“Punk’s not dead,” goes the old joke, “It’s only sleeping.” Since the mid-1980s, very little of interest has come from the punk community as it has struggled to deal with its popularity. Teenagers want rebellious music, but they want it to be safe enough that they can use it for those difficult teen years, then move on to lite jazz and album-oriented rock as they age.
As a result, punk became a market, and that market favored brain-dead angry rebellion that did not shake any actual foundations but simply attacked socially-acceptable enemies with a more angry approach. Punk went Leftist in the 1980s, but it is more accurate to say it “went bourgeois,” or searching for targets it could bash without really offending anyone. It is always acceptable to target cops and Hitler, but not so much to mention anything which could make us all doubt our participation in society.
The Cro-Mags were a breath of fresh air in this dying scene. Like other classics of hardcore punk — Amebix, Discharge, The Exploited, Black Flag — they paired a Leftist distrust of the profit motive with a right-wing view that human culpability at the individual level was destroying our society from within. This complex view makes for uneasy coexistence with people who depend on both profit motive and patriotic views of strong defense and economy.
Harley Flanagan, bassist and founding member of the Cro-Mags who identifies Lemmy Kilmister of Motorhead as his greatest influence, drove his band to create a form of punk that was actually rebellious. For many of us, “World Peace” was an early Red Pill, awakening us to the fact that the most cherished values of our society were in fact moronic illusions that were consequently quite popular. People love an excuse to turn off the brain and go with the flow.
Nothing as intense as the Cro-Mags could last, and after a brilliant first album (The Age of Quarrel in 1986) the band struggled with internal instability, putting out a speed metal influenced album (Best Wishes in 1989) and a softer, more contemplative and Hindu-influenced take on punk with Alpha Omega (1992) and Near Death Experience (1993). One version of the band released a followup in 2000, and several compilations have tried to resurrect the early material, most notably the demo/live compilation Before the Quarrel (2000).
Cro-Mags, the most recent solo offering from Flanagan, channels quite a bit of rage at the personality conflict behind the collapse of this once-great band, but also at the collapse of hardcore itself. Interestingly, it merges the speed metal era Cro-Mags with their earlier intensity to come up with a metal-influenced (but not metal-flavored) blast of rage and melancholic isolation.
Songs on this album take a form of simple riff loops with introductions and interludes, often fading out in explosive and sometimes bluesy solos. Musical focus targets a good solid riff and a strong chorus that plays off the tension in that riff, guided by the vocals of Flanagan which vary between angry riot shouts and a type of unnervingly emotional but aggressive singing that has never been done successfully in hardcore before.
Like most return albums, this is a foray that tests different waters. The band experiments with — or mocks — Pantera-style riffing on “I’ll Fuck You Up” and revisits punk and metal riff archetypes with earlier songs. None of these are off-the-shelf however; in each one, the riffing remains distinct enough to be its own entity, a hybrid of Motorhead and punk hardcore and the aggressive speed metal from Slayer, Exodus and Metallica with a voice unique to itself.
The question before the reviewer is not whether Cro-Mags is a decent comeback album or an acceptable substitute for the Cro-Mags, but whether the music stands on its own. Over the course of several listens, I have concluded that it deserves listening on its own merit. These are aggressive but thoughtful songs with a core of dissident outlook not toward politics, but toward humanity and its default impulses as a whole, and in so doing it continues and enhances the best of what hardcore punk had to offer.