Black Helicopter (Profile in Boston Phoenix, 7.6.10)

Posted on July 25, 2010


In the anything-goes ’90s, it was tough to stick out like a sore thumb, but somehow Boston’s Green Magnet School managed to do it — and do it like champs. Too weird to be considered musical co-conspirators with, say, Mudhoney or Sebadoh, they somehow still found themselves signed to Sub Pop, riding the post-Nirvana gravy train into wide release and, eventually, a satisfyingly obscure place in your cooler friends’ seven-inch collection. The band broke up and guitarist Tim Shea joined forces with Kudgel bassist Zack Lazar and drummer Matt Nicolas to form Black Helicopter, a blaringly loud black-ops steamroller of a rock band. They quickly became stalwarts of Thurston Moore’s Ecstatic Peace label, where they’ve picked up lots of subtle touches in the art of not quite fitting in.

Last month, Shea and company finally released the third Black Helicopter full-length, Don’t Fuck with the Apocalypse, maybe their best yet. But it was a tough birth.

As the band explain to me when we get together at Deep Ellum in Allston: a few years ago, when Ecstatic Peace struck a distro deal with Universal/Fontana for a few of its marquee bands — including Black Helicopter — it seemed like a home run. The band would keep the DIY cred and flexibility of a minor label and get to enjoy the fruits of a big-time retail-supply-chain network.

Earlier this year, the band were riding full-steam ahead with a carefully recorded third album in the works and big plans to use some stellar artwork from Black Flag illustrator and international gallery superstar Raymond Pettibon for the cover. The image was an old one of a pissed-off Jesus wrangling a python. They named the record for it.

Universal — whose roster includes upright citizens like Insane Clown Posse, Amy Winehouse, and Fucked Up — demanded they change the artwork, album title, and the title of one song, “King Shit.” Who knows what their reaction would have been to the album’s original name, The Guy Who Forgot 9/11. The band didn’t ask — without much hesitation, they took a hike. They had no safety net, but Moore offered to put the record out on Ecstatic Peace alone, leaving the band to deal with manufacturing and PR. Thus, a lot of the press for the new CD has dealt with the band’s split with Universal.

Which is a shame, because the real hero of the story is the record, a doozy. Like the previous Black Helicopter discs, it zeroes in on shaky losers in stale apartments running quixotic missions against corporations, shadow governments, and rationality with a mix of gleeful nihilism and proud brotherly love. Imagine a self-loathing Mark Arm addicted to the late-night paranormal call-in show Coast to Coast AM. They’ve swapped in guitarist Eric Baird in for long-time member Jeff Iwanicki, grabbed material from all kinds of tattered notebooks and forgotten practice tapes, and thrown it all together over years of recording and mixing in Shea’s Allston studio (this was an all-analog, six-hands-on-the-board operation). It lurches with Am-Rep drums and bass debris and evens the keel with worn-out junkyard strumming. The result is a killer tour through bummed-out loneliness and adversity that would seem like overbearing sarcasm if it weren’t for the stark thud of most of these songs.

“I feel privileged to be part of this record,” says Lazar. “As a band of guys generally in their 40s, you treat it differently. When you have kids, you can’t say ‘This band is the greatest thing I’ve ever done’ any more, because then your wife will divorce you. But I do think this is the best thing we’ve ever released.”

“It’s old-core,” Lazar says unapologetically. “Sonic Youth, Guided by Voices, Pavement — they’re all your favorite bands and they’re all absolutely old men and women. It’s probably a better genre than my old chimp-rock band or Tim’s — what were you, art-something? The ‘G’ word?”

“Don’t say the ‘G’ word,” says Shea, but by now you could almost look to something like Apocalypse as sort of a best-case scenario for what grunge could have become. Humble, loud, messy, paranoid, and a little bit folksy on the side. You know — “G,” for grown-ups.

Link to original article at the Boston Phoenix here.