The musical atrocities being committed these days in the name of punk rock are astounding. A quarter-century ago a handful of intrepid artists did their best to make the music world a more lively place (or at least, to fuck shit up). Faced with the nauseating menace of insipid pop and deadly boring prog excess of the mid-’70s, they struggled to make rock and roll dangerous again. Sadly, latter-day so-called punks seem capable only of watered-down caricatures of the sound of 1976 and reconstitute many of the sins of the pre-punk generation, lapsing back into the ways of safe, formulaic, and obsolete rock. While MTV-spawn like Blink 182 and their ilk are the most obvious offenders, Vancouver BC’s Black Halos are not unguilty of such transgressions.
The Black Halos clearly draw inspiration from a first generation of groups from both sides of the Atlantic such as the Dead Boys, the Sex Pistols, and the Clash. However, the Vancouver band fails to give those influences a new twist and its material remains bland and derivative, devoid of the immediacy and the edge that made the work of its forebears so appealing.
On The Violent Years, the Black Halos prove that they have an abundance of punk attitude: the songs are angry and angst-ridden, the music’s loud and abrasive, and the vocalist even has a quaint, old-school-punk handle (Billy Hopeless). Still, contrary to what Andre Agassi might say, attitude is not in fact everything — you need the songs to back it up. Minor punk gestures aside, The Violent Years adds up to little more than a cartoon version of the real thing. Hopeless’ affected, permanently sneering vocal style doesn’t help matters. While punk was meant to be provocative — to really piss people off — Hopeless is just mildly irritating and anachronistic. Apparently, it’s de rigeur to compare him to Stiv Bators. But Hopeless is no Stiv Bators and the Black Halos certainly aren’t the Dead Boys.
During punk’s heyday, destroy was the rallying cry and boredom — in all of its manifestations — was the object of that nihilistic energy. The Black Halos’ worst problem, judging by The Violent Years at least, is that they are thoroughly boring, endlessly re-hashing one of punk’s weaker motifs: the instant anthem with the sing-along chorus and the football-terrace backing vocals. Tracks like “Some Things Never Fall” and “Capt. Moody” — which recall some of the Clash’s dodgier achievements in that area — are symptomatic of the band’s unimaginative rendering of punk. The general dullness is compounded by scant variation in arrangement or tempo; a guitar-riff assault that keeps up with the Joneses (Steve and Mick), but never comes into its own; and songs that, for the most part, just blur into one another.
Nevertheless, there are a couple of vaguely redeeming moments. The slower, more understated “50 Bourbon Street” works reasonably well. A charge through Joy Division/Warsaw’s “Warsaw” is also modestly successful, although perhaps not because there’s anything unique or noteworthy about the Black Halos’ version of the song, but because the song’s inherent strength carries the band.
Unfortunately, The Violent Years might be better entitled The Twilight Years in that its weary, hackneyed sound leaves the listener with the impression that the Black Halos are a fourth-string punk band from ’76 who’ve decided to torture everyone by recording a reunion album. Ironically, on “Lost in the 90s”, surveying the musical state of things in that decade, Hopeless complains that his heroes the Big Bopper, Ritchie Valens, and Buddy Holly died for nothing. Hearing this album, you can’t help feeling the same about Sid Vicious. The phrase “punk’s not dead” actually used to mean something positive, but listening to the Black Halos doing such terrible things with punk’s legacy, you can’t help wishing that the genre could be put out of its misery once and for all.