In many ways, Deathwish Records has consistently been both the scene’s pace car and its GPS, carving new lanes whilst predicting the areas of influence soon to be heavily trafficked.
In the case of labels with such a storied discography, certain records can, at times, be both equally lauded and forgotten. Year-end lists, for me, frequently flaunt multiple diverse wax slabs bearing the famous DW. For a label with a roster as diverse as the Beverly, MA institution has, there’s a tendency to miss what others catch. The latter years of the 2000s first decade was many things to many scenes and their respective fans. At once, the era remembered by many as peak season for all things “melodic” was a fruitful time for blackened hardcore.
The rise of Entombed worship and skyrocketing sales of the HM-2 pedal shared running time with god-tier releases from Have Heart, Cold World, and Blacklisted. Additionally, there was a booming run of Holy Terror-inspired heathens running rampant through the Rust Belt. As an exercise in quality control, pick any year since the label’s inception and it’s guaranteed to be a tour of that particular era’s zeitgeist. Lewd Acts, the subject of my latest piece on slept-on classics, sits snugly as well within the confines of this cadre of artists as they do outside of it.
Rarely is fury buoyed by such a flare for storytelling. Though well-tread in more literary circles, the “protagonist vows to leave small town lest it kills him” journey of a youthful antihero is far less explored in punk rock, let alone hardcore. It’s certainly no surprise that Black Eye Blues found a home on Deathwish Inc., as it’s the permanent resting place of another narrative melodic masterpiece… Modern Life Is War’s Witness.
When done right (see also Shipwreck AD's Abyss and Defeater's Travels), the traditional lyrical tropes of other hardcore albums seem flatly uninspired by comparison. Even when viewed through the lens of simply a musical document, Lewd Acts would still have aggressively etched their place into the annals of punk and hardcore in grand fashion.
While critically lauded, its seeming lack of inclusion in conversational circles regarding the essential LPs of the ‘oughts first decade sorely needs revisiting. Let’s dive into Deathwish Inc. Catalog #93: Black Eye Blues by San Diego’s Lewd Acts.
Album opener “Know Where to Go” feels like we’re instantly teetering violently, awaiting the pendulum’s next movement. Beginning with a tick-tocking riff which quickly reveals itself as a harbinger of or countdown to the impending ten songs. There’s a restlessness to the tom hits, the buildup that eventually gives way to the pugilistic bent of “Wide Black Eyes.” There are elements of rollicking hardcore, a D-beat flurry of drumming, and an unhinged energy that nods at the label’s long-running flagship Converge, albeit run through the rinse cycle of unhinged early hardcore punk. I’ve long heard “for Fans of” references and “sounds like” comparisons lobbed at the release and they all seem to fall flat.
While there are certainly flashes of extreme music’s darker spectral offerings a la Cursed, Lewd Acts seem to inhabit rarefied air, especially for the era, as they’re clearly indebted to the sneer and stiff upper lip of punk rock. You needn’t look much further than this 90-second banger to indulge in a sonic tour of their many talents. This is in large part due to vocalist Tyler Densley’s gnashed teeth approach, as if the microphone were an adversary.
God City’s Kurt Ballou, whose engineering again pays perversely beautiful dividends, was rounded out by Guitarist Alex Jacobelli, drummer Cory Groenenberg, and bassist Orlando Ramirez. The frenetic but dizzyingly talented Lewd Acts provide deftly assembled pastiche of aggression. At various moments, they manage to capture the delicate balance between taut and explosive only hinted at on the prior year’s split with Hour of the Wolf.
“Nightcrawlers” marries a noisier, post-hardcore riff to their more low swinging, primal sensibility. The song darts out immediately with an early Jehu-esque tone that pairs with their crustier tendencies like a be-spoiled wine were it mixed with blood. The following two tracks comprise an almost mini-suite. The call and response or question and answer of “You Don’t Need Me” followed by the defiant reply of “I Don’t Need You” feel particularly cathartic. The exorcism of the latter finds them at their most frantic and intense.
From the song’s light speed opening salvo when Densley mirrors the song’s title to the thicker mid-paced chugging that calls to mind the bulldozing power of latter-era Hope Con, there’s a seamlessness to their attack. There are some genius moments of trickery on the LP, defying the standard hardcore listener’s expectations with unexpected changes of pace. None of them are as rewarding, surprising, or successful as what follows.
“Who Knew the West Coast Could Be So Cold?” is the punk equivalent of Kerouac’s rambling spoken word series. Though not necessarily a proper song itself, it plays as the perfect midpoint, the freewheeling spoken eulogy of a nihilist. It’s here that the full scope of the daring and bare toothed lyricism becomes most evident.
“Penmanship Sailed” continues flexing the negative bent, a feedback riddled slowdown that restlessly paces with a nervous energy befitting a band courting black eyes. There’s a sneaky doom riff midway that feels like a devastating castaway. The drum run and discordant angularity of guitar during the song’s back half feels almost tribal, achieving a “Pain of Mind” moment Neurosis would be proud of. Ultimately, it’s a false flag, as the pummeling of “Young Lovers, Old Livers” threatens brutality from word one. The feral snot of the vocal bark is matched with a slightly more melodic yawp that calls to mind George from Blacklisted. Shit, maybe it is. Do your thing, y’all. I’ve always wondered.
“Rot Gut Charlie” finds the group at their most direct, intense, and confrontational. It reads like a debilitating character sketch, conjuring the ghost of “Stagger Lee.” The unhappy marriage of swaggering punk attitude to bruising dis- hardcore, though not altogether knew, was rarely melded as well as Lewd Acts (or, as they were sometimes billed “Lou Dax”).
“My Father Was a Locomotive” is as straight ahead as it is a curio. All the requisite touchstones are here in blackened spades, yet the back pocket trickery of such an off-kilter guitar run elevates this from a late album track to an absolute stunner. Rarely, if ever, does the song go where one would expect, again mirroring the uncertainty of the narrator’s adventure from the mundanity into the unknown quantity that is the big city.
The finale “Nowhere to Go” is an aptly titled and poignant place to end. There’s a dusty gothicism in the broken Americana riff that begins the drifter’s directionless journey. The first few minutes are the sonic manifestation of resignation, longing for placement, and the bloodied confusion of failure. After a prolonged wait, the aching instrumental tilts fully into a desperate vocal run that’s all shredded throat and earnestness. The album doesn’t so much end. It more so feels like it’s simply done with us. Much like the bruised and beaten subject of the tattoo flash style cover art, the exhaustion of the listening experience is as enthralling as it is exhausting, as enlivening as it is harrowing.
Never have I so warmly welcomed a shiner. This album holds a special place in my blue, black heart.
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