What with iTunes having dragged music consumption a century backward and crowning once more the single as king, the fate of the album has become somewhat ambiguous. On the one hand we’ve been dealt a slew of artists whose merits cannot withstand the force of the universe for more than three minutes at a time. Even with a gun to my head I can’t tell you what the name of Ke$ha’s album is, let alone if she has one in the first place. On the other hand, there are those artists who thrive best with a longer, continuous playtime. This, unsurprisingly, is mostly found in rock bands, which have been trudging caveman-like on the road to progress. If ever there was a time to justify the album, whether in carbon form or digital form, it is now. If one needs a blueprint, though, there are a few out there: Mclusky’s Mclusky Do Dallas, Japandroids’ Post-Nothing, Hammerhead’s Ethereal Killer and, most recently, Sickness and Health, the newest album from Los Angeles outfit 400 Blows.
Sickness and Health, like much of the band’s output, is about as primal as it gets. Made up of only vocals, drums and a guitar, the album teems with loudness, but a kind of uniform loudness that jolts from one song to the next in quick succession, almost as if it was eagerly on the march to crush some very tiny skulls in a foreign land. Skot Alexander remains ever the accomplished yeller, channeling something in between west coast hardcore and a speed-fueled burlesque house MC. He is the paragon of meanness and surliness. He’s backed up ably by a new lineup with Circle Jerks drummer Kevin Fitzgerald and Big Business guitarist Scott Martin. The drums are slayed with such force as to give the listener muscle fatigue. The guitar never diverts too far from the dynamic of simmering fuzz to barebones noise punk buzz, but it comes at the listener like an onslaught of fist-sized hale, and burns through the songs like a summer forest fire.
Let it be known though that the uniformity of the album, the overall pummeling effect, does not prevent some individual songs from standing out as standard-bearers of the 400 Blows experience. “No Room in Heaven” blisters with little space for relent, very quick and certainly painful. The more focused and rapid fire riffs of “Black Tie Affair” recall the east coast hardcore of Snapcase and Drowningman. “We Killed Like Champions” is a manic epic number, clocking in at over five minutes and featuring Skot pushing his vocals to the limit. He can be melodic but he can snarl and redden his throat just as well. The song changes speeds and signatures far more often with all that time to fill and has some added noise effects that show how truly raucous and unsettling they can be.
All that having been said, it is impossible for anyone, I believe, to listen to this out of order or incompletely. The album, though unhinged as it might seem, it is nonetheless a crafted record that works best from start to finish. It’s an album for the long haul, not a fleeting moment. It’s a therapy session, not a light diversion. I mean, Christ, it’s only a half-hour long.
Stream: 400 Blows – “The Rescue Party”