Sharps & Flats

Smashing fey rockers with one hand, punching complacency with the other, Henry Rollins robotically returns to rock 'n' roll.

Published February 28, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

Henry Rollins, the king of self-righteous angst and former Black Flag front man, is back in the filthy world of rock 'n' roll. Rollins has done some solid work on his own since the 1986 breakup of the legendary satiric punksters, most notably "The End of Silence" (1992), with his Rollins Band. But for the past several years, he's spent more time padding his risumi with a dozen books of poetry, side projects, his own publishing company and record label and a cheerfully suburban spoken-word act.

The original Rollins Band drifted apart, but in 1998 the impresario met and produced the first album of a hard-rocking L.A. band called Mother Superior. Rollins liked their brand of stylized sludge and hired them. The good news for old Rollins Band fans is you can hardly tell the scabs from the originals. Guitarist Jim Wilson is a bit slicker than Chris Haskett, more than capable of fingering smooth and technically prodigious riffs of the Carlos Santana school, and Rollins lets bassist Marcus Blake funk -- but not jazz -- it up a bit more than Andrew Weiss. Rollins isn't breaking new ground here, but he's over the weak attempts at fusion the old Rollins Band tried on the last full-length, "Come In and Burn." Unfortunately, the quiet-loud tension they exploited with singles like "Liar" from "Weight" (1994) is gone too. Now the sound is any random AC/DC song, minus the hook and glam, plus a sprinkle of three-syllable words.

Of course, Rollins has always favored hard and heavy. If he were God, Moses would have come down off the mountain with a tablet reading "Thou shalt not be winsome," and turned whiny, four-track Morrissyites into stone blocks for power tai chi practice. Yet all the muscle in the world can't save this album.

Chief among its problems is the new Rollins Band itself. They're competent musicians, sure -- if competency means a thorough mastery of 10 years of Guitar Player magazine tabs. But there's no originality or zing, just a steady procession of funky bass lines and the sort of tumultuous stacked guitars that drive the soundtracks of monster-truck commercials. It's thud-rock, without the flamboyance or heartfelt self-hatred that makes music in this genre listenable. For his part, Rollins -- who produced the album himself -- just sing/grunts his way along, pretty much following whatever the rhythm guitar is doing, monotone, aharmonic and off-key as usual.

If anything, Rollins sounds ... satisfied. After all, he's a father-figure of alt-rock culture and a 200-pound-plus avatar of the New Masculinity, ready to beat the shit out of a prissy proto-Marxist with one hand, writing lines like "don't justify your complacency to me" with the other. Yet the sense of satisfaction is what makes this album so banal. It starts off right on the first track, a four-minute epic entitled "Illumination," detailing in the language of bad high-school poetry Rollins' struggle for enlightenment. "I've sailed the sea of desolation," he sings, "dropped my anchor there ... Illumination it comes so hard, makes me say 'Oh my Lord.'" Worse are Rollins' recourses to clichis. On one of the weaker tracks, "Thinking Cap," he harps on a poserette with a fresh new chin and 99 percent fat-free breasts, and then asks us to contemplate the rhetorical, "You can dress up a pig, but it's still a pig, isn't it?" He gracefully underscores the question with an oink.

The central problem, though, of "Get Some Go Again" is that Rollins hasn't realized the line, "Don't justify your complacency to me" (from the title track) might as well be an ad slogan for recruiting online brokers and 20-year-old Web entrepreneurs who pull in six figures. He's out of steam, and run smack up against the limits of his own criticism. Case in point: The last track, "L.A. Money Train" is a 14-minute spoken-word diatribe on the California music industry. In it, Rollins decries the paucity of real talent, the fakes who glue a few genres together and all the shiny, disgusting pimps of rock 'n' roll riding the "money train."

Rollins seems incapable of recognizing that authenticity isn't the point, so fully convinced is he that his own authenticity has won him his success. More than anything, Rollins -- the apostle of inner growth and legitimacy -- hates losers: the guy who bums off his girlfriend, the girl who stays with the boyfriend who abuses her, anyone not living up to their "potential." The reality, though, is that "potential" is generally defined by outside forces, forces that have nothing to do with the authenticity, or, as Rollins says, the "soul-intensity," of an artist. Not to mention that tired calls for authenticity and exhortations to buff up and get moving aren't going to really save us or popular music. To everybody's loss, Rollins' demands are now barely distinguishable from those of America Inc., which asks for the same things: innovation, energy and a focus on individual success.

With this kind of epistemological difficulty, it's not hard to see why those loud guitars and all Rollins' hollering do so little. Rock's secret is in its ability to shake things up. Rollins might be capable of that. But on "Get Some Go Again." Those guitars are just plain loud, and Rollins is shouting more out of habit than anything else.

By Christopher Binkley

Christopher Binkley is a freelance writer living in Boston.

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