Song: "Rise Above"
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While there are many, it is tough to argue that one of the key elements to a truly great punk rock song is that within the music or lyrics, it must have some aspect that ignites a flame within the listener. Whether this is from a powerful musical progression, or an anthemic lyric of some sort, without this, the song would be missing that quality which "makes" it punk. While many bands have found this formula throughout their career, there are few groups that displayed the sound as consistently and as powerfully as Los Angeles based punk rock legends, Black Flag. With songs that still explode off of the record after nearly thirty years, they remain one of the most influential and truly unrivaled bands in the history of the genre. Playing songs that were once described as, "...devoid of filler...the urgency of the music and playing was unsettling," there are few bands that have even once come close tot he energy and power that Black Flag brought on nearly ever song in their catalog. Responsible for countless punk rock classics, their songs have been covered countless times over the decades, and the name Black Flag continues to demand instant respect due to their undeniable contributions to the progression on the genre. While Black Flag has countless classics in their catalog, there are few that are as powerful and anthemic as their classic 1981 rallying cry, "Rise Above."
As the lead track on the bands classic Damaged album, "Rise Above" is in many ways the closest musical mastermind Greg Ginn ever got to perfecting his brand of controlled musical chaos. The song in many ways exemplifies Black Flag's ability to move like a single machine, as the top of the song seems to lean back a bit, before slamming forward with full force. The song tears in with a frenzied drumbeat from Robo, and then Ginn jumps in with one of the most iconic openings in music history. Within seconds of the song starting, one can imagine how live audiences would instantly go off, as the songs' primary riff is unquestionably one of the most energizing in history. Once referred to as "the perfect soundtrack for a full-scale riot," "Rise Above" captures the unsettlingly direct approach that the band perfected, and the overall feel of the song is truly like nothing else. Bassist Chuck Dukowski pounds away the entire song, often sounding as if he is trying to destroy his instrument. Behind Ginn's wild playing, rhythm guitarist and former band singer, Dez Cadena, keeps assaulting the listener with the core riff over and over, and the song remains one of the most unrelenting and awe inspiring songs in the history of the genre. Not a moment is wasted anywhere in the song, and "Rise Above" features only a few bars worth of what might be slightly considered as a "solo," further setting it apart from the "rock" style of music. Perhaps the only aspect of "Rise Above" that is more invigorating and iconic than the music is the magnificent vocals with are lain overtop.
Along with Damaged representing Black Flag's first full length record, it is also their first recording to feature their then new vocalist, Henry Rollins. Having joined the band only a few months previous, Rollins brought a far more aggressive and almost confrontational approach than any of the bands' previous singers. With "Rise Above" serving as most peoples' first introduction to Rollins' vocal style, he immediately proves that, while he may sound different than his predecessors, there are few vocalist in music history that can compare to the sheer power and emotion that Rollins brought on every song. With his signature shouting sound, Rollins matches the energy and power of the music as his vocals remain one of the most inspiring and iconic calls to action in music history. On "Rise Above," Ginn gave Rollins some of his finest lyrics ever, and there are few songs that so directly speak to the point of overcoming adversity. Speaking to both the larger picture of society, as well as to the individual, the meaning behind the song is captured in the repeated phrase, "...we are tired of your abuse, try to stop us it's no use..." Pushing the listener to be aware of "what" society is trying to do to them, the song encourages them to take this adversity and look inside themselves to find a way to overcome. At every turn, Rollins gives the listener an anthem to yell at those who try and keep them down, as well as an unforgettable kick in the butt to take it head on and rise above these obstacles.
Truth be told, there are actually three different recordings of "Rise Above" that feature Rollins on vocals. The version off of Damaged was actually recorded before the "formal" sessions for the record, but the band liked this original take more than the one recorded with the rest of the album. Later, in 2002, Rollins re-recorded the song with his own backing band on the benefit record, Rise Above: 24 Songs To Benefit The West Memphis Three. Aside from a fresh take on the music and vocals, this version (linked above) is made an instant classic as it features a brief opening by none other than Chuck D. Regardless of which version you hear, the sentiment behind the song is never lost, and the fact that "Rise Above" remains as potent and stimulating nearly three decades after its release is a testament to how extraordinary a song the group created. Standing as one of the most oft-covered songs of the punk/hardcore genre, groups across the musical spectrum, from Kid Dynamite to Sepultura have recorded their own versions over the years, yet none have ever come close to the stunning energy and sound found on the original. Leaving egos and any unnecessary music behind, Black Flag's first recording with new vocalist Henry Rollins resulted in not only their finest album, but also their most legendary single, which also stands as one of the greatest songs ever recorded, 1981's classic, "Rise Above."