New LP Packs A Powerful Sonic Punch In The Gut

Here is the blackest of black romanticism, with no shortage of black humor sprinkled in.

"Thou who dost give the outlaw the proud glance,

Which damns the crowd who watch his sufferance,

Satan, have mercy on my long distress!"

—Charles Baudelaire, "The Litanies of Satan."

Coming at a time when rock music as a cultural force has been eclipsed in favor of robo-rap and corporate pop, Live 1981–82 sounds like an alien artifact that has insidiously bubbled up from the depths of hell.

This is music of frightening intensity made by desperate, heroin- and alcohol-sodden young men intent on exploring the limits of experience, even if it kills them. It's a sonic harbinger of doom at the dawn of the Reagan/ Thatcher era, which forever changed the face of the Western World. Here is the blackest of black romanticism, with no shortage of black humor sprinkled in.

This first "band approved" live Birthday Party album (illegitimate children include It's Still Living [1985] and Drunk on the Pope's Blood [1982]), Live 1981–82, with its digitally cleaned-up sound, packs a powerful sonic punch in the gut and may even be the Aussies' definitive release.

At their best when unleashing a musical firestorm in front of an unruly audience, the Birthday Party followed up on the original premise of punk. They escalated their confrontational fury while deconstructing the trad-rock structures that supposed "anti-rock" bands such as the Sex Pistols, with their slavish recycling of Chuck Berry and Johnny Thunders' riffs, never quite got around to — for starters, think Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica crossed with Ornette Coleman's Free Jazz and then add The Stooges' Funhouse, the title track of which appears here.

At the center of the maelstrom, of course, is singer/songwriter Nick Cave, a smacked-out, exploding Cimmerian scarecrow who invented the spaghetti-goth look single-handedly and whose aura of danger — which often manifested itself in violent confrontations with audience members — sent essentially harmless Johnny Rotten types running for cover.

Recorded during concerts in London, Germany and Greece, songs such as "Junkyard" (RealAudio excerpt) given a feral reading replete with a vintage Cave scream that'll send shivers down your spine, still seem the apex of rock nihilism, with lyrics depicting the heroin addict who rules as an inverted king over a blasted landscape. Cave's signature "King Ink" (RealAudio excerpt) lurches along masterfully, with Rowland S. Howard's cold, scratchy, graveyard guitar merging with Cave's wasted scat vocals to balefully powerful effect. The mutant blues ballad "She's Hit"

(RealAudio excerpt), meanwhile, its lyrics wallowing in the naked facts of murder, point toward Cave's slightly more subdued post–Birthday Party career with the Bad Seeds (aided and abetted by Birthday Party multi-instrumentalist Mick Harvey), and his many confrontations with indignant feminists along the way.

The unrelenting demonic fury at the heart of Live: 1981–82 goes a long way toward explaining Cave's seemingly incongruous period of flirtation with Christian mysticism earlier in the '90s. Once you've come into contact with darkness this deep, you might well spend the rest of your life trying to avoid being swallowed up by it. One suspects that, in the case of Nick Cave, at least, it's a battle that rages to this day.