Black Flag and the Art of Meditation - The Reykjavik Grapevine

Black Flag and the Art of Meditation

Black Flag and the Art of Meditation

Published August 15, 2008

Meditation, basically, is the act of ordering your conscious mind to shut the fuck up. It drops the mental engine down a gear and allows for complete focus or simple relaxation. If done correctly, it effectively empties your mind of bidden thought. This discipline has been employed by various spiritual movements for thousands of years. In Islam, certain sects use music and movement to achieve this altered state of consciousness. In both Hinduism and Buddhism drumming and chant have been utilised to aid meditation and bring on a state of trance. Christianity and Judaism practice chant and ritualised movements to enhance prayer and to lose oneself from the conscious state. The experience of separation from the self found in deep meditation has long been held to be a step toward the divine. This heightened level of consciousness and the tools to reach it can be found in the secular world as well. You can find it, for instance, in Black Flag.

As the 1980’s wore on Black Flag, the seminal California Hardcore band, evolved faster and on a drastically divergent course from its peers. Beginning in the late 70’s as a standard double-time punk act, shouting about drug use and boredom, by the mid 1980’s they were what can only be described as a jam band, minus the flowery far-out connotations that term usually carries with it.The addition of a reliable rhythm section and the influence of Henry Rollins and his lyrics changed what Flag was able to do. As a pit-inducing band, Black Flag were nearly matchless; they knew how to give the kids the opportunity and the excuse for mayhem. However they were also able to lock into extended rhythms, bass and drums following each other with a martial accuracy that Greg Ginn’s atonal, growling guitar work only complimented. The combination of the musicianship and Rollins’s aptitude for lyrical ad-libbing during shows made Flag a sort of dark and aggressive Grateful Dead.

The best example of Black Flag’s live work can be found on the album Who’s got the 10 and a half? The set moves through a variety of the group’s repertoire, but it is track 13 on the disc which makes my case. Where most hardcore punk songs of the time clocked in at under two minutes, the medley Slip it In/Gimme Gimme Gimme lasts a good quarter of an hour. The songs, entirely dissimilar otherwise, are linked together by the insistent drumming of Anthony Martinez and Kira’s coiled and intimidating bass line. The vocals and guitar only help to push the beast along.

So much about punk rock generally and hardcore in particular is about connection to your environment. This medley takes that connection and severs it. For 15 minutes the drum and bass run a line that hardly changes while Ginn’s guitar and Rollins’ voice squawk in and out like a drive through speaker. The combination of drone and howl effectively drops the listener inside themselves; the songs induce a sort of ugly trance. The effect is less about the mosh and much more about the head nod which typifies Black Flag’s later work. By this point the band was less about having the audience wreck the concert hall, they were more interested in wrecking your head.

The state of trance or deep meditation is at its heart about a quieting of the inner dialog. How that level of relaxation is reached is up to you, whether it be through Ravi Shankar or the mighty Black Flag.


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