Artist Spotlight: The Blood Brothers

Those screams. Good god. Anyone who has heard The Blood Brothers can attest to the horrific effect of their signature feature, the dueling call-and-response vocal assault of singers Johnny Whitney and Jordan Blilie, trading shrill, piercing howls like an especially volatile married couple. It is like a gauntlet laid down against anyone who dares consider themselves fans of challenging or “difficult” music, and it plays as a sort of acid test for newcomers: Can you persist in listening through the savage, nightmarish wails of sonic ultraviolence roaring out of the mouths of these men, to identify the candy-coated pop structures and surprisingly diverse arrangements underneath, or will you turn off the song halfway through, deeming the racket “unlistenable”? If that wasn’t off-putting enough, they took this harsh foundation and ran with it into new, unprecedented places – unlike other “extreme”/experimental hardcore bands of the time like The Locust, XBXRX and Arab On Radar, they improbably flirted with mainstream appeal by combining their aggressive, glam buoyant hardcore stylings with a demented strain of carnival/cabaret novelty music. Some bands are an acquired taste – The Blood Brothers were more like a trial by fire.

Yet they started in the late 90s as pretty much a normal Seattle hardcore band. With Mark Gajadhar on drums, Morgan Henderson on bass, and Devin Welch on guitar, they joined forces in 1997, and recorded a series of 7”s, splits, and sampler tracks that were eventually compiled on the Luckyhorse label as an e.p. called Rumors Laid Waste (2003, B). The unpolished, demo-quality recordings and basic screamo structures don’t do much to distinguish them from their genre, so it’s up to the solid vocal hooks 1 and the occasional rhythm changes or meandering sonic excursions (like the sudden cooldown section in “Data Perversion”, a tease of the adventurous streak they’d develop) to set them apart. Welch left the band after playing on these recordings, and then-high school student Cody Votolato2 joined, to accompany the band on their first big tour in the summer of 2000.

Votolato’s more practised and versatile guitar playing assists the band in stomping out their own identifiable style on their first (tiny) LP, This Adultery Is Ripe (2000, B+), released on Second Nature Recordings. From the Jesus Lizard-like chords/notes riff of “Face In The Embryo” to the strange, chilling harmonic noises he creates at the beginning of “Time For Tenderness”, he immediately provides the perfect backdrop for the tandem flailing tantrums of Whitney and Blilie, while the rhythm section begins to perfect its lock-step death march. Meanwhile, the production (by Matt Bayles, who would help bring out the band’s more experimental side on their next album) finally gets competent enough to figure out how to emphasize the band’s strengths in hooks and structure without losing any of their vicious edge. Although they’re still mostly just doing straightforward hardcore with dual vocals, there are a couple of interesting detours in mini-epic “Mutiny On The Ark Of The Blood Brothers” and “Doctor! Doctor!” Other than that, they present themselves here as a conventional, if conflagratory, hardcore punk band, and there is essentially no indication that they would ever grow into anything else.

March On Electric Children (2002, A), released on Three One G, doesn’t so much move the band’s sound forward as it does explode the foundations they’ve built for themselves so far and replace it with some kind of antigravity dimension-hopping device. This music fucking moves, even for hardcore, and to a man, every last Blood Brother shows up to demand maximum amounts of your attention from beginning to end. Whitney and Blilie have synced their cycles3 of rage and bile, and the band’s grooves have become more fleet and impactful than ever. On a dime, they’ve developed the ability to switch, whiplash-speed, from breakneck thrashing to sturdy rhythmic vamping, and it is this ability which will turn out to be their greatest strength. Listen to the way everything drops out except for a low humming amplifier buzz in “Siamese Gun”, or how “Birth Skin/Death Leather” persistently flips back and forth between overwhelming waves of seasick, disorienting noise outbursts and a very simple punk rock riff – the band refuses to let the listener settle into a comfort zone by sticking with any one approach for too long. The Nine Inch Nails sample in “Kiss Of The Octopus” and the pure piano-and-vocals arrangement of “American Vulture” are the wildest departures (and both work brilliantly), but otherwise, The Blood Brothers’ innovations here are almost entirely formal. There are plenty of bands who play around with rhythm changes and soft/loud dynamics, of course, but rarely has anyone done so with such a unified sense of purpose, while remaining so true to the basic principles of hardcore all the while.

If you heard March On Electric Children and thought to yourself “this band could be the next big thing, they belong on a major label,” congratulations, you’re ArtistDirect. One listen to the 40-second opener on …Burn, Piano Island, Burn (2003, A) should quickly disabuse you of any notion that this band might water down their sound for the mainstream. “Guitarmy” turns out to be the most normal hardcore song on the record, as The Blood Brothers take the half-feints toward greater diversity found on MOEC and absolutely blasts off in all directions with them. The song lengths are regularly stretched beyond the five-minute mark, while maintaining galloping tempos, and burning through multiple sections of diverse, flavorful melody and sonic deconstruction. “Fucking’s Greatest Hits” might be the best distillation of everything this band has become: Built around a catchy, brutally efficient riff from Votolato, it explodes into chaos, succumbs to moments of blissful melody, rides a sturdy groove for awhile before a controlled outburst of supernova energy takes over, and even adds an a capella section before building to its knockout-punch finisher. Most of the other songs function in very similar ways – there will generally be noise, beauty, structure, inventiveness and at least one moment of pure “WTF” in every track, but it’s all arranged and organized in such a way that it never becomes predictable, and the strong production work from Ross Robinson somehow keeps it all from falling apart.

In short, I adore this record. This is clearly intended as a game-changer from them, a sort of “Shape Of Hardcore To Come”, and their abilities more than match their ambitions. Throughout the record, they fearlessly (and sometimes awkwardly) graft their template and aesthetic onto funk rock, synthwave, acoustic Spanish guitar, bubblegum pop, cheesy lounge jazz, novelty circus music, and some of the most discordant noise blasts you’ll ever hear. It’s a must-have for any fan of experimental or extreme music, and it is detailed and layered enough to keep even the most restless listener from getting bored. The Blood Brothers have done it: they have crafted a brilliant and uncompromising postmodern rock record that incorporates sounds from multiple genres while remaining resolutely dedicated to their righteously disruptive hardcore principles, right down to the two singer’s unbridled scream-offs. It was a recipe so potent and utterly unique that it fueled the remainder of their career and became one of the defining styles of mid-2000s underground music.

I want to take a moment to describe The Blood Brothers’ vocals and lyrics, since now’s as good a time as any. Johnny Whitney’s delivery is excessively snotty, sassy and effeminate, causing some to derisively label the band “homocore” at the time. His range extends way up into the stratosphere beyond your typical male falsetto, and his screams are borderline ecstatic at times. Jordan Blilie affects a weird quivering baritone when he’s not screaming, and when he does let loose, it’s a guttural yowl of pure blind rage and fury with nothing held back (some have compared it to black metal-style vocals). As for the lyrics, they appear on the surface to be grotesque, dystopian descriptions of deviant sex acts and torture porn-level blood and gore, with an almost surreal stream-of-consciousness style of narrative involving either an unnamed “you” or specifically-named fictional characters. By the manner in which they describe these protagonist’s misadventures, it is difficult to tell whether we are meant to feel contempt, pity, sympathy, mockery, or apathy for their subjects, but given that the majority of them end up meeting some kind of untimely demise, it is probably safe to say they express at least mild ambivalence towards them. It is true that their lyrics at least superficially seem to be advocating some kind of anti-sex position, almost to the point of seeming pro-abstinence4 (especially on March On Electric Children, which apparently forms some sort of moralistic short story), but in general their focus seems to be more about pointing out problems than suggesting solutions.

Johnny’s voice, which had always been high-pitched, reaches new heights of glass-cracking squeals on Crimes (2004, A-), the band’s first album on new label V2. The arsenic-tinged soul of opening track “Feed Me To The Forest” gives way to a standard hardcore sequence before transitioning back to its genuinely funky closing, almost sounding like the kind of song Prince would do if he collaborated with Black Flag. The calypso/flamenco twofer of “Love Rhymes With Hideous Car Wreck” and “Peacock Skeleton With Crooked Feathers” reveal a band who has grown altogether comfortable with the genre-jumping exercises of the previous album, to the point where these disparate approaches blend together seamlessly while still delivering all the hooks – in fact, the “Back at the HOS-PI-TAA-AA-AL” section of “Love Rhymes” might be my favorite piece of music they’ve ever made. They have never sounded more confident than they do here. But unlike the last two records, which display a nearly superhuman amount of continuous energy, this one seems to hit a point of fatigue about halfway through. Their setlist from around this time rarely contained more than three tracks from …Burn, Piano Island, Burn, as the bulk of those multi-part long-form hardcore opuses turned out to be too difficult and demanding to perform onstage every night, with their tireless touring schedule. So they’ve pared things down, with songs that adhere more to normal pop structures, manageable runtimes, and fewer left-turns into Weirdsville. They are still very much inimitable, and they execute newfangled experiments like the polka-punk of “My First Kiss At The Public Execution” and the seductive downbeat swing of the title track with deadly precision, but they now sound less like fired-up revolutionary agents of chaos and more like seasoned professionals who deploy their weapons of choice with flair and clarity. To the extent that a band like this can “mature”, that describes what they do pretty well here.

There is a fine line between maturity and growing pains, and The Blood Brothers trip pretty hard over that line on Young Machetes (2006, B-). Superficially, all the elements are there – they have never ceased to attempt branching out ever further, nor have they lost a measure of their artistic integrity or sacrificed any of their hardcore edge. Still, somehow, this just doesn’t seem like the same band anymore. The entire culprit is the songwriting, which appears to have fallen off in a major way. A track like “Lift The Veil, Kiss The Tank” is not altogether dissimilar from their past songwriting successes, other than slightly blander production (inexplicably provided by Fugazi’s Guy Picciotto, along with John Goodmanson, who produced Crimes), but something is missing. It’s like no matter how much passion they try to inject into the proceedings, their usual indomitable spirit just refuses to show up, resulting in an album that amounts to much less than the sum of its parts. Even the song types that have typically served them well like “Laser Life” and “Set Fire To The Face On Fire” seem slightly labored, almost as if they are…. overplaying on them or something. These songs are just all over the place, and the hooks are so much weaker than usual. Where the sonic departures of previous albums felt like natural outgrowths from what the band had attempted in the past, this one feels like the band is trying different shit just for the sake of being different. You could go through each track and pick specific examples of why this or that does not work, but the bottom line is, these songs are just not structurally or melodically engaging. The hooks are severely lacking in cleverness or variation, and even Votolato’s normally reliable guitarwork starts to feel phoned-in half the time. The silver lining is two closing tracks, “Street Wars/Exotic Foxholes” and “Giant Swan”, both of which slow things down and stretch things out to a greater degree than this band’s ever attempted before. The gamble pays off, and seems to suggest that if there was a viable future for The Blood Brothers, it was one that would see them transitioning to a more-or-less “normal” progressive punk band.

But in reality, there was no future for The Blood Brothers. They announced their breakup in late 2007, and essentially split into two bands, Jaguar Love (Whitney and Votolato, plus Jay Clark from Pretty Girls Make Graves) and Past Lives (Blilie, Henderson and Gajadhar, with O.G. Blood Brother Devin Welch returning to the fold). After those projects flamed out, The Blood Brothers “classic” lineup reunited in 2014 for a series of limited-run performances and festival appearances. Rumors persisted of a full-fledged reunion and new recorded material, none of which materialized, and things basically returned to the status quo for the five members, as they continued to pursue their own avenues of expression and diverging life paths. It’s difficult now to go back and listen to their old records and to think that at one time The Blood Brothers’ career was on some kind of upward trajectory, that their style and their following actually had some momentum, that the wind was at their backs, and not everyone who heard this music was immediately rejecting it out of hand. The Bush administration was a decidedly different time. The Blood Brothers bore radical witness to their times, unleashed mind-bendingly vitriolic invective against them, and burned out about as brightly as possible. Whether loved or hated, it was always impossible to mistake them for anybody else.