When I saw that the mighty Negative Approach was releasing something new after more than 25 years, I got shivers down my spine--the kind of shivers you get when two meth addicts are making the beast with two backs on your grave. The thing is, I've heard a lot of mixed things about the band's recent "reunion" shows--from praise of their performance to more than one person comparing John Brannon's vocals to a cat being drowned. Thankfully, this isn't the 2006-and-onward incarnation of the band, but unreleased recordings from 1984 that have just been unearthed. However, it isn't the classic lineup of Brannon, Opie Moore and the McCulloch brothers either--this is the touring lineup Brannon had put together circa 1984. What does that mean for us as the listener? Well, things kind of match up between chronology and quality; while nothing here is quite as good as Tied Down or their self-titled EP, Friends of No One isn't quite an embarrassing spectacle of trying to relive past glories either.
If you have the Total Recall collection that was released in the '90s, you've already heard live versions of two of the songs here: their cover of the Stooges' "I Got a Right" and their own "Kiss Me Kill Me." Sadly, the fidelity on 26-year-old recordings stored in some Michigan basement doesn't seem to fare much better than those live recordings from 1984. The guitar squeals and feedback were probably intentional, but it leaves things kind of a muddy mess. Now, none of their recordings have been pristine-sounding, but this stuff is generally worse. On the live versions of these songs, Brannon's scratchy bark seemed more sinister than ever, translating the dark energy of the band's negative lyrical predilections wonderfully. It was those predilections that some have said caused the demise of the band's original lineup. Comparatively, Brannon's vocals on these studio recordings are more shrill and grating, definitely embracing the rough nature of the recording quality and putting forth something that is very much an experience. I remain undecided on whether or not it is an enjoyable one.
If you've ever listened to to a Negative Approach song and been to Detroit, you can immediately see how the city created such a band. Both are dark, grey and have a restless hopelessness to them that cannot be fully understood from the outside (sorry Detroit, yous kinda ugly). Yet, NA's music was never an exercise in pure drudgery; sure, they had fast and brutal hardcore songs and moshy numbers that plodded along, but as the inclusion of the Stooges cover here shows, their sound had a great debt to protopunk as well as the catchy sing-alongs of early British Oi!/street punk. Aside from that cover, though, much of these songs lack the variety of their earlier work. There was a tension between the barked vocals and guitar lines rooted in classic rock 'n' roll on songs like "Pressure" and "Tied Down" that desolate numbers like "Obsession" and "Genocide" don't really seem to connect with. Funny that I should be critical of a band being alienated from their own musical history when they themselves were always about alienation. But It's about the tunes, right? It is no coincidence that for this EP the title Friends of No One was chosen because out of all the songs here, that is really the only one that combines the more brutal aspects of the band with the glimpses of accessibility that make their discography such essential listening.
Although the rest of the album isn't quite as satisfying as the title track, some moments do come close ("Kiss Me Kill Me" and "Cargo Cult") and nothing on here is laughably bad, either. When you think the book on a band has been written, it is difficult to insert something in it after the fact with little context and have it serve as anything but a footnote. Friends of No One might just be that footnote, but it should be an enjoyable one if you are a fan of the band. For everyone else, I suggest you grab the title track off of a digital retailer and invest in Total Recall instead if you don't already have it.