Monday, July 13, 2009

July 13: Operation Ivy, "Energy"

Artist: Operation Ivy
Album: Energy
Year: 1989
Label: Lookout!

It is often amazing that some bands, who play together for decades, write little music of substance, and are fine playing within the "status quo." Similarly, there are a handful of bands who only exist for a very brief period, and their contributions shape a myriad of the music that appears after they disband. In the case of punk/ska legends, Operation Ivy, the band itself lasted less than two years, and their only full length album wasn't released until after the band dissolved. Taking the more aggressive ska style of groups like The Specials and The Selector, Operation Ivy fused it together with the more hardcore mood of bands like Black Flag and Boston's Mighty Mighty Bosstones. The results of this fusion led to one of the most enjoyably intense sounds ever, and the sound produced by the band became the formula for later bands like Goldfinger, Less Than Jake, and even No Doubt and Sublime. Released within weeks of the bands' breakup, their only full length album, 1989's Energy, remains one of the most important albums in the entire history of both ska and punk music.

The truth of the matter is, the reason that Operation Ivy called it quits was, after building a reputation as one of the best live bands in California, they were offered a "major label" deal by EMI. The band felt that such a signing would be a "sell out," and decided to end the band as opposed to compromising their integrity. Over the years, Energy, has seen a few re-releases, with additional tracks from the recording sessions being added over time. The band pulled the album from the Lookout! catalog in 2006 due to unpaid royalties, and the album was re-released a year later by Tim Armstrong's Hellcat Records with a re-mastered sound and six additional songs. Operation Ivy, who take their name from the code name for a series of nuclear tests performed by the U.S. Government in 1952, stay true to the name and have more than enough explosive energy. The spirit of the music comes across in every song, as the band never slows down, playing crowd igniting anthems at every turn. Even if you have never heard the band before, the songs are so perfectly crafted, that before the songs are over, you will find yourself singing along to each and every track. The influence of Energy is sometimes stunning when compared to albums that came after, such as the musical similarity and mood between the song "Soundsystem" and Goldfinger's single, "Superman." Furthermore, on songs like "Freeze Up," one can clearly hear the early formation of the sound that would bring international fame to the band Sublime. Once you experience the fantastic music on Energy, it is almost impossible to picture any sort of punk or ska "revival" in the 1990's without the presence of the album.

The brilliance of Energy begins with the excellent music and moods created by the quartet. Guitarist, Tim Armstrong, who is credited on Energy under the name "Lint," is perhaps best known for founding the band, Rancid, yet it is his work with Operation Ivy where he honed his sound and became one of the most highly respected musicians within the punk and ska genres. Rancid co-founder, bassist Matt Freeman (AKA Matt McCall), is far different than a majority of his ska and punk peers, as he usually plays through scales and arpeggios on songs, as opposed to just "blasting" though the root notes of the songs' chord progressions. He also often overlays the basslines with chromatic passing tones, which give the basswork on Energy a far more "musical" feel and make it an overall better album that most of those of the bands' peers and followers. When it comes to under-appreciated drummers of the past thirty years, Operation Ivy's Dave Mello can certainly make a case for being worthy of the top spot on the list. Playing literally every tempo and style imaginable throughout Energy, his playing is absolutely superb, yet his remains largely unheralded, even within the current "punk/ska" scene. The overall sound created by the musicians strong of Operation Ivy is a high octane, crowd rousing, truly enjoyable mood, and Energy is a punk-based ska record that even those who aren't fans of the genre will enjoy.

Driving the music over the edge, and turning Energy into a blockbuster of intensity is vocalist Jesse Michaels. Truly possessing one of the most perfect voices for the punk-ska sound, it is within the speaking/screaming/singing of Michaels that Operation Ivy's songs transition from crowd igniting to truly anthemic. The way that he presents the lyrics often make "call and response" unavoidable, and within his singing, one can imagine how furiously chaotic their live shows must have been. Lyrically, the songs tow the traditional punk lines, with songs speaking out against racism, fascism, and are filled with "rise up" anthems for the disenfranchised youth as well as a decent dose of social criticism. The latter is perhaps no more clear than on the brilliant, "Artificial Life." The entire song is a brilliant call against the mediocrity of American culture, filled with observations like, "American culture Disneyland freak show, screen in your living room...a window for your tomb...if you cant compare to the world sitting there, repress your insecurities watch and escape..." The other aspect that Energy is best known for is the fantastic songs crafted to bring the "scene" together. This is no more clear than on the albums' best known song, the punk-ska anthem, "Unity." The song calls for the different factions of the scene to come together for the greater good, highlighted when Michaels sings, "We ain't no sect, no this ain't no fucking faction, unity unity unity you've heard it all before, this time it's not exclusive we want to stop a war..." Throughout Energy, many of the most beloved "underground" anthems are found, and it is undoubtedly one of the most enjoyable and important albums in the punk-ska timeline.

Representing the pinnacle of "keeping it real," Operation Ivy was so committed to keeping things "small" and "local," that they chose to end the band instead of being overtaken by a large record label. Relentlessly creative, few bands have as impressive a recorded history in such a short time span as punk-ska pioneers, Operation Ivy. Though their music often sounds similar to the countless bands that made the sound almost cliché throughout the early 1990's, the truth of the matter is, Operation Ivy did it first, and they did it far better than nearly every one of their followers. Playing fast and fierce, the band ended their career just as they were getting started, and Energy is basically the bands' entire recorded history, much in the same way that Complete Discography chronicles the short lived career of Minor Threat. Though the band members would find far greater commercial success in the bands they played in following their days with Operation Ivy, their "street cred," as well as their musical style were founded and refined in the ranks of one of the punk-ska genres' most revered bands. The songs found on Energy remain some of the most important songs of the genre, and the sheer energy and positivity that comes through in the music remains largely unmatched to this day. For anyone who has even the smallest interest in positive, high octane music, Operation Ivy's 1989 release, Energy, is far beyond a musical essential, and it is easily one of the finest, and most enjoyable musical experiences ever committed to tape.

Standout tracks: "Knowledge," "Unity," and "Artificial Life."

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