Release Date: 19 Jun 2020
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So many bands have emerged out of the shadows over the last couple of years, if not from completely out of the blue, but I shouldn't be too surprised to see the Cro-Mags among them, given how often they've split up over the years and how often they've got back together again, in one form or another. They have something of a reputation for internecine feuds, as if all the clichéd New York gang movies are somehow true to life.
This, however, marks an official shift of the band away from its incarnation under John Joseph Bloodclot, who led the Cro-Mags for the last decade in his fifth stint in the band, and to the band's founder, Harley Flanagan, who is now on his fourth. It was Flanagan who sang on Revenge, the band's previous album, which was released only three weeks into the year 2000. They've been gone from the studio, if not the stage, for a long time.
While some of the folk in Joseph's new incarnation of the band, Cro-Mags JM, have decades of service in it, everyone in the current line-up has time with the Cro-Mags dating back at least three stints going back to the nineties. I see Rocky George from Suicidal Tendencies on guitar; he was on that previous Cro-Mags album too. With Flanagan on bass as well as vocal duty, that leaves Gabby Abularach on the other guitar and Garry Sullivan on drums.
I first heard the Cro-Mags in 1986 when my favourite band had changed from Iron Maiden to Nuclear Assault and I'd become fascinated by the new merger of thrash metal with American punk. I'd dug deep into thrash but knew almost nothing about punk at that point. What I quickly discovered was that I was a metalhead not a punk but I did like a lot of the pioneering crossover bands, including the Cro-Mags, D.R.I. and Bad Brains.
In the Beginning is more of a metal album than The Age of Quarrel was back in 1986, with Flanagan's vocals deeper, more controlled and far more mature, and the two guitarists providing a real crunch. The punk side of the band is more obvious in the rhythm section. Just check out the energetic bass intro to No One's Coming, which is possibly the best song on the album and surely the most important too.
For instance, it's at that point that we realise that we haven't even been listening for ten minutes yet, but we're already onto track five. The band simply blister through the first four songs, none of which make it past the three minute mark and one of which only just sneaks past half that. Over the album as a whole, fully half a dozen songs wrap up in fewer than two and a half minutes. The entire run of thirteen is done and dusted in under forty.
It also shows some real imagination. Not only does it last long enough for a guitar solo in the middle, which doesn't remotely slow the blitzkrieg riffs and bludgeoning drums that drive the song forward, but it adds another sound later on. We start to hear more beats than G-Man ought to be able to provide and we realise that they're not his. It sounds like the band are rocking out in an underground garage and the audience is joining in by banging whatever they can find against the wall. As it wraps up, we realise that this is all in effective ethnic rhythms.
There is one longer song and that's also interesting, because it ditches the vocals. It's Between Wars and it's entirely instrumental for its almost six minutes. It's not really rooted in thrash at all and it's the drums that are most obvious, shining far brighter than the guitars, G-Man doing a glorious job as the apparent octopus behind the kit.
So that's two highlight songs that I've praised the drums in. I should point out that the guitars are generally everywhere here, providing ever-reliable crunch and riffage. The more we focus on them, the more we realise just how tight this band is. PTSD is absolutely textbook crossover—no nonsense, balls to the wall, bludgeoning energy—and so is The Final Test, with its fantastic speed up at the halfway mark; only its vocals do somewhere different, being surprisingly subdued for a not remotely subdued genre. I like.
The most punk song is probably Two Hours, which is vehemently up front and threatening. It's less a song and more an angry musical punch in the face, the lyrics preached rather than sung or shouted and the music slower as if it's background texture to something visual than the backing to a song. Is there a video to this one? If there isn't, there ought to be.
Not everything holds up to the best songs here, but nothing lets the album done. It's a powerful statement of intent for a band who haven't released a studio album in twenty years. Welcome back, folks.