How perfect is the cover of this album? I don’t mean that in any dismissive way. It’s not as if I’m saying that the music of Athens’ favorite doom-sludge band, Harvey Milk, is as obsolete as the cassette tape. In fact, far from it. The cassette tape, and particularly that brand and type, brings back vivid and cherished memories. The XLII-90 in particular makes us think of being able to fit two albums on one cassette. They make us recall extra long mixtapes for that special someone. They make us think of the ’90s, not only a signifier of the length of the cassette, but the era in which those beloved hard plastic rectangles of sound were traded for the shiny, circular metallic future.
This self-titled album, almost lost to the mists of time, was first recorded in 1994, when CDs were already the preferred choice of most listeners (after all, on what format did you buy Weezer’s debut, Definitely Maybe, Superunknown and Dookie?). Longboxes were already removed from the shelves, the stores having retrofitted their vinyl bins into shallower housings for CDs. Cassettes were relegated to a wall rack, if carried at all. And yet, here we see a cassette, and Harvey Milk is relegated to side B.
What is ironic about this is that here we are, 16 years later, and this remastered 1994 session, what was supposed to have been their debut, sounds as current and relevant as their most recently recorded album, Life…the Best Game inTown. While we may see the cassette as an artifact of a forgotten time, Harvey Milk reminds us through this recovered work that their bass-heavy, thunderous metal is, in fact, timeless. The album showcases a band that pretty much emerged well before its time, making their reunion and ‘comeback’ all the more appropriate. “Blueberry Dookie” and “Plastic Eggs,” the album’s opening one-two punch, will nearly lay you out. Nightmarish at times and playful at others, you get very little chance for respite. When you get a chance to take a breath, make it a deep one.
Other tracks, such as “Merlin is Magic,” “My Father’s Life’s Work” and “ProbÃ¶lkoc” rely as much on melody as oppressive guitars and drums, making the band’s songs a precious dichotomy of pleasure and pain. “Smile” almost shows off a rockabilly riff before descending and taking left turns into mania. The song, at times, reminds me of Rocket from the Crypt, had John Reis been channeling his inner Elvis. It’s easily a favorite. Keyboards embedded within “Jim’s Polish” make the song a creepy carnival visit, adding a Devo twist to an otherwise hellish ride.
Harvey Milk’s initial downfall was most likely due to the fact that they were about 15 years out of step. Their music challenged listeners at a time when grunge was on its last legs, Britpop was becoming huge, and milquetoast one hit wonders were clogging the airwaves. But, legend has grown and Harvey Milk has become a rock powerhouse, putting the heavy back into heavy metal. However, even putting that genre tag on them is limiting as they do so much more. Harvey Milk isn’t as much a trip back into the past as it is a revelation of our present.
Shellac – At Action Park
Les Savy Fav – 3/5
Nirvana – Bleach