Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Flotsam and Jetsam - No Place for Disgrace (1988)

Not only is No Place for Disgrace my favorite album in the entire Flotsam and Jetsam legacy, but it's another of those many 1988 classics which arrived at precisely the proper time to augment and evolve the genre beyond the cruder, often unrefined aesthetics of its earliest expressions. Not that there was anything wrong with those timeless, primal thrashing roots, but this Arizona quintet's welcome application of melodic/power metal riffing patterns and the higher pitched, unique tone of front man Eric A.K. Knutson added an epic, itinerant nuance to the palm muted chugging and aggression which many US acts were settling upon, and No Place for Disgrace put the band well beyond fellow statesman Atrophy and Sacred Reich who had shepherded meatier, violent sounds (though to be fair, both of those bands were once quite great in their own right).

This record also heralded the band's transition from the young Metal Blade to the major label circuit via Elektra Records, following their former bassist Jason Newsted. He had left Flotsam for the coveted and difficult role of replacing Cliff Burton in Metallica, who were pretty much the biggest band in the land at the time coming off Master of Puppets, at least for this style of epic speed/thrash architecture. I'm sure this connection must have had something to do with the signing, but Flotsam and Jetsam were no 'also ran'. Newsted was still involved with some of the writing of this album, specifically "I Live You Die", "N.E. Terror" and the title track, and as anyone who had heard Doomsday to the Deceiver knew, his own shoes were also pretty hard to fill, as his muscular chops and performance were one of the clear strong points of the debut. In flew Troy Gregory, no slouch himself, but perhaps a part victim to what I'd consider the one gaping flaw in what is otherwise a tremendous sophomore: the production.

Metal Blade in houses Bill Metoyer, who had coincidentally worked with those other Arizonan bands I mentioned, as well as took part in the Doomsday sessions, was at the helm here, and he's credited with both production and engineering. The guy's somewhat of a legend himself, and certainly he's got an impressive track record through the 80s (scan his credentials and then try to conceal your ensuing metal erection), but No Place for Disgrace is not one of his finer hours. The mix is admittedly clear, and not constrained enough through its faults to hinder the nearly 25 years of enjoyment I've derived from the album, but there were some problems. For one, the guitar tone was far too crisp and crunchy. For the flightier, rapid melodies it worked well enough, but the heavier breakdown elements used in songs like "Hard On You" and instrumental finale "The Jones" would have been better served with something smoother.

Also, the bass tone, which had been really robust on the debut, seems a bit too thin for Gregory's lines. Overall, the drums and vocals had an airier presence to them which was not so compact as or level as Master of Puppets or Reign in Blood, yet suitable to the more melodic use of the vocal sequences and the spry picking sequences. The clean guitar segments like the intro to "Escape from Within" or the bridge to "No Place for Disgrace" also feel a little flimsy, a pity because the actual writing of the guitars is unflinchingly memorable. Otherwise, it's not a bad mix, but even Doomsday for the Deceiver was stronger in this area. I'm not sure if it was due to temporal constraints, misunderstandings or disagreements between the band and various studio staff, or just that their vision didn't agree with my ears, but I always felt that an album coming out on a fairly big deal imprint like Elektra could have sounded better even in '88; and I wonder if this was not partially responsible for the band not reaching the audience it deserved.

Otherwise, No Place for Disgrace was completely off the hook, and anyone committing seppuku upon its release would have been robbing themselves of years of headbanging enjoyment. The songs here were among the best composed for their day, and the pacing of the album as a whole is just another reminder why I loved this late 80s period. Dynamic tempos abound here, with only a few instances where they retread themselves. Blazing leads and melodic picking patterns which are almost invariably unforgettable, and what is by far the most exciting performance from Eric A.K., if not the richest or most rounded. Where his screams were often rather silly sounding on the first album, here they just seem to hit that perfect siren pitch where glass might shatter out of sheer reverence, like that one he pulls out in the center of "Dreams of Death" or the escalating, vaulted heights in "I Live You Die". Knutson sounds like he is literally being forced to sit on some Judas Chair, and he lends each of the 9 vocal tracks this aggressive desperation so well matched to the force of the music itself.

Also, the fucking guitars! I doubt I could find a single riff on this whole disc which couldn't pass muster, from the shrill, gladiatorial dual melodies rifling through "I Live You Die" to the muted triplets of "Dreams of Death" to that immortal melody inaugurating "No Place for Disgrace" itself with a very Maiden vibe. Edward Carlson and Michael Gilbert were simply loaded with ideas, and their constant runs up and down the necks of their guitars were structured and inspired from a mesh of thrash and traditional/speed metal influences not limited to Judas Priest, Iron Maiden or the Bay Area elephant in everyone's room. Even the muted mosh instrumental "The Jones", tucked conveniently away at the close of the album manages to score points, morphing from chugging pit hymns to ghostly melodies and back again. I can remember a time when you'd hear so much of this novel, exciting composition in the field, in fact you could reliably expect it in most cases, and No Place for Disgrace stands alongside other masterworks like Sabbat's History of a Time to Come, Scanner's Hypertrace, Riot's Thundersteel and Realm's Endless War as an example of ephemeral enlightenment where axes and charismatic vocals collided.

Even the lyrics and subject matter feel epic on this thing, from the non-judgmental harakiri anthem ("No Place to Disgrace") to authoritarian corruption ("N.E. Terror") to the mother fucking gladiatorial epoch of ancient Rome ("I Live You Die"). They take one of the better stabs in recollection at the whole music censorship/PMRC scenario of the late 80s in "Hard On You", with that amazing and threatening chorus of 'if you're hard on us, we're gonna be hard on you!', Knutson transforming into a living embodiment of the First Amendment. Flotsam also brought us one of the finer thrash covers of a classic rock tune in memory with Elton John's "Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting", surprisingly loyal aside from the few instances where they supplant terms like 'rock' and 'dolly' with 'mosh' and 'bitch', and the 'drink' of the original is given a label in 'Jack'. In retrospect, it might seem like an incredibly cheesy idea, but here's a case where the execution is so razor sharp that it might still cut you decades later.

Ultimately, No Place is the pinnacle of achievement for the band, something they've never since been able to either reproduce or rival with any of their subsequent mutations. Perfectly written but imperfectly captured to audio, advanced in every way over its predecessor (a decent album in its own right, but not nearly so impressive) aside from the breadth of the bass and guitars. I still feel just as excited when I hear this today as I was when I was 14, angrily delivering the daily newspapers to my neighborhood, Walkman cranked to maximum to shut out the world around me as my unformed mind sorted through both the onslaught of puberty and geekier escapes. It kicked my ass in hard, like a bunch of thrash bullies hanging out on your corner, ready and willing to mete punishment and build character in their victims. If you've never experienced it, then I look forward to seeing similar imprints on your own posterior in the years to come. I promise not to stare and make it awkward.

Verdict: Epic Win [9.25/10]
(honor even in death)

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