Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Suicidal Tendencies. Lights...Camera...Revolution! (Epic, 1990)

"Who are you calling crazy? You wouldn't know what crazy was if Charles Manson was eating Fruit Loops on your front porch!"

LA's Suicidal Tendencies started out in the early '80s as one of a slew of SoCal hardcore outfits in the vein of Black Flag, the Dead Kennedys, and other angry young men dedicated to exposing the societal rot spreading under the West Coast sunshine. ST's particular gimmick? A few of the members seemed to be gangbangers, sporting Crips blue bandannas, Venice 13 tags, and other affiliated labels. These dudes also perfected the classic upturned baseball cap brim look, never complete without a scrawled "Suicidal Tendencies" in permanent marker. Nice.

Over the course of the decade, ST -- fronted always by the angrily intelligent Mike Muir on vocals -- gradually shed their strict hardcore sound in favor of a more metal-oriented approach, and by the end of the Reagan era they were cranking out awesomely accomplished thrash metal. Thrash, as the name implies, emphasizes speed and shreddability, but also -- and especially in the hands of ST -- places a high premium on melody and catchiness. Power chords and wailing, flash-fingered solos ride doubletime rhythms, allowing for far more melodic development and space than straight hardcore, but with a more punishing tempo and visceral impact than classic metal.

In 1988, after a series of declines and comebacks in which the band experienced a rotating cast of characters and seemed to struggle with their overall direction, ST signed to major label Epic to release How Will I Laugh Tomorrow When I Can't Even Smile Today? With How Will I Laugh, ST had fully embraced their thrash aspects, bolstered by lead guitarist Rocky George. George was a monster, constantly pushing the envelope with inventive leads that occasionally flirted with prog rock but never lost their considerable edge. From How Will I Laugh onwards, George's blistering guitar work increasingly came to define ST's sound, ripping the band away from their hardcore roots and placing them in more Motorheadesque territory.

Lights...Camera...Revolution! came out on Epic in 1990, and stands as gold standard ST, as well as one of the best metal albums ever. On Lights, ST are fully in the zone, whipping out massive tune after massive tune, effortlessly marrying their punk pedigree to their too-smart-for-their-own-good Mensa metal leanings. The end result is a stellar LP of prime SoCal thrash, shout-along anthems and headbanging riffs, whiplash beats and turn-on-a-dime dynamics. Lyrically, Muir's anger and aggressiveness is undercut with an almost emo level of self-doubt and introspection, as wounded pride, broken hearts, and crippling confusion intermix with blind rage and biting sarcasm.

"You Can't Bring Me Down" opens Lights with a stone classic jam, an outsized epic unfolding on squalling sustain, gently plucked strings, slamming power chords, and George's wicked fretwork. R.J. Hererra's drumming is a key ingredient, unleashing flurries of kick-drum thunder and pummeling rolls, powerfully precise. The song -- like many on the album -- passes through a few movements, as blitzkrieg bombast gives way to startlingly beautiful mid-tempo songcraft, George's soaring six-string motifs perfectly complementing Muir's choirboy vocal turns. Plus, the video was awesome.

From then on, Lights never ceases to excite (well, almost never -- the metal funk disaster of "Send Me Your Money" is avoidable). The first half of the album, especially -- "Lost Again," "Alone," "Lovely," and "Give It Revolution" -- is effing killer, each track following in "You Can't Bring Me Down"'s footsteps of highly melodic, endlessly surprising thrash attack. Though the second half if the LP isn't as tight, it's by no means embarrassing, and "Emotion No. 13" stands as one of the LP's strongest entries.

Every time I throw on Lights...Camera...Revolution!, I'm taken aback by how much I enjoy it. Suicidal Tendencies adopted some regrettable funk flavors in the '90s, with Muir founding the Red Hot Chili Peppers-lite (ouch) Infectious Grooves, but here -- with leviathan riffs, punishing rhythms, and an innate sense of melody and time -- they're as mighty as thrash comes.

Suicidal Tendencies