Husker Du – Zen Arcade

I saw Husker Du way back in early 1986 at The Powerhouse, Birmingham. I was still at school – in short – I was very lucky to have seen such an influential band.

At the time I only had their first album – the quite breathtaking live debut Land Speed Record, an album you need a trained ear to listen to and an apt title if ever there was one.

You needed to be 18 to get into The Powerhouse, it’s in essence a nightclub. I had considered this but was almost 6 foot tall and did not think it’d be a problem.

When I got to the door to give my ticket stub I was literally held by a bouncer questioning my age. then it flashed through my head that I may not see this band I had read so much about in Sounds and the NME. In response to the the question of my date of birth stuttered out way to many years earlier than I should have. Briefly, very briefly the bouncer let go of my arm. I ran into the venue, as I darted off he chortled – “so you’re 21 then, eh”.

I was relieved to be in the venue. The support acts were decent, it turns out that one of the guys that runs the rehearsal studios we practice at now (2011) was in one of the support acts – The Wild Flowers.

When Husker Du took the stage it was a far cry from the “proper” gigs I had seen at bigger venues. This was my first hardcore gig – the stage effects were just a solitary light bulb.  I did not know a single track they played – but was blown away by the combination of speed and hidden melodies in the sublime sound blasted at full volume.

This was the genuine article – an honest craft whereby you could feel the pure emotion in what was essentially a sonic assault. Greg Norton bounded away in a way years later Novoselic (Nirvana) would seemingly ape. Grant Hart drummed with riveting rhythm and sang with calm melody. Bob Mould in truth appeared quite wired and a tad scary. The combination of the 3 very different characters and styles made the band what they were. Unique.

I missed the last bus and walked home with a screech still in my ears and a buzz inside my head. I knew I needed to check out their back catalogue as soon as possible. Over about a year via pocket money or taping albums of mates I’d heard all they had recorded and released. There isn’t a bad album amongst their back catalogue. Check them out. You should agree.

Zen Arcade is really a turning point for Husker Du. It sits perfectly between the bands hardcore beginnings and touches so many genres that it’s hard to pin down. It’s their best album and, again, needs a slightly trained ear.

It’s a masterpiece.

Kicking off with Something I Learned Today the track has a very solid feel and showcases the often referred to buzzcore sound. A solid intro.

Broken Heart, Broken Home is more subtle than the opener but still very full-on. Heart-felt lyrics and a chasing bass line make for an upbeat but doom laden track. Quite a feat.

When the third track Never Talking To You Again hits you realise there is no reason to ever check out Bob Dylan’s back catalogue – any of it!. It’s almost hardcore folk. You can play this track to anyone and they’ll love it. The guitar is jangled hard. The melody is fantastic. there are no drums but ironically it’s the first Grant Hart track on the album. It takes the edge off (in a good way) the 2 “Wake-Up” openers. The soundscape is changed and you begin to see / hear the ambition (intentional or otherwise) of Zen Arcade.

The initial theme continues on Chartered Trips. A somewhat muted foray back into the initial sound of the album. The lyric is distant and dreamy. Mould takes control of the album again.

Dreams Reoccurring adds to the albums understated ambition. Backtracked loops and psychadelia take the album in a new direction. No lyrics and the band are as a unit.

Indecision Time spurts and rises, the album takes shape. Hare Krsna often credited to the whole band may well be Greg Nortons only penned track. It again questions where the album is going.

Now Zen Arcade gets darker. It’s pulled you in and now messes with you a bit – did I say / type a bit?, ok, a lot. Beyond The Threshold is Mould at his most distant, the guitar is understated but burning.

When Pride opens you wonder briefly if you’re listening to their first album. You need the lyric sheet. It’s ferocious. The pent up anger is tangible. Mould is taking the album and it’s going into a dark corner.

Onto I’ll Never Forget You the rage continues. It’s an outpouring – open heart stuff. For the first time the guitar chugs. The guitar runs away looking for isolation but the bass and drums chase it down. Intense. For me this a glimpse of the truly influential style, then completely new that can be seen in such a wide range of bands and genres. This is not by the numbers punk. It’s not metal. It’s all over the place and chaotic quality.

Mould’s hold of the album grips tight on The Biggest Lie. The lyrics question, the pace is relentless, the guitar continues to bleed. Hart backs vocally, it’s subtle, Mould pushes it aside. He’s raging. Darker and darker.

After the Mould hold Hart comes back strong with What’s Going On. It has the pace of a Bob Mould track but is more subtle. It pounds and again, it’s fantastic. The initial bass evokes dreams, Bad Dreams. The question goes unanswered – What’s Going On? Indeed. The track fades… then comes back so hard you feel you need to run. It fits what is a very very dark side two of this double LP.

Hart and Mould fittingly combine on Masochism World. Melody raises it’s head and at this point you need melody. The track throbs.

Ending a ferocious Side Two is the beautifully near opera of Standing By The Sea. It’s penned by Hart and at this point you need his subtlety. The bass lashes like sea waves and the calm is almost restored.

Side Three opens with the buzz. That influential buzz. Remember, No Husker Du, No Pixies, No Nirvana, where would we be? Somewhere sees Hart and Mould combine and the harmony prevail. Where is Zen Arcade going?

The more subtle theme continues on the echoey piano of One Step At a Time. Essentially it’s the opening to one of the bands finest ever tracks.

Pink Turns To Blue (Hart) tells the tale of drugs and death. Again the band appear and sound open. It’s art of the highest order. After a mellow opening Mould’s guitar rips the song apart just past the minute mark. Think about it – Pink – Turns – To – Blue. Hart wrestles it back, it mellows, and at the end the track reeks of death.

Order is resumed on Newest Industry. It’s power driven but a change to a lower gear. The change is arguably needed the keep the album from going off the edge of the rollercoaster.

The piano returns on Monday Will Never Be The Same. It’s a ditty.

Whatever hints very strongly at the future Husker Du sound that was to follow. Structured. Solid. Controlled. The tale of a young man that thinks he’s failing his parents. It’s understated in it’s sound but all the more powerful and empowering for it. With an uptempo end to an untempo theme the track achieves.

Dreams reappear on The Tooth Fairy And The Princess. A fitting intro for the magnum opus that is Turn On The News.

Incredibly I went for about a decade without listening to Turn On The News. It’s quite possibly the best Husker Du track. Period. The track is somehow different to the rest of Zen Arcade but at the same time is the cheery on the top of a delicious cake. It’s iressistible. Operatic, prophetic and just spot on it’s Grant Hart’s masterpiece. TV backdrop. Handclaps. Monkey chanting. The track soars, dives and soars higher. Mould battles it with his guitar to the bitter sweet end. The  guitar attacks the melody – it’s an incredible sound, the melody fights but the guitar had burned a blister that will remain. At the end the track burns out like the album has exhausted them. Three souls laid bare. At the end of Turn On The News after hearing that chugging guitar you begin to question; no Husker Du – no Metallica. Seriously, how did they fit so much in. When I listened to the track after a decade gap not only did the hairs on the back of my neck stand up – every hair on my body was up. The track has so much depth that it’s truly hard to take it all in. The lyric evokes so much. The guitar failing to submit at the end is just pure art. Hart and Mould both at their true peaks. It’s a killer track. Venom. Control. Opera. Hardcore.

But the album does not end. Like the only example I can think – of the final track serves like a relentless cry for an encore.  The band appease and jam for an eternity of the dreamy Reoccurring Dreams. The bass wobbles, the guitar chases, the band coax. A fitting, if slightly self indulgent 14 minute outro.

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2 thoughts on “Husker Du – Zen Arcade

  1. great review.

    i only knew “new day rising” from husker du, and decided to listen “zen arcade” on a streaming website, as i was reading your review, and i fell in love for the album.

    thank you for the sugestion.

    and yes, it might be one of the best recors ever made.

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