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Return of Milwaukee's Most Wanted - 85%

Cat III, January 11th, 2020
Written based on this version: 2000, CD, Plasmatics

The Plasmatics' outrageous stage shows seized media and public attention, yet their performances carried real risks. Sexual antics that would be cheap shocks nowadays—maybe constituting a week's worth of folderol for the professional opinion class—were eyed with profound disquiet in the America of the early 80s (post the Great White fire, their penchant for blowing up cars on stage would be more controversial today). This was a time when news articles about the band had to explain singer Wendy O. Williams' hair for those who didn't know what a mohawk is. In 1981, Williams and band manager Rod Swenson were arrested on obscenity charges during a Plasmatics concert in Milwaukee. The two were later found innocent, owing in no small part to a photo showing police officers kicking Williams while she was pinned to the ground screaming, in freezing January weather no less. Dialing up the social commentary that was only hinted at with their debut New Hope for the Wretched, the band's second LP for Stiff Records, Beyond the Valley of 1984, takes aim at a society who thinks a woman simulating masturbation on a sledgehammer is indecent, but policeman roughing up that woman is not.

Final track “Pig Is a Pig” alludes to the Milwaukee incident in a slow honky tonk intro where Williams dedicates the song to “the sickie sadist who hides behind his police badge”, as well as “cowardly journalists”, “assassins”, and other “creeps”. After the twanging stops the song breaks into direct, pounding punk in the mold of the hardcore scene that was then in full swing. The whole record hits harder than the previous had, but that's mostly down to something which was heresy to most hardcore fans at the time: the introduction of heavy metal. Wes Beech's riffs are beefier, though jump between so many influences they can't be pegged to a single style. “Summer Nite” is heavy yet laid back like 70s proto-metal. Other tracks like “Nothing” and “Sex Junkie” retain a punk energy, resulting in a hybrid not unlike the metal coming out of the British underground at the time. Richie Stotts, the other half of the guitar duo, steps up his game. The solos scattered through New Hope for the Wretched were dandy, though nothing to shock punk ears. Here his leads are stropped to a dangerous edge, gleaming and ready to draw blood. The solo of “Masterplan” rocks hard, meanwhile the first one in “Nothing” shows more flair, incorporating wah pedal, then ending with a whammy squeal. Returning to my original metaphor, the sword of Stotts' playing isn't an unblemished showpiece, with nicks present here and there, a worn hilt and a pommel that won't win any beauty contests. “Fast Food Service” sputters into a jumble-fingered solo—dicking around in the best way. Sirens smother the solo in “Summer Nite”, a production choice no ego-wracked rocker would tolerate.

Looking over to the rhythm section, we see yet more improved performances. Bassist Jean Beauvoir returns, turning in livelier lines not content to merely lapdog the guitars. A clear yet not flashy production job aids him in his endeavors. The bridge of “Living Dead” gives him space for a brief solo and he even has a couple writing credits. In the one personnel change, Stu Deutsch is replaced with Neal Smith. Smith only stayed with the band for this record which would be regrettable had T.C. Tolliver proved not merely a worthy replacement but better suited for the cranked up intensity of Coup d'État. Still, as a former Alice Cooper drummer, Smith knows his way around a kit and his rock intuitions make him a formidable asset on his lone Plasmatics LP. Compared to Deutsch's performance on the last record, this is more varied with fills aplenty and a solo or two. One such solo appears on “Plasma Jam”, a track that's the longest the band recorded and, true to the second word in its title, is not a song so much as the band members playing off one another. Like “Hit Man” it was recorded live in Milan (live tracks plonked in the middle of studio material is neat; I wish more bands did it). The recording quality is so sharp it injects some of that live energy. “Plasma Jam” especially translates concert energy to wax, showing a band loose, creative, spontaneous and talented. Come for the topless chick blowing up a Caddy, stay for the impeccable musicianship.

That song is unique for another reason: it has no vocals. With the intro track “Incantation”, that means Beyond the Valley of 1984 contains two instrumental tracks in a discography otherwise devoid of them. A weird happening considering the album marks a turning point for Wendy O. Williams. Subsequent performances would dwarf this one, but there's no room for complaints when she has eradicated the faults that ruined New Hope for the Wretched. Rather than sounding like the product of troubled digestion, her vocals are a fiery metal yell. Angry is her default, yet other modes of expression are represented. “Headbanger” reveals her sexy side (Do the lyrics allude to fellatio and not the band's newfound hesher fans? That would make a nice companion piece to the cunnilingus-minded “Fast Food Service”.) while the lines of “Summer Nite” fizzle with yearning.

Some say the band was all performance; one in an endless line of pop music acts full of sound and fury. These critics would have better standing—or any standing at all—had the Plasmatics story ended in 1980. By proving the band possessed the talent to survive past the initial media hubbub, Beyond the Valley of 1984 is important in Plasmatics history. As an early melding of punk rock and heavy metal, it is also important in music history. All that aside, the album is very good, offering ten springy songs that nevertheless rock hard. The title's Orwell reference heralded a political awareness that still made concession for the anarchic hedonism that first attracted fans. Temporal placement presents the biggest hurdle for the album to overcome. In 1981, it was strides ahead of its predecessor, but as audiences were now familiar with the band, it didn't carry the excitement or novelty of that album. Nowadays we can listen to the follow-ups, Metal Priestess and Coup d'État, which perfected the improvements made here. This album is a transition—a bridge. One hell of a bridge.

One, two, three, fuck me.