Black Flag - What The... (Cover Artwork)

Black Flag

Black Flag: What The...What The... (2013)
SST Records

Reviewer Rating: 3.5
User Rating:

Contributed by: JohnGentileJohnGentile
(others by this writer | submit your own)

iTunes StoreAmazon

First, to say that What Theā?¦ doesn't "sound" like a Black Flag album makes no sense. Since the band's very inception, they have consistently bucked what came before them, challenging their fans and their fandom in the process. When second and now most recent but also now ex-vocalist Ron Reyes replaced Keith Morris for 1980's Jealous Again, the punk community criticized the band for losing Morris' snarl. When fourth vocalist Henry Rollins replaced third vocalist Dez Cadena, the band was criticized for bringing in a more self-serious style in lieu of their former gleeful self-destruction. When they went slow and heavy on 1984's My War, the band was criticized for not replicating Damaged. Black Flag have no "one sound" because they've been in constant evolution since their inception, and to attack them for not sounding like like they did on Nervous Breakdown or Damaged misses the point entirely. Second, were this album released without any of the hoopla surrounding Black Flag/Ron Reyes/FLAG, then it would be hailed as a "worthy addition to the Black Flag catalogue" instead of the supposed abomination that it has been labeled as. Third, as with so many latter-era Black Flag records, it is severely undercooked.

Of course, the centerpiece of the album and controversy is founding member and lead guitarist Greg Ginn. Lately, Ginn has been getting a lot of heat for being petty and nasty. All that may be true, but music isn't to be judged on whether someone is "nice," but if they create captivating art. Without a doubt, Ginn is a guitar genius and the way he effortlessly writes incredible licks on What Theā?¦ shows that he is still as sharp as he was on SST001.

Every riff on this 22 track album features Ginn at his most savage. He flies up and down the scales like a maestro, whipping between charging chords and mousetrap, explosive configurations. All at once his playing is fast, bestial, and most importantly, unpredictable. Plus, there is that wonderful, blues-gone-metal-gone-avant garde tone of his which is instantly identifiable. The ease with which he crafts these songs shows just how many light years he is beyond everyone else.

That being said, What Theā?¦ sounds like it was meant to be an instrumental album with vocals chucked on top. In all of its original incarnations, Black Flag excelled in one aspect where almost every other punk band failed–space. Ginn knew exactly when to attack, back up, fade into the dark, and the explode back when least expected. But here, his jamming is relentless.

Reyes who sounds even better than he did on Jealous Again, his voice deeper, richer, and stronger but still with that manic surfer edge. But, he seems to constantly be trying to squeeze into these songs. Whereas, say, on "White Minority" or "Depression" the vocalist would storm in, then let Ginn's riffs raze the ground in a one-two attack, here, Ginn washes out Reyes' vocals with nonstop noise. There is simply too much crammed into these songs. Had Reyes been given room to deliver his lyrics, most of which are up there with the classic Black Flag snaps, these songs would have been some of the band's best–tight, 1:30 ragers that twist and turn. For instance, on "Lies," where Reyes does get some space, the tension, style, and menace of classic Black Flag appears as if it is as easy to do as flipping on a light switch. But instead, for the majority of the album, Ginn seems more intent on guitar exercises than actual songs.

Ginn has been criticized on the album for playing a theremin. That is a stupid opinion. Black Flag was never a band that enforced the "rules of punk." Rather, Black Flag constantly swiped at the chains being wrapped around them. Not only is Ginn's choice to play the theremin daring and inventive, but it is an unexpected way of throwing off the shackles of the modern definition of punk. To boot, Ginn seems to be such an unrelenting taskmaster that he plays the theremin with the skill of a master and the instrument adds a marvelous, eerie quality to the band which if anything, reinforces its image as one of danger, invention and unpredictability. Plus, you know, just playing a theremin is pretty cool in of itself.

It's easy to want to hate this album, because it was birthed in such controversy and also may offend an intangible notion of the band's values which no one can ever seem to quite define or state what is being violated (not to mention, the band themselves never agreed to that pact to begin with.) But, when on tracks like "Outside," where Ginn bends out his fabulously sharp, teethed, ominous riffs, and where he allows Reyes to howl out in that beach bum gone berserk voice of his, the band reach the subliminal heights of their original run. In those fleeting moments, Black Flag are once again the greatest punk band ever. But, they are all too fleeting. If only the band had spent a little time more working on composition and less on jammingā?¦

-People have been unduly hash on the album cover. Reyes made it, and in his defense, when he originally designed it, he didn't know that it would be in color and didn't even know the image would be the cover. You don't have to like it, but remember, there are people behind this art and no one is making Beyonce money here- let's try to remain at least human in our criticisms, yes?

-The Ducky Boys do back up vocals on this... What?!


People who liked this also liked:
Black Flag - The First Four YearsBad Brains - Into the FutureEast Bay Ray and the Killer Smiles - East Bay Ray and the Killer SmilesClassics of Love - Classics of LoveBlack Flag - Who's Got the 10Ā½?: LiveMelvins - HoudiniChuck Dukowski Sextet - HauntedThe Garden - The Life and Times of a PaperclipSleep - Dopesmoker [reissue]The Stranglers - On Stage, On Screen [live DVD]

Please login or register to post comments.What are the benefits of having a Punknews.org account?
  • Share your opinion by posting comments on the stories that interest you
  • Rate music and bands and help shape the weekly top ten
  • Let Punknews.org use your ratings to help you find bands and albums you might like
  • Customize features on the site to get the news the way you want.
Fine Print: The following comments are owned by whoever posted them. We are not respon sible for them in any way. Seriously.
blatz89 (March 24, 2014)

It's an artistic venture. In my opinion, that means that it's meant to be taken free of context, as the interpreter decides.

That being said, two things,
One: The cover is REALLY stupid, any way you look at it.
Two: While not my favorite in their catalogue, I found this to be a fairly listenable and enjoyable record.

Amoeba (February 10, 2014)

I like this record...

punkedb4ashton (December 25, 2013)

First, to begin a review with a reply to a prior criticism you don't identify or explain makes no sense.

This is a really really long, ultra-defensive-fanboy way of wandering around burning straw men before finally admitting the album is not very good. The entire argument seems to be that everyone else is wrong about why the album is not very good, so here is the real reason it's not very good. And then handicaps it a star and a half anyhow. And says criticizing cover art is cruel and unusual punishment. Lame.

1039smoothie (December 24, 2013)

this artwork looks like an All Time Low cover

SteveBrule (December 24, 2013)

the whole thing was trash.

drlex (December 21, 2013)

i've listened to What The...? a few times now and find myself surprised at how much i like it. at the same time, i agree that it was rushed a little, like ginn had some jams then decided for reyes to sing over them. i didn't like how long it was either. 22 songs? they should've worked twice as hard at refining half that many songs. but none of it sucks as bad as so many of the reactions people have posted. ginn's fucking incredible, reyes sounds great, it's actually a pretty good fucking comeback record and they killed it live.

as for all the arm chair art critics who have lined up to suck pettibone's dick over the new album cover,...fuck you guys. only a dumbass takes album art so fucking seriously when they're judging music. god damn already. you really make me wonder where your heads are at, too, because a lot of pettibone's stuff is pretty disturbing. maybe you guys never really liked music to begin with, huh? it's just that you could relate to the twisted art. cops sucking on pistols. jealous bitches duking it out. guys with whips and chairs. you really like the pettibone stuff sooooo much that not one of you critics even noticed that there are plenty of awesome black flag releases that also did not have pettibone artwork. like DAMAGED, for example. and louie louie. and annihilate. and live '84. etc.

and finally, in response to the (poseur) commenting about wanting to laser remove his black flag tattoo...i say go right ahead. if you really think that rise above is no longer brilliant because 30 years later their comeback album doesn't live up to your hardcore standards then maybe you'd be better off with wash away tattoos like my little boy likes.

xdearyoux (December 21, 2013)

Haven't/ won't listen to a single note on this record, no matter how much its defended (for god only knows why)

I don't really feel like having the BF bars on the back of my leg lazered off. Fuck Greg Ginn.

riotofwordsrva (December 19, 2013)

Appreciate the attempt at objectivity on such a bloated release. I looked up 'Lies' as you suggested and you're right, it actually sounds a little bit like old Black Flag / isn't a steaming pile of dog shit:


Eve ry other track I've heard does feel like a jam session with vocals crammed in on top.

wallofyouth (December 19, 2013)

wanted to love it, afraid i'm generally aligned with pitchfork on this one

( http://pitchfork.com/reviews/albums/18763-black-flag-what-the/ )

Thrillhouse (December 17, 2013)

The artwork sucks, the album sucks, Ginn sucks. The review read like some Kevin Smith defending the Stars Wars prequel trilogy fanboy bullshit.
If this weren't called "Black Flag" people would have less of a problem with it I'm sure, but the problem is just that, no one would pay attention if he didn't decide to use the name Black Flag. It's one egomaniac's attempt at paying his bills. He must've run out of the money he never paid to actual artists.

sonique (December 17, 2013)

Ok, this is not a post on the relative merits/or not of the album art, but if you're wondering where the image comes from:

lmchc (December 17, 2013)

When you make a sketch, sure it will look poorly drawn - but you don't stop there. You actually finish the art before slapping it on the front of the CD, or you tell Greg Ginn he can't use it.

I bet the mighty Black Flag could have had a contest to design the new album cover with a $500 prize and they would have gotten something better than this turd of a cover art.

davebrave4 (December 17, 2013)

One last thing: another unique aspect of John's perspective is that Black Flag's sound evolved for this album in a manner that makes it more like music John G likes and listens to. That might be part of why his opinion of it is so much different that most people's. I hate to compare it to the Melvins, but it took their sound in a slightly more Melvins-y direction, so of course John digs it.

davebrave4 (December 17, 2013)

Alright. First of all, I enjoy most of what John G contributes to this website, and I've only heard it once but I enjoyed the new Black Flag a lot more than I thought I would.

With that said: I think it's pretty unreasonable to assume that the album "would be hailed as a 'worthy addition to the Black Flag catalogue'" if it weren't for the Flag drama surrounding it. While I'm sure some people's opinions have been swayed by the bands' members and attitudes, there are definitely people out there who have listened to this with an open mind and have still not enjoyed it. Furthermore, as you (that is, John) yourself pointed out, when Black Flag changed their sound in the past, they were usually met with hostility from much of their existing fanbase. Why would this be different? Why would this be instantly loved when their older direction-changing albums weren't?

Secondly, lay off the criticism of the album art. Yes, a human being drew it--just like with most albums. People shouldn't be less critical of it just because it was drawn by a member of the band. Ron may have drawn it without knowing it would be the cover, but it is the cover. Someone made the conscious decision to use it as the album art. That person (or, more likely, people) knew full well that, seeing as it's the first Black Flag album in decades, it would be met with a great deal of criticism, be it positive or negative. Ron just got kicked out of Black Flag. I'm thinking whether punkers like his drawing is among the least of his concerns; and even if it were, the vast majority of the criticism I've seen has been about the choice to use this image, and not about Ron's drawing acumen.

Thirdly, I didn't review this album, but I'm guessing there are others who did. Others who weren't already so aggressively in support of the Black Flag reunion. Others who hadn't created controversy here by previously giving Black Flag live such a controversially glowing review, leading to the incredibly defensive/embattled nature of this review. Others whose mouths weren't occupied by Greg Ginn's tiny organ. Why on earth would you post this as anything but a supplement to a previous, less incredibly biased review?

Scruffy (December 17, 2013)

"-People have been unduly hash on the album cover. Reyes made it, and in his defense, when he originally designed it, he didnā??t know that it would be in color and didnā??t even know the image would be the cover. You donā??t have to like it, but remember, there are people behind this art and no one is making Beyonce money here- letā??s try to remain at least human in our criticisms, yes?"

As a professional artist, absolutely NO. The problem with this art isn't that it looks bad, but that it was DONE poorly. It's clearly a doodle that was blown up, with zero touchup work done to remove the artifacting (which is only there due to a bad scan job and a very dirty original) . On top of this, the fact that it wasn't intended to be colored is not the problem. It's that the colors they chose are beyond awful. Reyes' sketch is not bad. What was done to turn that sketch into an album cover is bad. The type looks like it was thrown in with Microsoft Publisher.

The punk scene is so fucking glutted with artists and designers that it is absolutely inexcusable for a band this big to not ask someone with a background in design to turn the illustration into a passable album cover. To excuse it by saying, "They had no idea what they were doing, so we shouldn't complain," is an insult to those of us who do know what we're doing, and go without work because someone with a bootlegged copy of Photoshop thinks "I got this."

Good art should always be the goal. I did an album cover for an old band once, when I was just starting out and didn't know what I was doing, and I am the first to admit that it is shit, and should never have been the album cover. If you defend mistakes you never learn from them.

madapril (December 17, 2013)

Why Theā?¦

whatchokesbegin (December 17, 2013)

No "Beyonce money"... that's your excuse? There is so much wrong with that logic, it's not even funny.

paulsilence (December 17, 2013)

So never criticize art because PEOPLE make it? I have never read a more PC, kumbayah, everybody's okay line of garbage in my life.

orgcorepunker (December 17, 2013)

So not org.

anytime (December 17, 2013)

This blows dick and balls and buttholes and poop and peepee and throw up and spit and guts and blood and snort.

aaronrkc (December 17, 2013)


LosPeptobismol (December 17, 2013)

This review is...generous. There are a few decent songs on this but most of it sounds like it took between one quarter and one half of a butt to write.

JayTee (December 17, 2013)

No. You're an idiot. You very clearly went into this with some faux-contrarian "objectivity" and mistook utter trash as "Ooo, that riff was kind of cool. Kind of. High marks!" not quite subconsciously.

Nap (December 17, 2013)

How can you defend the artwork? Really???
That's the most stupid artwork of all time.

coolhand (December 17, 2013)

And in regards to the cover art, don't defend it. It's unbelievably fucking stupid. It's a fine little cartoon, but as a Black Flag album cover? Gimme a fucking break. It looks like a rejected Buck-o-Nine cover.

coolhand (December 17, 2013)

I really wanted to like this album, but it's so fucking dull. Every song sounds exactly the same. Big ol' thumbs down.

thisrespirator (December 17, 2013)

Couldn't make it more than 5 songs in.

duf (December 17, 2013)

Completely unlistenable album.

telegraphrocks (December 17, 2013)

Ginn's a cock, no doubt, but I want to hear this.
I'll listen with an open mind. Of the 2 songs I've heard, one was very 'meh', and the other was okay.

stivy (December 16, 2013)

Punk's not dead! (they're just fucking zombies)

MN_DrNick (December 16, 2013)

Christ.... of course John would give this a good review. If I could, I'd give this pile of garbage 0 stars.

coffee_bandit (December 16, 2013)

Review written by Greg Ginn.

misterspike (December 16, 2013)

I love you John, but not my fave JohnG review. I have yet to hear the album, and most certainly will ... but this review, in many parts, just seems like a defense against prior barbs that have been lobbed at Ginn and Co., and whether or not they are true. Not much talk about the songs, nor why I should care (other than, wow Ginn is a good guitar player). I honestly don't have much of an idea of this album after reading the review, other than "Give it a chance."

Exclusive Streams


Newest Reviews

Punknews.org Team

Managing Editor

Adam White

Contributing Editors

Kira Wisniewski Brittany Strummer Armando Olivas John Flynn Chris Moran John Gentile Mark Little

Copy Editor

Adam Eisenberg Britt Reiser

Podcast Producer

Greg Simpson


Aubin Paul

ISSN 1710-5366

© Copyright 1999-2013 Punknews.org

Terms of Use Privacy Policy Contact Us About Punknews.org

Other Places to Go