Black Flag - In My Head
Record Label: SST
Release Date: October, 1985
After a long and tedious lawsuit had finally been settled, 1984 became the year of Black Flag. They could finally release their own music again. It was a triumph in indie rock--but the results were, for the most part, less than remarkable. My War fell victim to its own pretensions, featuring a couple choice thrashy numbers on the first side while the sludge of side two could put you to sleep. Family Man was an odd release, with one half dedicated to Henry Rollins performing spoken word bits and the other half being instrumental, only featuring "Armageddon Man" with the whole band. Slip It In was an improvement though imperfect, perhaps most notable for Rollins' songwriting contributions and the debut of Kira Roessler on bass. Loose Nut was generally more of the same though with better material including the title track, "Bastard in Love," and the Rollins/Roessler penned "I'm the One," which would point the way to In My Head.
The band's development after the success of Damaged and winning the lawsuit eventually culminated with In My Head, their last studio album (second to last in their career lifetime, with the excellent live album Who's Got The 10½? topping off their catalog of LP's). The material on the album continues the trend they began on My War--more complex arrangements. The tempo and rhythm shifts are more dramatic than they were on Damaged, Ginn's guitar work is at its tangled best with Roessler's authoritative bass, the rhythms are intricately off-putting, and Rollins achieves his best menacing poet stance.
The band had come a long way artistically from their great work with Keith Morris, never mind Damaged. Right from Rollins' echoed screams beginning "Paralyzed," through Roessler's backing vocals in "It's All Up to You," In My Head is an aesthetic playground compared to their punk roots. Rollins alone has matured since his debut with the band--he is no longer merely screaming and shouting, barking out every lyric. Here he is a full blown character, growling through "The Crazy Girl" and devilishly convincing in "Drinking and Driving." Also, his occasional echoes and overdubs throughout the record add to his personality.
The rest of the group is in top form on In My Head, sounding less like a punk band and bearing a stronger resemblance to some of their California metal contemporaries (some who owed a great deal to Black Flag's accomplishments). Granted, their Black Sabbath leanings have a lot to do with that. Nevertheless, Ginn leads the band into the fray with his fuzzed out, unique playing style, and his ever more complicated and intriguing chordal structuring. His ear for arranging is unparalleled in his originality. Even much of the earlier Black Flag dipped into weird harmonic structures slightly outside the typical pentatonic posturing of hard rock and punk. In My Head shows off how far Ginn's (and the band's) distinctive style had come since the group's early harmonic discoveries. It's abundantly clear on this record how much grunge owed to Black Flag, particularly on a track like "Drinking and Driving"--for example, the prime riffage of "Mr. Moustache" from Nirvana's Bleach rings a bell.
Despite surmounting problems for Black Flag, their final studio album captures their greatest strengths in excellent form. In some ways, one has to wonder what they could have accomplished after this. They seem to have hit their stride here, for a second time in their career. Damaged was the summation of all the band's EP's and singles, as well as the lineup changes they suffered. In My Head justifies all of their successes and failures since their triumph in the courtroom. Even if they'd always been a great live act, they will more likely be remembered for their studio output, and this album has them going out on top--or at least as much on top as they could get.
All that being said, there are a number of problems throughout In My Head. For starters, it is a terrible sounding record. The mix is for the most part garbled, with Ginn's guitar often overpowering Rollins' vocals and everybody else. Roessler's bass is frequently buried, which is tragic considering her talents. Bill Stevenson's drum sound is genuinely bizarre, having a somewhat big '80s snare drum sound while the rest of his kit sounds small and tinny with a muffled high hat.
The other problem is that the record has almost no dynamic changes. It's loud, and yes that's what makes most hardcore and punk, but given Black Flag's arranging abilities one would hope for a change of pace somewhere on the album. Sure, there are plenty of tempo changes and stop-start rhythms, but overall the record stays at one volume with one thing in mind while Ginn's guitar tone almost never changes (and when it does it's barely noticeable), and Stevenson's percussion stays within a punk mainframe. Again, hardcore punk was never much of a genre about branching out, despite Black Flag's contemporaries (and labelmates: the Meat Puppets, Minutemen, Hüsker Dü, Bad Brains, Dinosaur Jr.). In many ways, the genre's subsequent puritanical elements stemmed from its first two figureheads: Black Flag and Minor Threat. Nevertheless, for all its strengths, In My Head isn't a terribly diverse album. It is one of the band's best moments, and perhaps one of the best of the genre, but it's ultimately a flawed record.