AMPHETAMINE REPTILE WAS founded in 1985 and continues as a record label to this day, but the "AmRep era" usually refers to that American noise-rock maelstrom spanning the period from the Berlin Wall crumble to O.J.'s highway chase. These transitional Guns N' Alt Rock years saw the Minneapolis imprint become synonymous with scary, shorthaired guys sporting ugly band names and dim stares. And while none of these acts sounded exactly alike, all of them swam against the prevailing tide of flannel-pop and hippie grunge that soon engulfed the mainstream. If our hamlet was Seattle without the hype, AmRep was Sub Pop without the tripe, and it left behind a catalog that still sounds remarkably potent.
Strap It On
With a heavy dose of low-end Black Sabbath riffage, tunelessly gruff vocals, and a buzzed-preppy appearance, New York's Helmet became the prototype for Nineties skate metal long before anyone figured out how to market it as such. Personally, I found this debut maddeningly flat and repetitive, but Helmet's gray slabs of industrial-strength guitar roar were undeniably honed, garnering enough buzz to make them the first of many "Next Nirvanas." Mainstream, meet AmRep.
double 7-inch (1990)
Jon Spencer and Cristina Martinez's hydra-headed baby climbed out of the crib on this two-single set, stomping out the best version yet of New York noise and all its bluesy implosions. Cameos abound, from death-dance legend Jim Thirlwell (a.k.a. Foetus) and the late Unsane drummer Charlie Undras to ex-Sonic Youther Bob Bert.
Halo of Flies,
Music for Insect Minds, 1985-1991
Led by mod-influenced AmRep kingpin Tom Hazelmyer (with in-house engineer Tim MacLaughlin on bass), the alarmingly fierce Halo of Flies scattered songs across countless singles and EPs between 1985 and 1991. Haze packed 29 of his best "groovy-mod-hate-fuck" rants onto this comp, posthumously claiming HoF's place as one of the two or three most ferocious (if largely forgotten) bands in Minneapolis history. Classic lyric: "This ain't no heartfelt shit! This is Halo of Flies!"
Die-hard local Cows fans will argue themselves blue over which of the band's eight albums was its finest moo. But to me, this fourth platter remains a standout for combining the (barely) controlled chaos of the early slabs with adept songcraft and pristine production. Singer Shannon Selberg ran down every facet of his supremely tormented id, from the blasphemous birth tale "Heave Ho" to the satirically gynophobic horror story "The Woman Inside." Thor Eisentrager's guitar, meanwhile, screams like a newly birthed calf.
Heavier-than-plutonium power-trios like Tar and the Unsane comprised a sort of constipation-rock subgenre unto itself, but in 1991 Hammerhead arrived from Fargo and promptly rendered the competition obsolete. These guys knew how to rupture vital organs by piling noise onto both low and high frequencies. And while their best long-player was Into the Vortex, they never topped the density and intensity of this 19-minute blast--notable for the inclusion of "Peep" and "U.V." from their rare debut single, a picture-disc with wicked Chris Mars monster art.
Dope, Guns, and Fucking in the Streets
AmRep was largely a singles label, pumping out dozens of exclusive tracks on instantly rare seven-inch vinyl. And nowhere was their collector geekiness more in evidence than on the Dope, Guns singles, each containing four songs from AmRep regulars or like-minded "competitors." (Mudhoney made their first appearance among these sides.) You still might be able to find the CD/LP volumes that combined several comps, and if you do, snatch up Volumes 4-7 (1992), which contains everything from Aussie sleazies Lubricated Goat to local politicos Jonestown and Chicago sludge stars the Jesus Lizard.
Satirical or genuine, this short-lived D.C. outfit maintained a creepy survivalist vibe on record and in concert--they once dedicated their Uptown Bar encore to Timothy McVeigh. The music was an unheard-of mix of low-BPM grind and shoe-gazer singing, and this platter was a perfectly one-of-a-kind soundtrack for AmRep's scariest latter-period band.