American Nightmares: On The Blood Brothers' Return

Cult Seattle punks are back. Go see them…
The Blood Brothers

Every summer festival schedule serves as a comeback season, of sorts. Earlier this year, Slowdive reformed. People were into that. Plenty of festival-goers will be into that when the band plays Latitude, at the Pitchfork Festival in Chicago, Way Out West in Sweden (which, whoop, this sucker will be at). I was into that – ‘Souvlaki’ is a classic. It was a Big Deal. But it was confirmation of a quite different reunion, announced in May, which got me properly pants-wettingly psyched. That of The Blood Brothers. Oh holy Jesus shitthebed, yes.

Y’see, people go through changes, and music connections flit from reverence to irrelevance. Different times in a person’s life come with singular soundtracks, and for a period it was this five-piece from Seattle – roaring, screaming, banshee-punk freaks who generated maximum thrills from creep-out riffs and cunningly shrouded pop hooks as big as a Michael Bay post-production budget – who accompanied me on the rollercoaster of my 20s. A ride that, quite honestly, was pretty tame compared to most: a move to London, relatively solid employment, getting some cats, a wonderful wedding (still the best one I’ve been to, if I’m allowed to be so bold). Hell, I needed the turbulence from somewhere.

- - -

‘Ambulance vs Ambulance’, from ‘…Burn, Piano Island, Burn’

- - -

Four albums in particular provided these flashes of cantankerous malevolence, albeit of a kind tempered by studied craft and a tremendous work ethic. All came with The Blood Brothers’ name branded on their sleeves: ‘March On Electric Children’ (2002), ‘…Burn, Piano Island, Burn’ (2003), ‘Crimes’ (2004) and ‘Young Machetes’ (2006). There was a fifth set too, a debut 21-minute firecracker titled ‘This Adultery Is Ripe’, but I never got into it so deeply. I met the makers of these albums several times – here’s a (Drowned In Sound) ReDiScover piece on the band from 2006 which refers to said interviews. They were great guys in a great band, and I didn’t want them to stop being great.

Of course, they did. The split came in 2007, after 10 years as a band – “If something is no longer bringing you joy, it’s time to make a change,” said co-vocalist Jordan Blilie in a 2008 interview with his hometown’s The Stranger. Heartbroken, a little. But, as is so often the case with these creative-difference disbandments, an overdue epilogue has offered cause for celebration. The Blood Brothers have shows booked for 2014, starting in late August.

At the moment, there’s just three confirmed on their website, all in the US. I’m far from alone in hoping, wishing, praying that they decide to bring their compulsive, convulsive live cacophony to the UK, though. I wasn’t the only one who sighed deeply, trying to find substance to replace what was lost, stolen, when the band broke up. We are many. At least, that’s what I remember from the shows, back when, though honestly, there was a lot of sweat in my eyes.

There was ULU, in London, summer of 2007. The night ended with a fire alarm sounding not only time at the bar, time to go the hell home, but also the end of The Blood Brothers as we knew them. The band was supporting ‘Young Machetes’, their highest-charting album stateside (it’d gone top 100, no mean feat for a band of such polarising appeal and mainstream-swerving menace), which’d been produced (brilliantly) by Fugazi’s Guy Picciotto. Pitchfork was indifferent, 6.2 in place of a deserved-more score, but elsewhere people went nuts for it. Five Ks in Kerrang!, a 9/10 from me. Live, its songs sounded incredible. So much so that nobody knew, at ULU, that they were witnessing the end unravel.

- - -

‘Set Fire To The Face On Fire’, from ‘Young Machetes’ (live on The Henry Rollins Show)

- - -

The album came out in the UK on Wichita Recordings, home to acts including The Cribs, Bloc Party, Bright Eyes and Simian Mobile Disco. Label co-founder Mark Bowen was at ULU: “I had no idea, that night, that the band would soon call it quits. I was gutted that was my final show with them.”

Bowen wasn’t quite a long-term fan of the band, but was well aware of the buzz surrounding them by the time he caught them in the flesh at 2005’s Coachella. “I’d loved ‘Crimes’,” he says, “and heard a lot about their amazing live show, but I didn’t see them until Coachella. They absolutely blew my mind. This incredible, theatrical, almost prog-rock band… they were my favourite discovery of the weekend.”

When the opportunity to release ‘Young Machetes’ arose, Bowen snapped at the chance eagerly. “Cue a summer of our world screaming, ‘Fire! Fire! Fire!’,” he recalls, referencing the album’s opening track ‘Set Fire To The Face On Fire’. Another big fan on British shores is/was the writer and journalist Stevie Chick, who I almost certainly bumped into at a Blood Brothers show or two.

“I got on board with ‘March On Electric Children’,” Chick tells me, “and loved its crazy, helter-skelter assault – the guitars thin and veiny like claws, the rhythms shifting with every bar or turning tempo on a dime, and those voices, Jordan and Johnny (Whitney), two flavours of indignant sneer that sat so well together. Johnny had a little more swagger going on, while Jordan’s scream was just a tad more blood-curdling.

“I dug the chaos of it all, the proggy punk-rock mess of it all, the rutty riffs they'd plough into. I particularly loved the final song, ‘American Vultures’, that piano like some vaudevillian barroom touch, making the satire within their snarl explicit. It announced ambition beyond the moshpit, a sense of sophistication, a breadth of vision.”

Couldn’t have put it better myself (pro-tip: when you need great music summarised in a paragraph, ask a great writer to help you out). It was the band’s next album though, ‘…Burn, Piano Island, Burn’, that really impressed. It broke beyond the strictly rock press: Pitchfork slapped a 9.1 on it, Stylus a perfect score, and DiS opened its own 9/10 review with: “(This album) deserves to be flushed into every corner of our nation’s pop sensibility. Now.” It marked the moment where the assault met accessibility with a quite unexpected potency.

“It’s their masterpiece, in my opinion,” says Chick. “Not that their songwriting tailed off on the following albums, not that they got stagnant – indeed, they veered far off ‘…Piano Island’’s blueprint in the albums that followed, often delivering abundant rewards in the process. But (producer) Ross Robinson – with this album, along with At The Drive-In’s ‘Relationship Of Command’ – entirely redeems his involvement with the grim and stupid spectre of nu metal, which The Blood Brothers stood in righteous relief against.

“Robinson's work here is excellent. He fashioned a focus to their attack which, in tandem with their maturing songwriting, took all that wild flailing on ‘…Electric Children’ and made sense of it all. The twists, tempo-changes and turns from punk terror to acidic pop were all intact, but the songs of ‘…Burn, Piano Island, Burn’ arranged their tense-ups and breakdowns and disorientating skronks with a masterful ear, while Robinson gave new muscle to the sinewy guitars, a tungsten growl to the bass, and gave their neck-snap explosions the dynamism they deserved.”

Nutshell: it was really good. And, in many respects, they got better. ‘Crimes’ is a set I undersold on initial impressions – I recall reviewing it to the level of 7/10 for Rock Sound, before rising that mark to a 9 when revisiting the record for DiS. More melodic than what preceded it, albeit without compromising the band’s inherent energies, ‘Crimes’ could be seen as an attempt at achieving a breakthrough proper. It emerged with the weight of V2 behind it, produced by John Goodmanson, and featured lyrical content critiquing America’s Bush administration. What wasn’t to like?

- - -

‘Love Rhymes With Hideous Car Wreck’, from ‘Crimes’

- - -

There’s no doubt in my mind, though, that ‘Young Machetes’ was the realisation of all of this band’s potential, a distillation of their strengths expunging most suggestions of weakness. Punkish post-hardcore had become a divinely twisted pop, entirely on The Blood Brothers’ terms. They’d shape-shifted time and again – but as soon as something like crystallisation was approaching, they shattered. Returning to Blilie’s conversation with The Stranger, he said: “I couldn’t imagine trying to work on another record with that band… People grow into different individuals and have different ideas of what they want to be doing with music.”

And so, members set about exploring new directions. (Deep breath, people…) Blilie has featured as frontman of Past Lives – a band also including Blood Brothers bassist Morgan Henderson and drummer Mark Gajadhar, alongside former BBs guitarist Devin Welch – while Whitney and guitarist Cody Votolato formed the Matador-signed Jaguar Love with Pretty Girls Make Graves musician Jason Clark. Henderson now plays in Fleet Foxes and The Cave Singers, and Whitney and Gajadhar have a project called Neon Blonde, exploring more beats-based material. Votolato and Blilie were part of Head Wound City’s line-up – a noisy collective also including Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Nick Zinner and Justin Pearson of The Locust. Votolato and Gajadhar played on ‘Birth, School, Work, Death’, the 2011 debut album by Texan (rock-)rapper Hyro Da Hero.

Yeah, they got around a bit, basically. Being busy has rarely seemed a problem for members of The Blood Brothers. So why come back in 2014?

Noisey caught up with Blilie after the band’s comeback. He tells the site that it was F*ck Yeah Fest that played the most significant part – and it’s that Los Angeles festival that The Blood Brothers will play on Sunday, August 24th. “Seeing The Locust last year at FYF made me feel 17 again,” says the singer, who also stands in for Mick Jagger (!) in a Seattle Stones ‘tribute’ act (seriously). “I know people are cynical, and everyone is reaching reunion fatigue. But if any show validated reunions, it’s Pulp. They walked that fine line of being tongue in cheek, and not taking it too seriously, but still respecting people’s expectations.”

“One show at a time,” are Blilie’s words. Just three at the moment. Maybe more to come. Of course, some in the UK would be amazing. Please? Surely there are enough people here, willing to pay good money to see these now-30-something dudes absolutely kill it one more time. Bowen isn’t taking the chance: “It makes sense that it should be my favourite festival, FYF, that has brought them back together, and I’m going to be front-row, late August, when their madness returns.”

For Chick, and myself, it’s more likely that we’re going to have to rely on a domestic announcement to get our fill. And it’s unlikely their appeal will have waned any amongst our fellow fans. “They were a massive breath of fresh air for me, at the time,” remembers Chick, “their dervish fury powered by lyrics that painted modern society with a severe, judgemental and nightmarish eye, like some Hieronymus Bosch landscape of exploitation, selfishness, greed and murder that didn't revel in the luridness, but railed against it, screaming amid the ashes instead of dancing among them.”

He concludes: “In the face of an imperfect world, The Blood Brothers’ righteous desperation was electrifying.” So let us keep whatever we can crossed that their march carries across the Atlantic, and we can all burn together in the company of such combustive entertainment.

Please?

- - -

‘Lazer Life’, ‘from ‘Young Machetes’

- - -

The Blood Brothers online

Buy Clash Magazine
Get Clash on your mobile, for free: iPhone / Android

Have your say

Sign in or Register to leave comments
-