I saw Fifty Tons of Black Terror at the Metro Cafe last winter. My buddy, Eric, without money or a job in New York City, had lost a bet (don’t ask) and got wangled into acting as tour manager and guide for Fifty Tons and labelmates Groop Dogdrill as the lads toured America.
The Metro was the tour’s first stop out of New York, but someone had improperly billed the show as being held the next night. I didn’t notice at first that nobody was at the show, because I was holding a personal meeting with the brown liquor. Lots of rock-band-on-tour stories involve the phrase “no one came to the show,” but this time, it was really true: Fifty Tons played for Groop, Eric, and me with the enthusiasm of a headliner at a sold-out HammerJacks in 1987 on free-tequila-shooter night.
Enthusiasm makes for a nice story (or maybe not), but it’s meaningless if the band sucks. These days, most hard rock sounds as if it was made by macho assholes—which renders it somewhat difficult for me to enjoy. Don’t get me wrong—I’m sure that many of my favorite bands from adolescence employed egotistical freaks, but somehow the heyday excesses of Sabbath, AC/DC, and Metallica seem excusable compared with the laughable follies perpetrated by today’s humorless, posturing anti-Christs and rapping midgets.
Even in the punk and indie-rock scene, where artists should know better, much of the really hardass stuff sounds static, as if burdened by the legacy of hardcore punk and Midwest noise rock. So it was with some joy that I first discovered Fifty Tons, so named for a B-movie after a certain American magazine took issue (lawsuit) with the band’s original moniker, Penthouse.
Fifty Tons is a very good rock band. It attacks the same influences as many Touch and Go and Amphetamine Reptile noise bands, except it does so as if from the far side of the Atlantic, building aural walls out of low-end drums, trebled guitars, and fuzz or funk bass lines straight from the Fall and the Birthday Party.
My Idle Hands is hardly original stuff, but it rocks until you just don’t care. The most obvious comparison—to the Jesus Lizard—certainly makes sense, given Charlie Finke’s uncanny vocal similarity to David Yow’s, but it misses a few subtle differences. For starters, the Jesus Lizard harnessed its power through needle-sharp playing by its crack musicians. Fifty Tons takes that same needle and stabs you right in the eye; the band doesn’t seem to care about the precise use of otherwise forgotten guitar chords.
At the start of “Creepers Reef,” when Finke yells, “Crawl to d’ back of the shell, put your tongue back into your head,” Graeme Flynn’s bass line rolls with a rhythm that calls for Dramamine. Fifty Tons makes no attempt to hide its big rock sound. “Valley of the Sows” starts with a neat jazz drum part but doesn’t play coy about the hubris that’s only seconds away. It’s all fast-twitch muscles even at midtempo.
And midtempo is where this outfit works best. Fifty Tons builds tension not from rapid-fire explosions of fury, but by pounding away seethingly. “Detunabilly” picks up the pace a bit and is as fine a tribute to the Fall’s Mark E. Smith as any effort that has been mustered by several D.C. bands. The song loses its groove halfway through and falls apart into sonic angst so completely that when the band finally remembers how the song started, it’s almost shocking to hear it snap back into syncopation.
Track after track, Fifty Tons offers sonic beat-downs aplenty, and it’s a small relief when the band takes a light breather on Track 6, “The Pool at Blood Gully.” The tempo steps back into a warped read on cowboy balladeering. Jon Free’s reverbed-out guitar rolls with the rhythm section’s restrained beat, but Finke’s words offer little respite from the unsettling nature of the other songs: “True love/Forbidden love/All should see/At the bottom of blood gully.”
From start to finish, Finke’s lyrics offer similarly nasty sentiments. “Valley of the Sows” offers lovely red-meat, redneck fantasies such as “For some we have bleeded a kindly young sheep/For others there’s a 180 cwt. of salt beef/Late commers fight over chitlins in brine/While here on top table we eat prime swine.” If Fifty Tons aims for icky, then this track is a tour de force. Finke seems to have a thing for the Other White Meat, because “Little Brown Kisses” begins with even more pig imagery: “Behold the painted boengg of a boar does his make up/With bloomers full of make up and socks primed with sunny bile.”
Free’s guitar howls through blues scales with a distorted, atonal sound that meshes perfectly with the production. Credited to both Teo Miller and Fifty Tons, the decisions made in the studio rescue certain songs from their dubious influences by mixing the various sounds almost perfectly. With so much distortion in the bass and guitar and Tim Cedar’s power-fuck drumming style, it’s a small wonder that more detail wasn’t lost. But somehow the band and producer keep the parts from bleeding into each other, leaving ample room to hear Free hit some sophisticated notes while the bass and drums explode showily time and again.
You’d have to be a dedicated fan of noise rock to sit through daily listenings of My Idle Hands, because time and exposure limit the impact of howling and shrieking. But for undiluted musical agony, few bands operating today can match this outfit. Harking back to the early-’90s heyday of Midwest blues punk, Fifty Tons grabs the best aspects of the genre while securing its own take. My Idle Hands is up to its elbows in artistic debt, but it manages enough sincerity and power to impress you all by itself….Anyway, Eric saw the band every night for two weeks and never complained. Except about the show’s promoter. CP