- Is this Real? (1980)
- Youth of America (1981)
- Over the Edge (1983)
- Land of the Lost (1986)
- Follow Blind (1987)
- Wipers Box Set (2001)
Return of the Rat / Mystery / Up Front / Let’s Go Away / Is This Real? / Tragedy / D-7 / Potential Suicide / Don’t Know What I Am / Window Shop for Love / Wait a Minute
OK, I’ll admit it: this website contains a lot of reviews by bands that are hardly relevant today (Nomeansno basically plays for a small - but extremely loyal - cult following, The Dirtbombs’ garage approach to soul won’t cause any sensation, and who the fuck is that Johnny Dowd dude, anyway?), but I’ve always thought that most of these deserved much more appreciation and credit than they actually receive(d). It’s probably a hidden mission statement of mine to help save some bands from disappearing into obscurity, which is why I keep on raving about them, even though they’re decidedly unfashionable or too peculiar. However, if there’s one band that rightfully deserves to be considered rock’s best kept secret, it must be Portland’s treasure The Wipers. Oh, you’ll have heard of them, you’ll have heard the name Greg Sage … because Nirvana covered a few of their songs, or because your hip brother told you about him, but I bet few people out there actually have their albums. That’s not a crime (the albums are hard to find anyway), it’s not about showing off, and there’s also no need to believe every word I say, but I do think they were one of the best bands of their era (an era that spawned lots of my favorite bands). Even though their debut album fitted quite nicely into the punk mould of the time, they were never recognized as such, and it was only a decade later that it became a household name in the “alternative” scene. From their second album onwards, they’d move away from the standard “three chords/two minutes”-thing with their own neo-psychedelic take on post-hardcore guitar rock, but in a way, they always were one of the few real punks bands (even though the community shunned ‘em).
They weren’t your average aggressive, foaming-at-the-mouth band, but their early albums do contain a manic intensity, sonic adventurousness and originality that is striking. On top of that, they were the ultimate DIY-band, carefully keeping control over their music, stubbornly refusing to ask for outside cooperation. Of course, that’s also the reason the larger public never even got the chance to discover them, but I’ll tell you now: as far as dedicated, challenging and memorable guitar-based rock goes, there are few candidates as good or better than The Wipers. Despite the lengthy guitar freak-outs that would wind up on their later albums, Is This Real? is very much a “punk” album, containing mostly short songs and betraying an obvious Ramones-infatuation, but they were so much more. In singer/guitarist Greg Sage, they possessed a unique voice and a musician who distilled the best of Tom Verlaine, Neil Young, Johnny Ramone and Robert Quine, and dragged it through the dusty grit of the Arizonian desert. Whether it’s his stunning capacity to create an aural thunderstorm with a few basic chords, his use of melodic solos with a slightly chaotic feel or his smart use of feedback and distortion, he’s one of the greatest unsung guitar heroes ever (and listen to “Up Front” and try to convince me he wasn’t an influence on Bob Mould). His particular style probably originated in his early obsession with sounds: whereas he had been playing around with record cutting machines at a young age (fascinated by the grooves and their sonic equivalent), not having any money inspired him to experiment with gear, and eventually design it himself. Allegedly, he created his own set of preamps and effects to obtain a different guitar tone for each of his albums (and it’s true they all have their own ‘feel’). Anyway, about the music … as suggested above, the Ramones’ legacy looms over parts of this album: “Let’s Go” is basically a scruffy punk take on ‘50’s-styled rockabilly, while also the title track, “Tragedy” and “Mystery” are basically damn catchy tracks that combine the immediacy of the best power-op with buzzing, crunchy guitars. Despite the guitarist’s approach, also the dedicated rhythm section of Dave Koupal (bass) and Sam Henry (drums) could deliver some awesomely simple, feverish grooves (and check out Henry’s use of the toms in “Window Shop for Love”) over which Sage could lay down his jarring drones and irresistibly catchy melodies (try not to be moved by the new wave-ish jangle of “Wait a Minute”) beneath all the surface noise.
However, the best moments arrive when the music gets a more abrasive, menacing tone. The tough, chugging chords of “Return of the Rat” are already an exquisite fit for Sage’s paranoid lyrics (“You better watch out, you better beware, because they’re coming from all sides of the country, now you better beware”), but the key ingredient is his unique soloing-style that proves he wasn’t your average chord-basher. Even better is “Up Front,” which is introduced by a ominous bass line and grumbling drums that nearly explode in unison with Sage’s “It’s gotta be UP FRONT!” It also contains an extraordinary alternation of jangle-tones and gruff fret-torture, with the coolest distortion on this side of Zen Arcade. The second album half is even darker and menacing than the first: ten seconds into “D-7,” and you’ll no longer wonder why Cobain absolutely wanted to cover it (it’s on the Hormoaning EP): from the creeping guitar melody and bass line to Sage’s sinister vocals during the introduction onwards it’s already a stunner, but of course it’s all about that crashing cymbal launching the song into one of the best distorto-grooves the era spawned. Similar to “Up Front,” the album’s bleakest song, “Potential Suicide,” starts off with the increasingly intensifying toms of Henry, with Sage bursting out “It’s such a long way DOOOOOWN, maybe I should try a floor below.” While the rhythm section basically continues the trance-like groove, Sage proves he’s a master of time and space, alternating cutting noise with moments of silence and careening feedback. It’s hard to describe The Wipers’ music: on the one hand, it’s a blood-raw merger of rudimentary rhythms and sounds, but underneath it, there’s always a key melody, vocal line or other idea that’ll stick with you for a long time. The unpolished production and Sage’s preference of emotion and tone over technicality and willingness to please will perhaps make it hard to get into, but it takes very few listens to recognize the distinctive style of the band. Besides, if you wonder what a fusion of garage, punk and noisy rock CAN sound like, don’t hesitate to check it out. They’d take their music into a more psychedelic-oriented direction later on (epics!), but Is This Real? does a great job of capturing The Wipers in their early, messy glory. Especially if you’ve ever fallen in love with the equally memorable output of bands like Mission of Burma, Hüsker Dü and Dinosaur Jr.
Jeff Williams (USA):
I saw their first ever, and every
goddam gig I could get my underaged body into, thereafter, at least
as long as Sam and Dave were in the band (first album and
No Fair / Youth of America / Taking Too Long / Can This Be / Pushing the Extreme / When It’s Over
Youth of America is often considered The Wipers’ ultimate statement, and although it’s easy to understand why (the two lengthy guitar workouts that dominate the album are spectacular), it does not really deserve all of the praise as it kinda slumps down halfway. It’s not that the “lesser” tracks (“Taking Too Long” and “Can This Be”) are bad or anything (something which distinguishes this band from, say, Led Zeppelin, whose impressive power and sound regularly obscured the fact that they weren’t the best editors of their own work), but they simply can’t measure up to the highlights. For this album, Sage used an entirely different approach. Refusing to take advise from anyone, he stubbornly decided to stay in charge of both recording and engineering the band’s subsequent albums. On the downside, this implies that all of their albums sound under-produced if you’re used to the slicker artefacts of the era, but if you could get past that, it had the capacity to confront you with the man’s unique vision and recording techniques. Each band has its peers – and The Wipers’ style can probably be traced back to a bunch of influences - but I can think of only a handful of artists (Captain Beefheart, Santana, The Minutemen, Steely Dan, Fugazi, Tom Waits (when he peaked in the ‘80’s), to name a few) that succeeded in creating and maintaining such an inspiring originality. They may have had their roots in punk rock, but releasing a 30-minute album containing a mere six songs in 1981? Commercial and critical suicide, indeed.
The title track (recently covered by The Melvins, of all people) should be taught at all high schools in the US, as it’s simply an era-defining guitar behemoth anyone even remotely interested in alternative/indie rock (or whatever you wanna call it) should hear. While the rhythms section of Brad Davidson and Brad Naish basically keep up the same hypnotic rhythm for more than ten minutes, it is of course Sage’s singular playing that steals the show. Alternating fuzzy distortion with slashing solos and screeching feedback, it’s the kind of track that’s exactly counterpart for the paranoid lyrics that Sage was aiming for. Capable of moving you with something that at first listen only seems some random fret-abuse, he lets not only the notes, but also the textures, feedback and distortion speak for themselves. Despite for the lengthy, “quieter” mid-section with its psychedelic sounds (buzzes and hums, (dis)appearing feedback, disconnected vocals), the album maintains an intensity most hardcore bands out there can’t even fathom. Perhaps even better (basically because it’s my favorite Wipers song) is the +6 minutes of the largely instrumental “When It’s Over.” Like in the previous song, the rhythm section is apparently in a trance, as Sage lays down his layers of guitar. I’m just not capable of describing it expertly, as it seems nothing more than an endlessly repeated string of notes and chords (intensifying and ascending) that repeatedly threaten to dissolve into noise, but don’t. Like “Youth of America,” it also has a quiet mid-section, when the guitar is replaced with minimal piano playing before finally returning to the red-hot intensity of the main theme. Brilliantly original and memorable, it’s simply put one of the best songs by anyone ever. With stunners like that, the remaining tracks are almost bound to disappoint, but they don’t. “No Fair” takes its time to warm up with a slow, dark intro, until it reaches its turning point (Sage’s “IT’s NOT FAAAAIIIIIIIRR”) from where it transforms into another indestructible groove. The vocals aren’t particularly impressive if you’re used to Otis Redding and Van Morrison, but seethe with an outrage and honesty that’s rarely matched. Luckily, they never were the kind of band that preferred “emotion” over good musicianship because they weren’t capable of holding their instruments the correct way. These guys could play, but they didn’t care about flashiness, inessential ornaments and bloated ‘70’s excess, as the macabre “Pushing the Extreme” will testify. “Taking Too Long” and “Can This Be Real” are swell tracks as well, the first one especially benefiting from a great chorus, while the rawer second one would’ve fit nicely on their debut album. Worth checking out on the basis of the two astonishing highlights alone, Youth of America deserves much more than a cult audience that’s aware it still stands as a classic in ‘80’s rock. The good thing is their winning streak wasn’t even over yet.
Over the Edge / Doom Town / So Young / Messenger / Romeo / Now Is the Time / What Is / No One Wants An Alien / The Lonely One / No Generation Gap / This Time
Like the previous two albums, Over the Edge must have had (and still has) the capacity to make quite an impact on you if you’re in that phase of your life when you wonder whether it’s all worth it, when you’re wondering what the fuck you’re doing at the place where you are and how you’re gonna find a way out of the mess. Like Hüsker Dü, The Wipers addressed themes such as identity crises and paranoia and they didn’t wrap their songs up in nihilist slogans, like so many of the (hardcore) punk bands out there, instead reverting to a kind of existential desperation. As a result, their third album is quite bleak, both lyrically as well as musically. It was the Reagan-era and things didn’t look that promising. While the first two albums sounded rather raw and amateurish compared to the mainstream releases of that particular era, Sage and band took things even further this time around, by recording with an 8-track tape machine in a rented house with rented equipment. It doesn’t sound particularly “worse” than Youth of America, but again has that thin, semi-bottomless sound that has the big advantage that Sage’s unique style gets in the spotlight. The songs themselves seem to hover between those of the first two albums, keeping the slightly more polished sound of the second album, while returning to the conciseness and accessibility of Is This Real? This is immediately obvious from the first few cuts that kick off one of the best album sides of its era: “Over the Edge,” “Doom Town” and “So Young” sound quite “harmless” by today’s sonic standards, yet the underlying intensity these songs ooze out is undeniable. The Sage of “Over the Edge” is a cornered animal that has already given up any hope of finding his place in society, isn’t even interested in the truth anymore and is hangin’ on the ledge, waiting to be pushed. Something similar is going on during “Doom Town” (stylistically much closer to the nearly ethereal guitar sound of Youth of America), where the protagonist wanders around in an urban wasteland, only meeting blank stares and no one who cares; and also during the similar “So Young” with its trancelike structure and its stubbornly recurring hook “Only the good die young.” Sage knew that, in order to be effective, less could be more and both the sound and lyrics are usually kept to their most essential parts. During the repetitive “Now It’s the Time” this is taken to an extreme by repeating the single line “Now is the time, where is the truth?” over and over again. The band lightens up a bit on the album’s second half, where the catchier songs are grouped together: “What Is” is probably the catchiest song they’d recorded up to this point (and that’s quite a contrast with all the questions that are asked during the song), “No One Wants an Alien” already hints at the desolate, atmospheric direction they’d take after the first three albums (and continue up to Silver Sail), while “The Lonely One” is a ballad, led by a pretty guitar line over which Sage whispers and roars his depressing lyrics, that ultimately leads up to a noisy climax. Some of the songs are closer to the ragged punk/rock of the debut album, like the simple “Messenger” and the band’s most popular song “Romeo,” basically a distortion-heavy interpretation of a rock ‘n’ roll/surf-instrumental, complete with horns (almost inaudible in the background). Over the Edge probably won’t appeal to anyone who’s never reached beyond what’s spoon-fed by mainstream culture, but for those who’d like to get a first peek at the unique universe of The Wipers at the top of their game, Over the Edge might be the ideal start, as it offers a ridiculously consistent, passionately performed distillation of all that made ‘em so great in the first place: a completely singular approach (there are few bands who stand on their own like The Wipers), a bunch of first-class songs and the presence of Sage, one of the greatest, unsung guitar heroes of his generation.
Just a Dream Away / Way of Love / Let Me Know / Fair Weather Friends / Land of the Lost / Nothing Left to Lose / The Search / Different Ways / Just Say
Land of the Lost marks the beginning of what I usually refer to as the monochrome period in the Wipers' catalogue, a string of albums that taught me diversity and colourfulness are all too often considered (and expected) essential ingredients for a successful album. It's not that the Wiperss first three albums were all-over-the-place exercises in diversity, but they all had their own, different feel and featured songs that covered almost opposite parts of the musical spectrum, ranging from short and raw punk bursts to epics that showed Sage was one of the few musicians getting away with extended solos in an age when that was not done anymore. It took the Wipers (on this album: Sage, bassist Brad Davidson and drummer Steve Plouf) three years to release this album and even though that's quite long for an album of a good half hour of plain guitar-rock, it also shows they've mastered their "new" style perfectly. It still sounds like the Wipers of before, but it's the first time they released an album that almost seems like one extended song. Some people would call it monotony, but if you can maintain a certain mood and sound throughout an entire album and make it an almost hypnotic experience instead of a drag, you're onto something. On Land of the Lost, Sage & Co. sound like Television, if that band had been more concise and based in Arizona instead of New York. The mood's melancholic and dark, yet never depressing, while the combination of Sage's vocals, his gritty guitar style and the trance-like grooves of Plouf and Davidson cause it to constantly contain both beauty and force, soothing hypnosis and jarring aggression. It's a peculiar combination and there are very few bands capable of sustaining something like this for longer than a few songs.
It's music that's perfectly suited for long car trips, repetitive yet never descending into blandness. It's almost stunning how simple most of these songs seem - just a few basic chord progressions, endlessly repeated riffs and Sage's plaintive vocals on top of it. However, the guitar sound - often a beefy, distorted guitar playing the riff, with a clearer one adding accents on top of it - ensures you'll soon be part of a trip. In "Just a Dream Away," for instance, you will hardly notice the transitions from versus to chorus and back anymore. It's all part of the same trip. Some songs are faster and more aggressive ("Way of Love," "Fair Weather Friends," which seems indebted to early Gun Club), but even those continue the groove that's set by the dominant, mid-paced tempos. While each song in itself shows enough identity, the album as a whole meanders from riff to riff, even though its second half offers more diverse sounds, from the gentler dream-like playing of "Nothing Left to Lose" and the nearly-whispered vocals of "Different Ways," to the new wave melancholy of "Just Say," which points forward to the culmination of this approach, Silver Sail. This album remains a special listening experience and album, one without obvious highlights towering above the remaining tracks. Even though I've heard it dozens of times, it still sounds as mysterious as the first time when I put it on and if you'd play me just one song, I perhaps wouldn't be able to tell you its location on the track list. It's not the kind of album you'll advise anyone to check out, because it's so hard to put your finger on what it is that makes this album work, but once you've been turned onto Sage's vision, Land of the Lost is bound to become a minor guitar classic in your book as well (still a damn ugly cover, though).
Follow Blind / Someplace Else / Any Time You Find / The Chill Remains / Let It Slide / Against the Wall / No Doubt About It / Don't Belong to You / Losers Town / Coming Down / Next Time
Follow Blind is basically a cleaner, more contemplative version of Land of the Lost, taking its obsession with melancholy to an even more mysterious and occasionally spooky level. As the lyrics are often simple, vague and enigmatic, uncovering a surface that barely hints at what's really going on below, so does the music also reside in an empire of shadows where black and white are eternally banned in favor of shades of grey. Luckily, this gloomy atmosphere doesn't become a breeding ground for mopey angst or overly depressive messages, which would neutralize the music's impact. As one of the very few truly independent bands, the Wipers have one major advantage that few others bands have, and that is that they're immediately recognizable, even though they're working within a clearly defined tradition and rarely indulge in extreme experiments. It's obvious that the Wipers' albums weren't recorded in this millennium, but on Follow Blind they also manage to avoid the over-production and annoying gloss that marred so many of the releases that appeared in 1987. As suggested above, the direction is basically the same as on Land of the Lost: it's moody guitar rock, sometimes slow, sometimes up-tempo, but always hypnotizing. The rhythm section of Davidson and Plouf may not have anything challenging in store if you're in for versatile musicianship, but along with Sage's dense guitar style, they turn each song into a trip of its own, even though more than half here stay under three minutes. Someday, someone really should try to analyze The Wipers' music and try to find out what it is that makes their releases so effective: it must be a combination of Sage's weary voice, the steady rhythms, the peculiar and rather thin production, as well as his virtuoso guitar playing (but never in a boasting manner), but even that doesn't cover the entire package.
I've been listening to this album for a few days when I walked home from work and while I was listening, it was as if the outside world temporarily disappeared and only a sort of tunnel around me remained. Such is the intensity of Follow Blind's best moments. It makes you feel slightly drugged and a spectator seeing things from the outside, in slow motion. As for the songs: it's hard to point out highlights, yet the best stuff is stacked (as is often the case on Wipers album) in the beginning half. This part of the album contains the slower, moodier tracks that feature a throbbing groove and subtly addictive melodies that appear in the guitar playing and vocals (Sage is a limited singer but a great vocalist). Of the first four tracks, the recurring favorite (probably because it's actually recognizable) remains "The Chill Remains," in which Sage evokes an entire emotional universe with just a guitar and a few simple lines "I wonder how it's been, your ship came in, but the shadow shall arise, you turn your eyes," before launching another one of those metronomic grooves. From "Let It Slide" onwards, the album suddenly heads into a more conventional, immediately catchy and rock-oriented direction with less consistently impressive results. The hard rock riff of "Against the Wall" works just fine, but it might take a while to get accustomed to the nearly rockabilly and blues-directed style of "Don't Belong to You" and, especially, "Coming Down." Yet, for each merely "decent" track, there's a grinding winner like "Losers Town." Follow Blind isn't exactly the Wipers' most inspired album; in fact, it's a bit average compared to their best works (of earlier and later), but that's redeemed by the unique style that's retained throughout the album, as well as the refusal to descend into mediocrity. The kind of mediocrity that makes people come up with stuff like "Every day is a gift, that's why they call it the present" (yesterday's most memorable line!!). In other words: the legend continues, albeit on a humbler level. (Dec. 29th, 2005)
Return of the Rat / Mystery / Up Front / Let’s Go Away / Is This Real? / Tragedy / D-7 / Potential Suicide / Don’t Know What I Am / Window Shop for Love / Wait a Minute / Born with a Curse / Rebel without a Cause / Misfit / Mystery / Tragedy / Let’s Go Away / Is This Real? / Alien Boy / Image of Man / Telepathic Love / Voices in the Rain // No Fair / Youth of America / Taking Too Long / Can This Be / Pushing the Extreme / When It’s Over / Scared Stiff / Pushing the Extreme / No Fair / When It’s Over / Youth of America // Over the Edge / Doom Town / So Young / Messenger / Romeo / Now Is the Time / What Is / No One Wants an Alien / The Lonely One / No Generation Gap / This Time / Mistaken ID / No Solution / Doom Town / The Lonely One / Now Is the Time / Romeo / Our Past Life
This box set contains the three above albums (I’m not gonna repeat here what I said about them). I was gonna give it a 9.5 – because I didn’t give any of the albums a 10 – but then I played the second disc again, heard the incredible “When It’s Over,” realized that I’d gladly pay 20 dollars/euros for these six minutes of music and that there’s an abundance of material that is that good. A short elaboration: you get the three studio albums, in the originally intended song order, informative liner notes by Greg Sage, who writes about the circumstances during which the recordings were done, the gear that was used, the lame fuck-ups of several record labels and the nature of the bonus material. On top of the 28 studio tracks, there are no less than 23 bonus tracks and none of them – NONE - is less than good. Whereas most other box sets are cluttered with weak alternate takes, pointless noodling that is deserving of vault-status and other random superfluity, the bonus material on this album proves these guys weren’t exactly fans of wasting tape. The first disc (Is This Real?) adds the Alien Boy EP in its entirety, as well as four older 4-track recordings of seminal stuff like “Is This Real?” and a few cuts that weren’t released before. The second disc (Youth of America) adds another version of “When It’s Over,” recorded with a different drummer and oozing out a completely different atmosphere, as well as alternate takes on “Pushing the Extreme” and the legendary title track with a different sound mixing. The final disc (Over the Edge) contains a few cuts that didn’t make the album, a live song (“Mistaken ID”), out-take mixes for “Doom Town” and two others that did make it to the album and a version of “Romeo” with the horns much more upfront. Wipers Box Set contains a wealth of material that needs to be heard: it’s heartfelt, well-written, exquisitely performed rock ‘n’ roll that, in its own way, took things much further than you can imagine. Regardless of trends, the band (centred around Sage) only cared about one thing: putting their own vision to practise, and the results are often stunning.
Note: Let’s not forget that money is also a decisive factor, right? Well, this release offers you the best price/quality deal I can imagine, as you can buy it through Sage’s own Zeno Records for SEVENTEEN DOLLARS and some postage costs (if you live in the US that is - Amazon UK has it for 19 pounds, Amazon France and Germany for 18 euros). How anyone with an interest in guitar rock can refuse this offer, is beyond me.
Initially, I was disappointed
in the Wipers when I first got the box set. Is This Real was merely
okay, Youth of America disappointed me entirely, and I didn't even have
enough interest to try Over the Edge. However, there were a few songs
off of Is This Real? that I liked and gradually that grew on me. From
there, I gave the other two LPs and chance...and behold!...the Wipers
are now one of my favorite listening pleasures. Musically, Greg Sage
is the complete package: not only a great guitar player, but an enviable
song-writer and lyricist AND blessed with an extremely cool singing
voice that punches the intensity of the music up a notch when needed
and communicates honest emotion (unlike, say, the famous pop-punk monotone
or the cliched emo-punk whine). They do sound like their early 80s contemporaries
a bit (Black Flag, Dead Kennedys, Husker Du, and vaguely like Mission
of Burma), but the band has a personality of all it's own and holds
up today FAR better than many punk and new wave groups of the time have.
I shudder to think that I initially had second thoughts about buying
the box set.