Monday, August 31, 2009

Cro-Mags "Best Wishes", Analyzing Side A

Best Wishes is a a record that gives rise to a lot of strong opinions. Camps are pretty split on it, but it seems that in more recent years, a younger generation of HC kids has taken a liking to this record that wasn't as prevalent even ten years ago. What was once "the first metal Cro-Mags record" is now simply described in many circles as "the second Cro-Mags album...which is great." There's a definite legacy surrounding it, the legacy just seems to be in a constant state of flux and debate every few years.

One thing that is fair to this album is to simply analyze it without putting it in the shadow of the greatest NYHC record of all time, AKA Age Of Quarrel. John Joseph isn't here, Mackie's replaced by Pete Hines, and it's a different time with 39372028 various internal band beefs having taken place since 1986. Yet at the same time, Best Wishes must in fact be analyzed as the 2nd album from the Cro-Mags, so as to understand the back story and dynamic of the band and their infamy, and to lend a credibility that would not exist if this was just an album from a random band in 1989.

Tying into this is the realization one has to have regarding the origins of these songs and the fact that some were actually written while the Age Of Quarrel version of the Cro-Mags existed. As far as my sources go, it's not like Harley/Paris/Doug/Pete walked into Normandy Sound in '89 and said "ok, we need some songs." I think the groundwork and inspiration for at least some of them could be traced back to 1986, and that is evident in some riffs and structures. Obviously, Crush The Demoniac was written right around the time AOQ was released, but the others have glimmers of a previous era to them at times, even in light of how much may have changed between then and now (no pun intended).

Harley with the Cro-Mags, Photo: Jessica Gorman

But enough with the preliminaries...let's talk about the album opener, fucking Death Camps. While this isn't your standard slow mosh intro, I'm putting this EASILY in my top 5 song intros ever. A fade-up of double bass drum triplets and quads, a barbaric crushing open bass line, and then Doug/Paris coming in with blistering chords on and's pretty much the soundtrack to violently stealing something and then driving extremely fast from the police, and/or using semi-automatic firearms in the jungle, and/or walking into Blood territory in a bright blue velvet jumpsuit that says "Eff Tha Bloods." I recently learned about how this intro was created by the Mags, and while Harley's forthcoming book will reveal the story, all I can say is that it showcases the genius of the Cro-Mags.

The fast parts are Priest-like and ripping, a musical backdrop to the most compelling vegetarian lyrics to ever come from a HC band. Youth Of Today inspired thousands of straight edge kids in 1988 to pull a Tom Rock and drop their hamburgers (lost you? Check the No More video), but Death Camps paints such a darker reality for the carnivore listener. I'm not vegetarian, but if you had to pick lyrics from a HC song to make your argument, this is your starkest tune. Harley and friend Doug Crosby penned these lines (as well as many others on the record) and did a hell of a job with the imagery and alliteration.

My favorite part of this song, and of the record, is the face melter Doug Holland lights up in the last fast part before the breakdown that just peels your face off. Then they get to the breakdown, and he stops, almost as if to insinuate, "yeah, I just slayed you, you're done, mosh yourselves into oblivion...take it away boys." But then, the mosh part builds, and it's almost like he just said "ah fuck it, I'll kill them again" and just hops back in and drops more sick notes and trickery all over the place. One of the best mosh parts ever. No song would better open this album.

Days Of Confusion doesn't follow up as strongly as I wish it did, but it's still a shredding ripper that Harley has described as a Discharge-inspired riff fused into Paris-ized metal progression. The Krishna inspired lyrics that remain throughout the album are introduced for the first time here as well. The shortest song on the album at well under three minutes, it's over before you know it compared to the other 4 minute plus ragers on here. Not that it is under-cooked, but considering some of the more complex arrangements on the album and the never-ending feel of some of the other riffage, the brevity of this has always seemed a little suspect. That said, solid song.

Harley and Parris, Down But Not Out

The Only One has been considered often as the most daring track on the album, described by some as "the ballad." To me, sans Harley's vocal melodies and a few of the breaks in the song, it's just a long mid-tempo mosh seducer that could have been tacked onto Seekers Of The Truth to create the hardest song of all time. Not sure what this is worth, but Glenn Danzig once told Harley this is his favorite Cro-Mags song...which makes me like it that much more. Whether this is interpreted as a severe love song or simply a devotional to Krishna, the lyrics are probably the most direct and Krishna-heavy on the record, and Harley has taken his shots for them over the years. I may be alone in a crowd when saying this is a great song, but when I hear that opening bass line I want to simultaneously chant 16 rounds and take a gigantic chain with me onto the Irving Plaza dancefloor. Not many songs inspire me like that.

Down But Not Out is a straight up slaughter-fest. A Paris riff jumpstarts the song like a razorblade through your throat and while the song feels like it goes a tad long here and there with some slowed down parts that aren't necessary, it's ultimately a riff-fest the whole way through with Harley's bass constantly carrying everything. Oh, Pete Hines. It's no news this guy was just relentless, and while I'm not a huge double bass fan, he's just all-time on this album for what these songs are. Mackie is practically irreplaceable, and I think that other than adding a bit of a street feel at times and a little less by-the-books metal flair, Mackie would have played these songs pretty similarly had he been behind the kit.

More good lyrics on DBNO as well. For some reasons, I've always loved these lines and how Harley shouts them:

"Can't make your future or kill your past
With a spike in your arm or a shotgun blast
Till you have the strength to look within
You'll be fighting a battle you'll never win"

Any Straight Edge nerd could say those same things and it won't have the same type of resonance to it as when you hear it from a dude like Harley. Pretty legit stuff. I can't tell you how many times I've been bummed on something and someone asks me how I'm doing and the first thing that goes through my head, beceause of this song, is "Down...But Not Out." Then I want to put on the '89 tour shirt and dedicate my life to being a thrashing maniac.

That closes out side A. At that point you are taking in a Cro-Mags sound that is clearly different both musically and production-wise from Age Of Quarrel, complete with the huge, reverb-heavy, polished recording and Harley's vocal crooning and growling replacing the trademark John Joseph sneer. Everyone has an opinion about Harley's vocals on this and any other time he has sang. Personally, I think they sound pretty cool. Would I have loved to have heard JJ singing this stuff? Yes. But it is what it is, I dig it, and I think stylistically again, JJ wouldn't have been too far off from this had it been him in the booth at Normandy.

As the needle lifts off the vinyl, it's evident that this is the 1989 version of The Cro-Mags, and there's still Side B to listen to... -Gordo DCXX

Harley with the Cro-Mags, Photo: Jessica Gorman


Rising Sun said...

who wrote this? a gold star to you! best wishes is sick, numetal done right (don't laugh, it's true).

Ben Edge said...

"The Only One" I always thought was Cro-Mags trying to have their own version of "Sacred Love" by the Bad Brains. It even has a similar effect on the vocals.

Anonymous said...

the only one is really like sacred love and secret 77. Awesome piece and cool to see best wishes get a lot of love, totally uder-rated record and way ahead of its time.

Burai Core D&D said...

The bass playing and sound is massive on this album. So low and heavy but with all those quick pull off fills and chords. The metal sound of the guitars gives it room to breathe. I love the way this album sounds, I think its a rare example of 80s metal production working right, where as Age Of Quarrel sounded thin and flat with that metallish sound (of course the demo was a raging beast). Imagine We Gotta Know with this production...

Z said...

I remember the first time I listened to this record - Rob Fish and I pooled our money and picked it up at Vintage then went back to his house to listen to it. Expecting AOQ II, we were both underwhelmed by what we heard. I held that opinion for about the next 10 years, I just couldn't get into Best Wishes. It's not that I hated it, I just didn't pay attention to it - sort of like I convinced myself that it never existed. I'm not sure what happened, but like a light switch it just became part of my musical rotation and now I give it all the respect it deserves. Great record.

Anonymous said...

They actually did play a few of these songs (in addition to "Crush The Demoniac") with John Joseph. I have/had a tape of a L'Amour show where they did some. Wonder where the tape is.

Rinjo Njori! said...

There are Mp3's out there with JJ on Crush the Demoniac. I prefer Harley on this track. Back in 89 I made myself love this album-- now I love it. The Only one as the Cro_mags Sacred love or Secret 77 that is a new one on me-- It's a metal ballad at the end of the day.

What does everyone think of Revenge? I would say that is the 3rd best album. Alpha Omega is criminal and Near Death Experience is hated by virtually evryone-- including both sides of the Cro-Mags camp. Back in 1995 you couldn't get John's Cro-Mag All Stars to play a track.

Anonymous said...

i've always liked this record. it's a cromags record highly under the influence of kill'em all, ride the lightning and M.O.P chord progressions and solos. and as far as vocals go i thought harley was trying to emulate JJ's style except on The Only One i thought he was trying to emulate dave mustaine's vocal style LOL.

Anonymous said...

I have always said that this album is totally underrated and AOQ is totally overrated. That might have something to do with me hearing this album first and not having a huge personal divide between punk/hardcore and metal at the time it came out. Plus I never understood the people who do like hardcore AND metal not liking this album. It might not sound like AOQ or their idea of the Cro-Mags, but it’s still an awesome metal/crossover album on its own.

“Crush The Demoniac” is still the most crushing intro to any album I own. The drums, the guitars, the bass, the voice, the lyrics; everything on this album is completely powerful and relentless. Well, I did used to think “The Only One” was a little cheesy, but now I love it as a little temporary break from the action.

And for everyone who owned the AOQ/Best Wishes CD on Profile, how could you not think that AOQ sounded completely weak compared to Best Wishes? I guess talking about the streets made it seem hard. The demos do sound great though.

Anonymous said...

This pretentious collection of religeous rock tunes prompts one to ask, "On what day did God create the Cro-Mags without John Joseph, and couldn't He have rested on that day too?"

Anonymous said...

Gordo, looking forward to your take on the "Age Of Quarrel" from this truely awesome album. That intro makes me want to destroy the world everytime i listen to it.

Anonymous said...

I think this records rips... Judge basically used the exact sounds from drums to bass to guitar on Bringing It Down.

Anonymous said...

come on guys!!!, this record is a good metal record, but not really a good hardcore record. Even Harley says this is not hardcore. Judge were a total Cro-mags copy.

king19 said...

brilliant writing. initially this website seemed like straightedge worship but the diversity of taste and thorough perspective in gordo's writings have made me realize the depth going on here. i dont know if you [gordo] write for other sites or magazines but you really should, bro. keep it coming, im anticipating side b soon.

zsilvia said...

I think the comments posted here about judge and best wishes sounding the same means one absolutely HAVE to do a normandy sound review. I grew up a street over from Normandy and had no idea what awesome music I would be listening to later in life that came from that studio...

Anyway: Normandy sound recodings: Best Wishes, 1st 2 Leeway records, Bringin' It Down, Rest in Pieces - Under My Skin, Just Look Around...was Blood, Sweat and No Tears from Normandy too? I'm sure I am missing something important...Regardless...sick track record, all these records sound incredible.

P said...

Best Wishes is an absolute killer Cro Mags album and they're one of the greatest metal bands ever.

Death Camps, Down But Not Out, The Only One, and Crush the Demoniac are my faves.

I love the chorus in Crush the Demoniac where Harley goes, "DEMONIAC, you have no intelligence and engage in destructive and immoral acts meant to destroy the world!!" or something along those lines!