Coward "Voice" 7" flexi (Skeleton 004)

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For taxonomists of hardcore, Coward’s “Voice” flexi may defy classification because it is so primal. It is, to be sure, Japanese noise-core, but I believe it could be filed alongside Underage, Varaus, Scraps, and D.T.A.L.—that is, loose, uncontrollable, frightfully lo-fi, and on-the-whole European, hardcore punk of the 1980s. The distinction between hardcore that begs subtyping and just-plain hardcore may be academic, but Coward seems to represent an absolute distillation of hardcore’s essence. It’s one of those records you play for your mom when she asks you what this hardcore punk phase you’re going through is all about. The music is the lowest common denominator, the residue left behind when all unnecessary adornment is swept away. It’s fast. It’s noisy. It’s basic but chaotic; unlike minimalistic hardcore, whose minimalism itself is its adornment, Coward’s full sound seems natural, lacking any sort of artifice. The noise is not an additive; it is a constiuent. This very simple example of hardcore punk comes in a simple package, a one-sided flexi in a simple foldover sleeve. One complication: it’s a very, very rare and very, very expensive flexi. Luckily, Osaka’s Crust War Records reissued it on a split LP with another rare (but inferior) record, Gasmask’s lone EP. The LP also includes some great live stuff as well as new recordings of songs written in the 80s by both bands, under the names Cowmask and Gasward (stinky!). This LP sold out in the blink of an eye, but MCR Records put it on a CD that should be easy to track down.

What makes Coward’s three-song flexi so compelling is its urgency. Despite the band’s name, the music is anything but pusillanimous. On my favorite track, “How Much?”, the members cannot quite manage to play in sync with each other because they are all so desperately trying to play as fast and mean as possible. Even the recording sounds fittingly urgent, with everything panned hard so that it sounds like they hit the record button as soon as they entered the room, before any poxy engineer had a chance to tell them how to set up. Part of the point of playing with such energetic urgency (yes, there was a point!) was demonstrating to any sadsack disco freak, greaser, poet, student, sheriff, vicar, or, worst of all, headbanger that there was no need to sully music by adopting such restrictions as talent, rhythm, tunefulness, or “taste” in all the bourgeois senses of the sensibility. To wit, Coward wrote on their flexi’s sleeve: “FUCK OFF HEAVY METAL, HARD ROCK, SLASH METAL.” With each song clocking in at about a minute and a half and nothing approaching a solo, a nuance, or a poodle-haired castrato to be found, Coward ran little risk of being confused with these abhorrent genres. It’s true there are a few seconds in “For Idiot” that approximate a guitar solo, but these seconds are devoid of any display of talent, technical prowess, or cockiness; the simple purpose of this exercise, instead, is to pierce eardrums. Coward’s gnarled bass sound is reminiscent of a herd of rhinoceri running through a corrugated-steel culvert. (Did you know that a herd of rhinos is actually—appropriately—called “a crash”?) That rhino bass starts out the record, and there’s no looking back from those opening moments. You’re either in or you’re wearing spandex and eye-shadow.

The bonus studio tracks on the reissue are noisy, but they are less sublime. “Little Joe” is like a much less talented take on the reigning thrash-til-death sound of the era, exemplified by fellow Osaka-based thrashers Outo. The live tracks are noisy but thin: cool to hear but not even close to the flexi in fulgent noisiness-is-next-to-godliness-ness.

These mp3s taken from the CD reissue on MCR: “For Idiot,” “How Much”