The Suicide Machines - Battle Hymns (Cover Artwork)
Staff Pick

The Suicide Machines

Battle Hymns (1998)

Hollywood Records

“Ska Sucks”- Propagandhi, 1993. I wholeheartedly agree with this sentiment. Except for when I don’t. I avoid writing ska reviews like the plague. (Except for beloved local favorites Mustard Plug.) It’s just not my thing. There’s no crying in baseball, and there’s no horns in punk. I wrote off The Suicide Machines as just another third wave ska band for many years. It was my loss. It wasn’t until I started getting into frontman J Navarro’s other projects (Hellmouth, Break Anchor), that I decided to give them another chance.

Things could have been different. I can still remember the first time that Jack Kevorkian and the Suicide Machines came to Grand Rapids in the early ‘90s. (Assisted suicide advocate and practitioner Dr. Jack Kevorkian was also from Detroit and was making big headlines at the time.) The show was at my favorite, now long defunct local venue, The Reptile House. (I have a drunken theory that every bigger city has its own version of CBGB’s. For Grand Rapids it was definitely the Reptile.) I missed that show. I don’t remember why. Maybe I just figured ska sucks. Maybe I had something else going on. If I had been there that night, there’s a pretty good chance I would have become a fan. Instead, I had to take a more crooked path to the band.

By 1998, The Suicide Machines had shortened their name and sharpened their attack. While Battle Hymns still included plenty of upstroked ska, there was also lots of political hardcore and straight up punk. They had taken the more aggressive parts of their debut full length, Destruction By Definition (1996), and pushed them ever further. You could hear all the individual pieces for what would become Navarro’s future projects. There was the throat shredding, angry hardcore that would be Hellmouth’s signature. There was the melodic East Bay style pop punk that would define Break Anchor. Last but not least, there was the ska that would be taken to the next level with the old school two tone influenced J Navarro and the Traitors.

I know I’ve been focusing on singer Navarro (the sole constant member), but the other guys in the band were no slouches either. Former (and current) members are a virtual who’s who of Detroit punk rockers. Most notable is Derek Grant who has had a pretty solid career as drummer for Alkaline Trio, and as a professional drum whore. (I swear I don’t mean that as an insult. I LOVE Dead Ending.) Ironically, I most recently saw him playing with The Vandals (who he was also with previously), filling in for the original punk drum whore extraordinaire Josh Freese.

The eternal debate among Suicide Machines fans is Destruction By Definition versus Battle Hymns. The good news is, there’s not really a wrong answer. I’m a little late to the party, but for my money it’s Battle Hymns. It has aged extremely gracefully, and that’s not true of most ska records. I think that’s because when it’s all said and done, The Suicide Machines made not only a great ska record, but ultimately a great punk record.