Monday, March 15, 2010

Review #83: Hüsker Dü - Zen Arcade (1984)


Year: 1984
Genre: Punk Rock
Hardcore, Post-Punk
Label: SST Records

70 Minutes (Long)
My Rating:

Many say that this album was something of a major turning point for Hüsker Dü as well as punk rock in general. Regarded as one of the first "alternative rock" (whatever that is) albums ever, it's essentially a hardcore punk record with a lot of creativity and new experimentation -- pianos, acoustic numbers. It's even a rock opera! -- possibly the first punk opera ever. The story is pretty simple, but the colors used to portray it give the ride much more depth. What IS that story? Well, basically, a young nerd living in a broken home with incessant fighting and abuse between his parents, alienated by the distress, finally decided to seek true escape from the miserable life and runs away. As he experiences new things about the "real world", the new lands filled with hope and excitement quickly transform into a world darker than where he was in the first place, as he fights to survive. What's the ending?? Well, we'll just see at the end...

1. Something I Learned Today
A near-epic yet seemingly simple opener. Begins with pattering drums with a curious bassline which explodes into a fiery, brave riff which seems to promise new worlds of exploration. The lyrics seem to provide insight into the mind of a disillusioned child. Still, the song just barely scratches the two-minute mark.

2. Broken Home, Broken Heart
In this song we get to peer into the physical realm of our protagonist's existence... a realm where there is little peace even in a place of supposed safety: his (her?) home. With Mom and Dad fighting all of the time, the song explains that it's difficulty for him to even get any sleep at night. Coolest part, musically: the instrumental part punctuating each verse and chorus with the twice repeated four chords and the drumming that accompanies it. Great for dancing. One of the greatest songs on the album.

3. Never Talking to You Again
Here, we take a break from the seemingly predominant thrash style to an acoustic ballad. While when listened to on its own it could be mistaken for a typical "breakup" anthem, but when placed in proper context; it's about the album's hero "giving up" on his caretakers and seeing their foolishness and destructiveness, leaving them behind for something that seems brighter ahead. The vocal harmonies are beautiful here. For that reason and just the melody, I also love this track (just like the two before it).

4. Chartered Trips
Here's where the adventure really starts to take off -- the hero, according to the song, "packs up his belongings in a nylon carry-all". As he takes off for his long journey, he imagines the sights and sounds and places he may see down the road ahead, optimistic as can be. Like every other song here so far, the melody is beautiful and truly personifies the emotion communicated through the song in a musical format, especially in the chorus.

5. Dreams Reoccurring
This one's really weird. It's basically a creepy, avant-garde jazz-punk piece which seems to be played backwards. With that said, it isn't very long, but interesting enough. No vocals or lyrics, either.

6. Indecision Time
The riff and such are much darker than the initial upbeat feel of the album. Lyrically, it's where the harsh reality of the hero's situation sinks in: "you wonder if life could be much worse"... sleeping on the streets, plagued by paranoia and fear, unable to figure out what the hell to do next. The noisy swooping guitars are reminiscent of uncaring automobiles driving by.

7. Hare Krsna
Accompanied by eastern clattering of an instrument I feel unable to name, the song is melodically done in the style of an Asian religious chant, as supposedly the song is about the protagonist's decision to turn to religion to bring the missing light back into his light. Incessant mumbling and musical moaning can be heard in the background. With that being said, it's a much happier-sounding song than the track before it, and here we have yet another diversion from the standard hardcore formula that already sounded captivating when Hüsker Dü played it. End of Side 1.

8. Beyond the Threshold
A song about feelings of isolation in a crowd land of strangers, wishing to revisit those who may have actually loved you, but unable to do so even if you tried. The vocals have an effect on them to make them seem as grating and unfriendly as the character's situation. Lost in the concrete jungle.

9. Pride
Hopeless screaming of hard-to-understand lyrics already by themselves painting a picture of the pain and confusion of the young and innocent hurled into a world of darkness and evil. People who mug you at the slightest pang of offense, jerks in general, the greedy, those who are cruel to the needy, it's a place that's fucking seedy. Still, the guitar solo done here is damn excellent and sexy.

10. I'll Never Forget You
When you finally find someone in a natural disaster of a world that you feel like you can trust, it's a bit risky, because we all have a tendency to get tired of unwanted guests. But when you throw away the people who really need your company... the results are just not good. The vocalist continually and erratically screams "I'LL NEVER FORGET YOU/I'LL NEVER FORGIVE YOU", just as if he's actually experiencing the subject matter of the song as he sings it. The riff is totally badass.

11. The Biggest Lie
Slow, droning intro. Basically about how the people most vulnerable to harm are those who actually be themselves, and the average, mundane life is a result of "the biggest lie".

12. What's Going On (Inside My Head)
The music here is abrasive, almost sounding like No-Wave music, here. The protagonist of the song realizes that he didn't "listen enough" to what other people had to say to him and feels that he only listened to himself too much at times -- feeling insane as a result. Towards the end of the song, some piano also accompanies the raging guitars and the beat. When the song seems like it's about to end, it all returns back like a boomerang at twice the normal pace just before exploding into some post-punk noize stuff.

13. Masochism World
As a means to escape the frustration and real pain in his current life, the character in the story decides to resort to a new sexual fetish for S&M, as the lyrics consist of things he may have said or thought during this. Midway through the song, there is a chorus of soft female vocals. The tempo sort of lags in a fashion that's hard to explain, but it's real cool. The final few seconds of the song are another noise section.

14. Standing By the Sea
They say this was actually an out-take from the "Metal Circus" sessions, but they evidently found the song worthy enough to make it onto their next album. The title basically sums up the song. The instrumental parts of the song have the sounds of the crashing of waves against the shore, adding to the feel, as the lyrics describe the viewpoint of the lonely protagonist standing by the sea listening to the sound of the waves. End of Side 2.

15. Somewhere
The riffs on this one are great! This song features the main character daydreaming about "somewhere", a place where he can forget about his troubles, feel like he belongs, and feel at ease and safety. The second half of the song features a backwards version of the riff being played alongside the regular riff, adding to the dreamy aura of it.

16. One Step At a Time
A short, psychedelic instrumental piano piece. The melody played on the keys is beautiful, underneath a calm sea of bizarre but peaceful sounds and great chord progressions. The song is less than a minute long.

17. Pink Turns to Blue
In this song, it is said that the main character begins to turn to drug use, distorting reality in hopes of making it more peaceful against the harsher reality, as "pink turns to blue" in his eyes. There's a little piano used in the beginning parts of the song, also.

18. Newest Industry
Like the track before it, it's melodic hardcore punk with a little piano thrown in. It's about the deterioration of the American industrial realm and how society and the government are unable to maintain it for the wars and other meaningless projects they'd rather keep around. And the riffs and such are great, here.

19. Monday Will Never Be the Same
Much like "One Step at a Time", this is a short, sad little piano piece, reflecting the hopelessness and sorrow beginning to drip from the eyes of the protagonist. Not very long, but very powerful and helps to shift the consistency of the album.

20. Whatever
Back to ol' Mom and Dad, the song has the parents of the main character wondering why their son chose the path in life he did... perhaps it was because of their neglect that "he turned out wrong", as he lives in his own world where he feels safe from the surrounding harm. The mid-section is pretty nice to listen to, as without any vocals or lyrics you can feel the void disconnection between the two pieces who have come so far apart.

21. The Tooth Fairy and the Princess
Something strange is happening... music played in a similar fashion to "Dreams Reoccurring"; backwards instrumentation, as voices whispering all around the protagonist's head repeatedly say "Don't give up", "don't let go", and "don't give in", among other things as the character tosses and turns in the bed he has, falling into a strange hole through reality that ends with one loud scream as the voices tell him to "Wake Up". End of Side 3.

22. Turn On the News
It was all a dream. The whole escape was just a the character losing his mind. But he's woken up. Back to the real world. He "turns on the news", as we hear little clippets of broadcast news playing in a storm of chaos until the main part of the song starts up. The lyrics are musings on why the bad things in the world happen and why the world works the way it does sometimes. "All this uptight pushing and shoving keeps us away from who we're loving." Amazing guitar solo here.

23. Reoccurring Dreams
Well, Reoccurring Dreams DO occur, don't they? Well, this dream reoccurred (the one in track 5), but this one izn't backwards anymore. It's a long instrumental symphony of jazz-esque punk rock, extending just 14 minutes long! And that's the end.

Well, it didn't end GREAT or anything, but it was better than the hero dying alone on the streets or something like that, I suppose. And it all works very well. Probably one of the longest hardcore punk LPs ever. This album marked the shift from hardcore punk to post-punk and a new change in Hüsker Dü's sound. Pretty good, huh? Well, I thought so. I can imagine buying this album in 1984 and being BLOWN AWAY by the quality of it. Of course, now there have been at very least a handful of songs that have been written that are better than the songs from this album, but this stuff was completely top-notch for its time and still is! Well, if you're punk and haven't heard this, listen to this album NOW. It will totally change your perception of what punk rock can do for you.

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