What happens when angry guys who spend their youth screaming in hardcore punk bands grow up? If they’re lucky (and most aren’t), they end up like Henry Rollins, fronting a band for a deep-pocketed major label like DreamWorks, doling out dollars as the chief of his own publishing company, and dabbling in spoken-word performance and big-budget movie acting. Against all odds, Rollins has almost become…mainstream — he’s been in Gap ads, for God’s sake. Back in the early ’80s, when he sang with the California-based group Black Flag, Rollins would have been pilloried by doctrinaire punks for even daydreaming about such things.
Rollins Band’s seventh album, Come In and Burn, finds him again melodramatically declaiming lyrics that sound like transcriptions from a therapy session, over his band’s patented, jazz-tinged Uberrock. Burn begins with ”Shame,” ends with ”Rejection,” and in between covers anomie, loneliness, dysfunction, and low self-esteem; indeed, Rollins’ primary themes have barely changed since the days when he barked out songs like ”Depression” on Black Flag’s 1981 album, Damaged.
His beat is his own id, and it’s not pretty. Yet there’s something disarmingly, well, healthy about Rollins’ use of rock as a purgative tool. A fitness buff who eschews drugs, he’s a walking contradiction, a misanthropic crank and self-help coach rolled into one tattooed, musclebound package. Here’s someone who lionizes the Stooges and Black Sabbath — bands who presaged the mid-’70s punk movement that spawned Black Flag — yet whose persona has grown practically antithetical to that of those bands. The Stooges wallowed in their character defects, venting aggression and disgust with no higher goal in sight, but Rollins’ rage comes across as righteous, almost holy. When he screams ”I want to feel extinction,” what he’s really saying is, ”I wanna be well!” Iggy Pop has said that the Stooges’ target audience was drugged-out high school dropouts; Rollins Band addresses those kids a few years down the line, when they’re in recovery programs and struggling with crap jobs, neurotic lovers, and night school.
Rollins has always been a far better howler than a singer. It could be argued that his expository vocal style doesn’t qualify as singing at all — which is why he’s fortunate to have such a powerhouse band behind him. The players — guitarist Chris Haskett, bassist Melvin Gibbs, drummer Sim Cain — have perfected a truly massive two-parts-metal/one-part-fusion musical onslaught that’s well worth cocking an ear to. Burn’s jam-rooted flights can be dizzying, as on the finale to ”The End of Something,” where Haskett’s spiraling solo lifts the song into another realm, or on ”Starve,” on which Gibbs’ bass asserts itself with gut-punching force. For anyone who’s ever dreamed about a musical summit meeting between Metallica and the Mahavishnu Orchestra — we know you’re out there — this stuff is manna.
Sure, it’s easy to see why Rollins’ detractors dismiss him as a one-trick pony. His obsessive psyche tilling yields as much chaff as wheat (”The city’s in my blood like a curse/And the people and the noise just make it worse”), and writing a song as pithily definitive as, say, Black Sabbath’s ”Paranoid” seems beyond him. But though his feel-my-pain shtick borders on self parody, even naysayers have to be impressed by the man’s single-minded determination to shove his discomfort in your face. ”So much anger/So much rage/No the sadness never fades,” he proclaims on ”Saying Goodbye Again.”
It’s significant that Foo Fighters leader and ex-Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl sports a Black Flag tattoo. The children of Nirvana could find worse role models than Rollins. He may be the king of kvetchers, but its impossible to imagine him turning a shotgun on himself — there’s still too much poison to be drained. At the close of ”Thursday Afternoon,” a woman’s voice is heard saying, ”When I’m around animals or children, my problems don’t seem as intense.” A session with Burn may prove more effective than either kittens or kids for putting one’s worries in perspective.