Have you ever seen a really cool local act, and wished that there was some sort of record you could listen to at home that captured their energy and spirit? For middle aged people who grew up in northern California, i am pleased to announce that the Anthology collection does a fine job of representing the work of 1980s hardcore band Executioner.
I grew up in the 1980s, and i still remember my first exposure to hardcore punk via a mixtape given to me by a girl with half of her head shaved. Black Flag, Agent Orange, T.S.O.L., Circle Jerks, Suicidal Tendencies and who knows what else were on that cassette -- probably twenty, thirty bands, all playing fast angry rock with lots of screaming. I fell in love with that sort of thing, and eventually noticed that most of the bands (and all those i listed above) were from California. It was like the punk rock holy land for those of us in suburban Atlanta...
If i had actually been in California in the early to mid 1980s, i probably would have seen Executioner perform. They were a hardcore band from San Jose whose claim to fame is that they had six tracks used on early skater anthology Growing Pains. They also opened for seemingly every punk band in California during the 1980s, at least if you believe the press release for this record.
Growing Pains came out in 1982, and apparently at that time Executioner recorded a bunch of stuff for an eventual release that never happened. The entire recorded output of the band is included here. There are 29 tracks in just barely over forty-nine minutes, but two versions of all six Growing Pains tracks are included -- both the demo and the final release version. That leaves 23 new songs of early 1980s hardcore, most under two minutes, the longest an epic 3:33 (and back in the 1980s, they probably got mocked for such a long song).
The recording quality varies widely. There are raw studio demos, some obvious live tracks, and the mastered Growing Pains stuff, all sort of mixed together here. A lot of effort was obviously spent on trying to clean up this material, but there are some tracks that i can still hear the low generation tape hiss. There is only so much you can do to clean up these old recordings. However, the widely varying recording quality is actually pretty punk rock. Hey, in the 1980s we didn't have MacBooks with fancy recording software. People made do with what they had, alright?
Musically Executioner are very typical of their genre. That is, they are not the best hardcore punk band of the 1980s, nor are they the worst. People interested in hearing this compilation will be interested in them more for their take on the genre than for their musical acumen. The rhythm is steady and loud, the guitars squeal and move at blinding speeds, and the vocalist screams and growls his way through the songs.
This is the first old hardcore punk rock album that i have listened to as a critic, and listening to it this way makes me hear different things. If i were just a fan, i would probably rip this to my phone and put it on in the gym. It is perfectly enjoyable for that, and in fact the speed of the songs will probably help you burn some extra calories.
However, there are a couple of songs here that really deserve a deeper listen.
Why War? is their longest song (three and a half minutes was forever for a song in that genre), but is also a little different for the band. Bassist Bill Fraenza drives this song along as he plays a rolling riff like something from an early X tune, and vocal Dave Burks growls in his lower register, screaming about war again and again. As i listen to this, i realize that this is what The Coathangers were trying to do on their first LP. This song even gets a bit noodley guitar-wise on the end, which is very Coathangers-esque, except that Executioner recorded this before the members of The Coathangers were born.
On Flatlands Executioner take a break from hardcore and play post-punk. We have a pretty clear studio recording here, and the guitars are trebly and would not have been out of a place on a Gang of 4 record. Burks tries his best to do a Johnny Lydon impersonation. Executioner actually pull this off pretty well.
And then there is All the Dead which is almost a ballad. The song moves slowly, and drummer Dave Boston actually try to play a complex beat instead of just hitting the drums fast. And ... is that a backup singer crooning behind Burks, who himself is not yelling or growling but instead is actually singing? This is a live recording, so the voice is kind of murky and the drums are way up front, but it still sounds pretty good. The last verse of the song speeds up to a standard hardcore pace, but this is still pretty good and different than the rest of their work.
Fade With The Dawn which is one of the cleanest recordings here, is sort of halfway between All the Dead and Flatlands. It starts from the same sort of Sex Pistols territory as Flatlands, but moves into a more traditional rock territory with backing vocals, a rolling bass riff, and some mid-tempo guitarwork. Even though it is a demo version, i can sense that this could have been a minor new wave hit, with some mastering.
I did a little doubletake the first time i listened to War Machine. Sonically this is a good fast grinding tune, but the vocalist is screaming about war in Iraq and Afghanistan. I had to look to make sure i was still listening to Executioner, and then i realized he is singing about the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the war between Iran and Iraq. It is eerie that this song is just as valid and geographically accurate thirty years later.
Otherwise, the tracks move along at a breakneck pace, one after the other. There is a certain monotony to this type of music, but i still have to admit that i have really enjoyed this record. People who aren't fans of this genre will want to stay away, but if you are one of the people who saw them play back in the 1980s, i bet this CD is the answer to an old dream.