Zen Arcade

Hüsker Dü

SST Records, 1984


REVIEW BY: Christopher Thelen


What is punk? Is it the free-form anger that the Sex Pistols embodied? Is it the "do-it-yourself" attitude that other groups promoted?

Or, in the case of Minneapolis's Husker Du, is it a group of three musicians looking at the state of rock and declaring over the course of 23 songs that musical boundaries were meant to be broken? On what could be their best-known album Zen Arcade, the latter seems to be the case -- and even though the sound is sometimes painfully raw, the result is one of the more enjoyable punk albums ever released.

I first bought this album when I was in college. I don't remember exactly why I bought it, or what I was looking to discover. I think it was that I had recently discovered the joys of Black Flag (who will eventually make it onto the pages of "The Daily Vault"), and I was interested in discovering some of the other artists on the SST roster. I seem to remember reading a lot of positive things about Husker Du and Zen Arcade, and decided to drop the $12 for the tape and give it a spin. What I heard was an awakening in my head.

Behind the drum kit sat Grant Hart, a solid skin player who was a romantic at heart, as well as a decent vocalist and songwriter in his own right. Fronting the group was guitarist'vocalist Bob Mould, who often sounds like he's about to blow out his vocal chords and treats some songs as the last opportunity he's going to have to hit the take. Add to that orgasmic guitar solos filled with feedback, and you have one of the most unsung guitar heroes of the '80s. Taking all of this in while almost remaining hidden in the shadows was bassist Greg Norton, who decides to express himself by supplying Husker Du with a solid rhythm backbone.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

The songs on Zen Arcade were recorded in one marathon studio session - and sometimes, when you're being hit with guitar distortion from hell and undecipherable vocals being screamed into your ears, you might find yourself wishing that a little more time and TLC had been put into this album. It's not that the rough edges are bad, it's just that an album filled with them gets to be overkill.

From the opening build of drums to bass to guitar on "Something I Learned Today," Husker Du is out to capture the rawest emotion in music - spontaneity. The power of the performance was all that mattered; everything else would fall into line. Songs like "I Will Never Forget You" and "Beyond The Threshold" might be vocally blurry except for the choruses, and to Husker Du, this is okay. (Songs featuring Hart's vocals, on the contrary, are much more clear in the vocal department.)

In a sense, I do wish that Mould had made the vocals a little clearer on Zen Arcade; while adrenalin carries me to a certain point in the album, I eventually become a little lost in the sonic barrage. Tracks like "Masochism World" and "Somewhere" demonstrate the more positive side of Mould's vocals (something he would make the definitive statement with on Candy Apple Grey's "Too Far Down").

Instrumentally, Husker Du makes some bold statements, especially with the album's closer "Recurring Dreams," the last-effort charge on your central nervous system which demonstrates the amazing talent each member of the band has. However, the drug-trip nightmare "The Tooth Fairy And The Princess" is one cut I love avoiding.

In one sense, I really shouldn't be too critical of Husker Du; they had already come a long way from their Land Speed Record release, which seemed to combine punk and speed metal in a way I never thought possible (the tape is barely listenable, though it's been a few years since I dusted it off). Zen Arcade was their clearest release to this point in their career, although their days as an independent act were quickly coming to a close.

Zen Arcade is still the album I would suggest people who want to get into Husker Du pick up first (followed closely by Candy Apple Grey - I'd rather they not hear the polished version first). It sometimes is a lot to take in during one sitting, but if you have the strength to do so, it's a journey worth taking, potholes and all.

Rating: B

User Rating: B+



© 1998 Christopher Thelen and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of SST Records, and is used for informational purposes only.