As you probably know, I get the name of this site from the most famous album by St. Paul, Minnesota's Hüsker Dü, as they are one of my favorite bands of ever. Zen Arcade was part of a paradigm shift in punk and hardcore, as the Hüskers, alongside Black Flag, the Minutemen, Sonic Youth, other SST bands, and countless others the world over were permanently expanding the creative capacity of counter-culture music.
Ten months before Zen Arcade was released, they put out the Metal Circus EP. It is the pivot around which the band changed its direction, from the 'ultracore' of their earlier singles and albums toward the stuff that got them remembered (and ultimately destroyed by a major label). You can read a 1982 interview with the band in the second issue of the D.C. zine Thrillseeker -- their answers are very foretelling.
As for the songs, this is when Hüsker Dü really hit their stride. The 'Minnesota guitar snowstorm' sound is fully operational, and the record is filled with soaring harmonics that let melody sneak into unexpected places. 'Real World' is a folk tune for the disillusioned rebel ("you're not a cop or politician, you're a person too -- you can sing any song you want, but you're still the same"), but it somehow sounds hopeful rather than cynical. The next two are some great Reagan-punk sort of songs about coping with impending nuclear apocalypse. The first side finishes with the boozer's lament "First of the Last Calls," borne from guitarist Bob Mould's own troubles with drink.
The the second side could be read as the thematic conclusion of the problems brought about in the first. After the brief whirlwind of "Lifeline," in which Bob screams about falling into the abyss, the abyss is reached. "Diane" starts. Greg Norton's bass churns out ominous chords, and Grant Hart drums along as he sings the true story of a woman raped and killed in Minnesota, from the p.o.v. of the perpetrator. It's a haunting electric murder ballad, a apt climax to the five songs that preceded it. The record ends with "Out on a Limb," a Sabbath-y dance of precarity. Listening to the words or reading along to this EP, there's a sense of narrative progression. Once they were able to show themselves capable of doing a concept record, they went all the way with it and ended up with the 'concept double album' that followed it in '84.
In my upload I included four outtakes from the Metal Circus sessions, which are of variable fidelity. However, they are some fierce punk tunes. Hüsker Dü are one of the few bands whose rejects are practically as good as the stuff they commit to wax. One of these, "Standing By the Sea," would be attempted again on Zen Arcade.
Finally, if you're still reading along with this, you're probably a big fan of the Hüskers yourself. So you might appreciate this graphic about the cover art, if you haven't seen it already.
|graphic belongs to Patrick Smith|
The inscription on the A-side reads, "That old stainless charity. If you could see me now, Shirley." On the B-side it's "Falling from grace with the goose; Howard Hughs, a wing, a prayer, (see below)."
Buy Metal Circus on insound
Discogs vinyl link
I like to protest but I'm not sure what it's for