Available on: One Little Indian LP
If he screams, it’s only in fear. If he bares his teeth, it’s actually a grimace of self-disgust. If the brilliant, obnoxious little prick has a problem with respect, it’s only for himself. If there’s rage, it’s bracingly impotent. Dan Devine talks a lot about anger but be assured, there’s no fight left in this one. Flats are all about deflation, emptiness, self-loathing and being beaten into submission, rather than how Devine portarys himself, or his band. If punk was all about power, specifically the power to hurt your enemies, Flats is the opposite. It’s punk inverted.
Throughout Better Living, very rapidly youthful ‘acting out’ turns inwards, curdling into self-defeat. Because that’s the deal with Flats’ chosen style: the kind of macabre doom music handed down from Swans to The Birthday Party, Gallon Drunk to Pissed Jeans. That is, punk which is as much about masochistic self-abjection and dire prostration as it is about tearing shreds from the world. In most cases this takes the form of campy horror-rock, which, although ludicrously stylised is also prosaic, concerned with the mundane miseries of the millennial male. Take for example Pissed Jeans’ aching joints or Grinderman’s ‘no pussy blues': the grievances of bored, emasculated men going bald as rapidly as they are going mad. It’s the stuff of everyday masculinity in drastic, dread-ravaged crisis. Despite their tender years, Flats are very much of this same breed. As suggested by their name, they’re all about a flatness of mood – the banality of everyday existence in those figurative ‘flats’. Yet as a threat to masculinity, old age bows to the tang of a young punk’s feelings of dispossession. A leaky bladder is of very little concern to the unwanted children of god. Because of what importance is growing old when you’re suicidal, or worse, invisible.
As any sucker knows, in the annals of great punk the call to ‘(Get pissed) DESTROY!’ pales in comparison to acts of self-destruction. Flats’s brand of hardcore luxuriates in the darkest recesses of the male psyche; the pits of frailty, shame, evil urges. ‘You’ll never quite understand where I’ve been, and I’m going to hurt you for it.’ is the message coded in Devines’ waspish deathbed scream, a voice that is both abusive and fearful, polluting and despairing. The conflict in his delivery is overt.
So… one thing we can learn from Odd Future, aside from the correct way to gut a cheerleader: the young male is a monster. The emotional devastation left in the trail of teenhoods marathon of unhappiness – the compulsion to blame oneself, the will to atonement, the worthlessness – hangs spectrally around the peripheries of Flats’ dank rampage, transforming this debut from your garden-variety punk record to some type of mangled character study; of a boy trying to be a man and failing disastrously. To the public, Devine portrays himself as a righteous refusenik, but in his mirror he’s Dr Merrick with a provisional licence, the Bad Lieutenant in a Discharge t-shirt. At times on Better Living he’s a cowering grotesque, at others a vengeful golem.
Swimming beneath the surface of the album’s doom rock template are a host of sub-genres – psychobilly, low-slung crust, metalcore, and greebo LA punk. Nonetheless, Better Living remains a repetitive, tonally monotonous album. But its a repetitiousness which works to further evoke a life of spirit-crushing routine, while reinforcing the idea of a permanent headache: a bad thought stuck churning in your head, an obsession, monomania, sleep deprivation.
‘Tango’ accelerates at the midpoint, clouds of plaster and downtuned fuzz erupting around Devine as he becomes ever increasingly terrified, his hysteria quashed only when the track deflates, finishing in a downpour of atrophied tri-chords. ‘Frostbite’, meanwhile, thickens into a gloop of pure doom-metal, serving to frames flashes of d-beat abandon with lumbering, skullfaced axework and Sabbath-style depression. Foxtrot takes much the same route but with even more hangdog lowness, while ‘Moonwalk’ features a guitar-line that sags with beastliness. Perhaps paradoxically, the faster they play the more intense the atmosphere of wretchedness. The pogo-inducing ‘Macabre Unit’ nails that squalid quality that permeates UK hardcore but is absent in American hardcore; that sooty decrepit London feel which the Hermosa Beach muscle-punks could never recreate. But it’s ‘Country’ that sees Better Living at its most gluttonously horrible. Devine works only in loose parallel to the 4-chord cycle beneath him, screaming again and again as the band thrash sullenly around his ankles. He’s tired and fucked up. It’s brilliant.
Arguably, it’s the broken-home kids that make for the best punks (Devine alleges that his father, Alan McGee, abandoned him as a youngster). Maybe because by a tragically young age they feel they have nothing to lose – Devine is nothing if not reckless, freefalling and nihilistic. Best of all, he’s at that age that, as Larry Clarke believes, the young man can only ever behave like a young man. Meaning that Flats are compulsively, and unmistakeably, the sound of youth. And being that self-destruction is a luxury exclusive to the young, the four-piece provide vicarious thrills for grownup mortgage-slaves who cannot act on, but fully share in, Devine’s decidedly adult sense of impotency. At any rate, sharing in another’s misery has never been easier.