Big Meat Hammer: Please Keep Portland Clean

Big Meat Hammer

Older, louder, snottier

Punk rock has always been a genre of dichotomy. On one hand, working class folk trying to set things right; on the other, a bunch of bloody wankers. Like the Sex Pistols final UK concert: a 1977 Christmas day show for the children of local firemen, laid-off workers, and single parents that featured the consumption of 1000 bottles of soda pop. Pretty riotous stuff, that.

Such are Big Meat Hammer, a seemingly grimy lot, with a guitarist named Skummy Man, who are more than how they appear. Central is Jordan Kratz, over 40 and still sporting that leather jacket with the dangling chains, scraggly oft-died hair, and a grizzled set of pipes at the mic. His attic apartment is a punk rock shrine, covered with Misfits, GG Allin, Brood, and other punk fliers from the past 15 years. Martha Stewart would be frightened out of her wits.

But, off to one side, covered in protective plastic, is some serious stereo equipment, connected to Kratz’s computer. Kratz may be a punk from way back, but he’s also a computer geek — and that’s not a derogative term. Kratz had a web site for the Hammer as early as ’95, and was one of the first in Maine to introduce MP3s and streaming video to his site. But the punk comes out when you ask him how he got into it: “Because I like to do my own shit,” he says.

He certainly did his own shit on Big Meat Hammer’s debut disc, 10 years in the making, being released tonight [Thursday, March 22, 2001] with an in-store show at Bull Moose on Middle Street and a gig with Hate Crimes, the Marvels, and Swampwitch Revival at their old haunt, Geno’s. Please Keep Portland Clean is chock full of 28 tunes, some of which were recorded as far back as 1990.

“I took my time at it,” says Kratz, with a series of sessions at Frasier Jones’s Independent Audio out on Deerfield Road. “But it’s not like I was in there every night.” The result is a clean, thoughtful, straightforward disc reminiscent in its production values of Never Mind the Bollocks. “The sound is right up front,” says Kratz. “It sounds good.” That’s clear off the opening track, “Evolution Leap,” which leads with crisp Mark Peterson drums — no longer with the band — a blazing Skummy solo overtop Jim Rand’s rhythm, and indignant vocals from Kratz.

[Editor’s Note: This video is from 1998, three years before the album was released.]

The recording quality and the overall catchy quality of the tunes underscores yet another dichotomy Big Meat Hammer and the punk scene must contend with: This genre, founded as anti-establishment, just isn’t very scary anymore. People were wandering around the office recently humming the words to Big Meat Hammer’s cover of the GG Allin tune “Drink, Fight, and Fuck.” When you have Eminem gaining national fame rapping about raping his mother, that mantra seems pretty tame.

“When the Ramones hit,” says bassist and Portland punk historian Lenny Smith, “you had to twist people’s arms. Now everyone loves the Ramones.”

“Yeah, it takes more than punk to piss off your parents now,” says drummer and newest member Caleb Wilson. “You put on the Clash and they’re like, ‘Cool, the Clash.’ ”

“Now people listen to it for the poetry of it,” says Smith.

Things have also fractured quite a bit since the days of the 1980s when, as Skummy remembers, “you were either a punk or a new-waver.”

“There’s a lot more punk bands now,” says Kratz, “but they’re all different types, there’s too many classifications: straight-edge, spiritual punk, Jesus punk. There’s people who think they’re playing punk rock, but I don’t know what they’re doing.” Big Meat Hammer attribute the perceived drop in show attendance to this phenomenon.

“In the old days, it was just punk,” says Smith, “now there’s just too many choices.” And when a punk show does come together, Smith sees the day-long, 10-band extravaganzas as counter-productive. “People go for an hour to see one of the bands and then split. Who wants to sit there for a whole day of pot-luck bands?”

Luckily, there’s always Geno’s, which, in 18 years, has yet to get stale. “There’s enough different types of bands that I don’t feel like it’s the same thing all the time,” says Smith. “Bars close down and then another opens up. Clubs change. I like that Geno’s has had that longevity.” And Kratz may have put his finger on the reason for their success.

“A lot of acts have played there because Geno is their friend,” he says. “He stays open, he pays you out of his pocket if he has to, and he allows nearly everyone to play.”

Every scene needs a club like Geno’s to keep it alive, even punkers, famous for relying on no one. “That’s the downside to DIY,” notes Skummy, “you have to do it yourself. We don’t know how to do it ourselves, we’re just punk rockers.”

There’s also a downside to being a veteran statesman of the punk rock scene. “Twenty years ago,” says Smith, “we could have jumped in a car and drove off across the country,” to support the new disc. “But I was 30 when I joined the band. It’s not as easy to drop your job and go. Maybe that’s an excuse, but it feels harder.”

Covered in Bees: Portland Death Punk, Vol. 2: Louder than Fire

Colony collapse disorder

Covered in Bees kill Louder than Fire

If you get a chance, check out the trailer for the movie 2 on YouTube. Not only does it feature some ripping Covered in Bees, but it’s just sort of downright wrong in a very entertaining way. If you like zombies eating flesh, this is your flick. And if you like gore, giant gaping wounds, and the like, Covered in Bees are your band. Nobody has more fun with morbidity than the Bees.

On the packaging for Portland Death Punk, Vol. 2: Louder than Fire, a follow-up to their late-2005 debut, you’ll even find the CiB in zombie profile, sores dripping, mouths set in frowns (it’s no fun being undead). Just as you’ll find fine, hard-driving punk celebrations of death throughout the disc’s 13 tracks (pssst, one’s secret). Maybe the most disturbing of those is “Spiderlady II: Chest Full of Eggs.” But not because of the poppy-punk “whoa-aha-oah” vocals. Because that’s just grody, isn’t it? A lady, who’s a spider, and has a chest full of eggs? It’s sort of bile-inducing.

“I’m having a hard time breathing, but I think I’m going to be okay,” Boo Leavitt belts out. Yeah, that sums it up for me, too.

Never has a living hell sounded so fun (and a little bit silly). The images they call up can be initially distasteful, I’ll admit. But I’m sort of prudish. Most people won’t have any problem immediately reveling in the Bees’ ridiculousness—on “Nightbreed,” not only does Boo offer that, “I’m dressed all in black so you won’t see me stalking/ I wear two pairs of socks so you won’t hear me walking,” but the central riff might actually recall Golden Earring’s “Radar Love” on purpose. It’s hard to say.

Part of what makes the band so appealing is their technical skill, as well. Accompanying hardcore punkers, Doug Porter (see also: Confusatron) is a nearly absurdly talented guitar player, and his solos on tunes like “Car on Fire with Guns” and “Welcome to Handgun City” recall everyone from Stevie Ray Vaughn to Tony Iommi. On “Ride with Us,” Porter pairs guitar licks in the left and right channels like trains barreling toward a common exchange in a game of chicken. “If you ride with us,” the band remind you, “you ride with death.” And this is of course introduced by handclaps.

If all of those teen-aimed horror movies (the Saw series, The Hills Have Eyes, etc.) showed one ounce of the cheek Covered in Bees carry off, maybe I wouldn’t find them so repulsive. Are we celebrating death, or are we celebrating life? That might sound all religious right of me, but when horror is used just for shock and awe, it’s hard to see the point. Shouldn’t we try to have a little fun with our entertainment?

Covered in Bees sure think so. Why else would they bite Headstart! on the glibly pop “Within the Woods,” drummer Tristan Gallagher setting you up with an ethereal tease then joined in an incessant demand for head-nodding by bassist Ed Porter? Why else would they enjoy Eddie Izzard (a comedian who joked that apiarists must occasionally just scream out: “I’m covered in bees!”)?

Why else would a guy named Boo profess to be genuinely scared of ghosts?

Photo Credit: Still image from this video by Lennyvision