When Punknews interviewed Keith Morris earlier this year, he described OFF! as "what if Keith had never left Black Flag?". Well, he got it half right.
Through the 16 tracks on First Four EPs, Morris maintains the vitriol, manic energy, and slight "this guy isn't quite all there" that made Nervous Breakdown so great. In fact, he even kicks up the energy a notch. While punk was still forming when Nervous Breakdown was recorded, now, Morris knows exactly what punk rock is and he knows exactly how he's going to show us how it's done.
Through the four EPs (that, aside from the first one, were not actually released separately) Morris just explodes. Like early Black Flag, he expresses his inability to fit in with society, the frustration of dealing with fake Californians and losing control of one's self. Interestingly, where the Nervous Breakdown EP ended with "Wasted," which was, depending on your opinion, either an ode or criticism of descent into oblivion via substance abuse, OFF!'s last song on this release, "Peace in Hermosa" starts with Morris recounting being zagged out on uppers, only to have the music fade into a sinister ambient bend, suggesting that the worst is yet to come...
But to suggest that OFF! is what Greg Ginn would have done had Keith stuck around is a misnomer. Wisely, the band does not try to duplicate or forecast what Ginn would have done after Nervous Breakdown. Many other guitarists have tried to copy the eccentric genius...and, well...you just can't replicate Greg Ginn. Instead, the band jacks up Detroit-style hard rock riffs and adds a punk edge, giving them real momentum that feels like it's ready to jump the rails, but never quite does. Without any extra flourishes, the band excels in their unique ability to keep it short and snappy, assuming the feel of Nervous Breakdown and Group Sex, but never feeling like they are copying either of those classics.
With 16-minute shows and 18-minute "albums," OFF! is reclaiming what can be absolutely great about punk rock. There's not a millisecond of wasted time, not a single wasted breath, not a single crack of the drums that doesn't drive the music forward. That's not to say that Morris is saying that ALL punk rock has to sound like this--the album has an ode to Jeffery Lee Pierce, Morris's old roommate, an entirely different type of punk rocker.
But in its packaging, First Four Eps seems to be making a retrospective of a band that is less than a year old and has played less than 10 live shows, demonstrating OFF!'s idea of ideal punk. It's with good reason.
Let's talk shop real quick. So far, there are several different versions of this release: A physical release on Vice, a digital release on iTunes, and a cassette release on Burger Records. If you like the physical product, like me, get the box set, because it comes with a download, too. Although the iTunes version has a bonus 17th track not on the EPs, you can download that separately.