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Zero Boys - Vicious Circle / History Of

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Artist: Zero Boys

Album: Vicious Circle / History Of

Label: Secretly Canadian

Review date: Feb. 20, 2009

Fomenting at the end of the ’70s and petering out by ’83, Bloomington, Indiana’s second-gen-punk-meets-first-wave-hardcore act Zero Boys prove to be a curious adjunct to everything else happening in those nascent realms. That their material has been out of print since its original issue isn’t much of a shock; at first listen, you will know that these are great, well-intentioned, but by no means essential releases – at least not on a scale of American classics like Damaged, “Filler,” Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables, (GI), the first Die Kreuzen LP, or the Void/Faith split. Rather, they align somewhere along a more populist version of the Fix, their corn-plowing rustbelt drive seen by most in the rearview mirror, mostly by those who treasure the history of this movement but who weren’t old enough – or even born yet – to have seen it go down.

By all accounts, we remember the band as we do because they were first. When punk rock initially hit the Bloomington record shops, vocalist Paul Mahern, guitarist Terry “Hollywood” Howe, bassist David “Tufty” Clough and drummer Mark Cutsinger (not the original Zero Boys lineup, but certainly the one that did the bulk of the work in their career) ran with it, organizing, and likely pioneering, small-scale, intensive tours and independent label release strategies on a national level. It didn’t take the group long to assemble a 500-press 7” EP, Livin’ in the ‘80s, in early ’81, and hit the road. Vicious Circle, the group’s full-length, surfaced the following year. Three years into the Reagan era, despondent over the fruitless returns of their hard work, the band split up, with Tufty heading off to Toxic Reasons, Mahern becoming a fixture in Indiana’s music scene, as well as turning a psychedelic corner with Dandelion Abortion and the Datura Seeds, and the other members steering away from music for a while. (This doesn’t take into consideration the Zero Boys’ less than stellar “reunion” records of the ’90s.) Along the way, Mahern had released a series of regional punk/HC comps called The Master Tapes, along with a cassette-only Zero Boys archival sesh called History Of.

Theirs was somewhat of a poppy sound, despite the aggression; you can hear the toughness of the Germs battering against the limitations of their studio setup, occasionally mixed in with the infectious melodies of the Ramones. You can also hear the theatrical side of punk at play, with fairly intense, breathless musicianship that recalls the Dead Kennedys. With all the gee-gaws and signatures creeping up within their sound, the Zeros became one of the first bands to really juggle then-modern influences within their own sound, rather than trailblaze in the punishing style of Black Flag or the militant lockstep anthems of Minor Threat. They sang about drugs on Vicious Circle’s “Amphetamine Addiction” in a way that almost glamorizes the subject (“It’s the pain / And it’s in my stomach” being the worst it gets), with Mahern’s snotty delivery approaching Milo Aukerman of the Descendents. Later on the same side, they praise “Drug Free Youth,” clearly playing both sides of the coin.

“Hightime” mitigates the two ideologies in one of the record’s catchiest and most energetic songs. It’s a short album, and not necessarily an engaging one, but a fun time all the same. The Zeros were content to be Indiana’s punk band rather than the world’s, despite their formidable talents and insistence on touring and self-promotion. Included in this issue are two unreleased tracks, “She Said Goodbye” and “Slam and Worm,” originally excised from the record at Jello Biafra’s insistence (too sugary for their own good, he claimed).

History Of fares much better for what it does, tying off the loose ends on both sides of the Zero Boys’ initial run and showcasing over a dozen under-heard songs that find the Boys hitting their stride. The collection begins with the initial tape tracks, originally slated for the band’s scrapped second album. Production-wise, it’s more claustrophobic where it needs to be; Howe’s guitar possesses the bite that Vicious Circle’s overall tidiness held back. A bit of a UK peacepunk vibe creeps in during the slower parts of “Black Network News,” but everything else is way more wired and amped-up, intense and memorable in a way the LP can’t quite conjure. “Drive In,” leading off the collection with a sordid tale of crying drunken teens hauled off by the cops, achieves the menacing tone the band seemed to be searching for all along. “Inergy” leans on a mean, lean mid-tempo riff, recalling the Big Boys skanking to Flag (Black, not White … ugh, never White). It’s great hearing their influences gelling into a more rockin’ sound they could call their own.

Capping off the collection are the tracks from Livin’ in the ’80s, now a high-dollar collector’s item, and a far cry from the velocities they’d attempt later on. These are great UK/Ramones-influenced pop/punk tracks, dingy with low production value and besotted by Mahern’s occasional Brit accent fakery (“Piece of Me”), but show the band performing in a vein not too far off from fellow Midwesterners the Embarrassment. This is the more exciting of the two releases, and even newbies should look here first. Dusted’s resident Hoosier Eric Weddle authored the action-packed liners in this edition, and his words don’t have the false, enthusiastic boom of Jack Rabid’s work, as featured in the reboot of Vicious Circle (and just about every issue of The Big Takeover).

Most punk and hardcore bands simply take a few influences, try to smash ‘em together, live out a single or two, followed by an album, then split, having gotten their rocks off for about a year or so, and usually at odds with one another on a personal level. Credit the Zero Boys as one of the first units to pull this off.

By Doug Mosurock

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