There’s no reason to dismiss Black Flag’s new album, What The…, out of hand. True, it’s the legendary hardcore band’s first proper studio full-length since 1985’s In My Head, Yes, it comes out amid a lot of acrimonious drama between former bandmembers, including those who have chosen to tour as FLAG minus the group’s founder and sole constant member, guitarist Greg Ginn. Granted, the cover art is fucking heinous. To its credit, though, singer Ron Reyes—who served as Black Flag’s mouthpiece for a short while from 1979 to ’80—appears on the album. And Ginn warmed up for the gig earlier this year by climbing back on the bucking punk bronco with Life Is Too Short To Not Hold A Grudge, the debut of his decidedly Black Flag-esque project Good For You. Overall, What The… has a lot going for it. That is, besides the songs.
That’s not to say What The… is skimpy with its track list. Clocking in at 22 songs, it’s the longest Black Flag album by far. But the ideas, inspiration, and energy are spread tenuously thin. On “My Heart’s Pumping,” Ginn’s needling riffage sets the rhythm and tone he’ll use for most of the rest of the album: a pinched, strangled take on his style from his Damaged-era prime, only minus any premonition of danger or chaos. Even when he recycles himself with vigor, as he does on “Wallow In Despair” and “This Is Hell,” he’s restrained by a plodding, chugging rhythmic section—Ginn himself played bass, robbing him of a source of potential instrumental tension—and the creeping feeling that he’s trying, at the cost of My War-like adventurousness, to give Black Flag fans what he thinks they want.
Ultimately it’s Reyes who brings that aura of hopeless, desperate humanity to What The…. Meaty and dripping, his voice is a hundred scabs being ripped off at once—even when, on high points like “It’s Not My Time To Go-Go,” he strains madly and melodically against Ginn’s rigid picking. Despite that song’s title, Reyes has already been dismissed from the group’s notoriously unstable lineup, but throughout the album he sounds like he’s burning off a host of demons built up during the decades of obscurity that followed his departure from the band in 1980. Demons used to be what drove Black Flag toward hitherto extremes of punk-rock brinksmanship, and there are glimpses of that savagery on What The…. Mostly, though, it’s a footnote to a legacy that never needed one.