Avoid this album if youre a fan of anything Black Flag has previously done in its long career, or are looking to expose yourself to one of the most influential punk bands ever. Avoid this album in general. Everything that needs to be known about Black Flags latest album, What The …, can be summed up by its title and its forever scarring bad artwork. Words simply dont do justice to the repulsiveness of the cartoon face sticking its tongue out across a gaudy neon green background. The album art looks like a doodle done by a teenage skater in the 90s, and it sounds like it was made in the basement of that same persons house. Indeed, the record tries hard to sound like Greg Ginn and the Black Flag of the late 70s, but it ultimately feels like a hollow shell of something that once was fresh and original.
Black Flag has never been a stranger to controversy or to internal disputes especially considering that since its formation, the only member to have weathered the various storms of the bands career has been Greg Ginn. Having gone through multiple vocalists, drummers and bassists, it seems almost amazing that the band has only had two guitarists, the latter of which Dez Cadena is performing for FLAG, a Black Flag revival project. FLAG tours independently and solely performs covers of older Black Flag songs, as opposed to writing new material.
It would seem almost absurd then that Black Flag, whose founding member owns the rights to the name and the iconic flag emblem, would sound more like a cover band. Yet, the proof is in the muddied What The …, which fails to live up to any expectations whatsoever. It should be entirely telling of Black Flags volatile nature that its once and now again former singer, Ron Reyes, who was responsible for the vocals in What The …, was recently fired onstage during a live performance, or so he alleged in a post on Facebook.
The albums 22 tracks all seem to have similar cookie cutter punk riffs, played over to different variations of the same rhythms and lyrics. Its almost impossible to distinguish one track from another. The new members who were added to the group after the bands official disbandment in 1986 (barring a brief reunion put together by Black Flags most celebrated former member, Henry Rollins) seem to contribute absolutely nothing to the record. Worst of all, Greg Ginn sounds completely uninspired. Ginns usually searing guitar, which over the course of Black Flags history has served as the backbone of its most successful songs, falls flat and gets lost amongst all of the other mediocre performances by the rest of the resurrected (or better, zombified) band.
Although it has always been clear that Greg Ginn has been the de facto leader of Black Flag, it is painfully obvious that since Henry Rollins 1986 departure, the members of the band have lacked the energy the original crew possessed. In a period between 1984 and 1985, the band was able to release five studio albums. In these endeavors, Black Flag initially steeped in the very roots of punk rock transformed its sound into a forward-looking, unholy fusion of punk, metal, avant-garde jazz and spoken word. It has been a formula which few have been able to recreate successfully.
Yet, while this latest version of Black Flag doesnt attempt to explore the same territory that its predecessor did back in the mid-80s, the group does try to channel its pre-1981 sound and still fails even at that. The music Black Flag produced before 1981s Damaged wasnt necessarily inferior, but by now, it should at least be familiar territory for the likes of Greg Ginn and Ron Reyes, who performed together during that period. Yet, the two have failed to foster any chemistry between each other and the rest of the band, leaving the recently reanimated Black Flag, much like the name of the lead single: Down in the Dirt.