for an abrasive but immensely danceable listen. No matter how chaotic the vocals and guitar become, the rhythm forces itself into your brain, never letting you get completely lost. It carries on the tradition of bands like Gang of Four and Liquid Liquid -- bands who were fascinated by the alchemy between punk rock and dance music from the 1970s and 80s. These contrasting elements combine in a way that keep you invested and aligned with the band’s vision.
The vocals are harsh and grating, even for punk and post-hardcore standards. Taking turns shouting and screeching over each other, they intertwine actual vocal melodies with unhinged gibberish -- which, to be honest, can be trying regardless of how comfortable you are with this style of music. That isn’t to say this is a negative or a weak part of the album. It adds to the feeling of spontaneity, inline with the jagged instrumentals and desperate energy that runs through each track. It gives the listener the sense that there were no other options for how they could convey these thoughts and ideas, which were just as unrefined and undefined as the music beneath them.
The lyrics themselves are obtuse yet still remain sharp, filled with an angst that wasn’t uncommon with other D.C punk bands in the early 2000s:
“For a secret kiss they drag you down / For a second sex they drag you down // This kiss is not a poison / This kiss is not a prison / Which position is strictly missionary / All pointing fingers and no rolling hips
I imagine those lyrics being yelled as hard as possible, clipping as they force themselves out of shitty PA speakers -- band members climbing on top of amps while the crowd screams along. The emotional honesty of their words and their abrasive style mirror the music below it, coming together in a special way that merges the spirit of punk with dance music and unrelenting energy. Unlike a lot of bands that get labeled as Dance Punk, their style goes beyond being just a gimmick. Black Eyes was able to create something that was sincerely unique to themselves -- a near perfect distillation of one of those live shows, and a raw and unflinching experience that grabs you and does not let go.