Reviews

Spike in Vain Disease is Relative LP reissue / Death Drives a Cadillac LP

The tale of SPIKE IN VAIN is a story at least as old as tract housing—the American suburban development with dead-end streets that sealed off sites of impending blight. Formed in Cleveland, SPIKE IN VAIN kicked back against the familiar cul-de-sac of a life spent toiling in a factory, a life satisfied with being another faceless member of the grist mill that churns endlessly. They came howling from the suburbs, rampaging on ankle-high stages in fishnets and trenchcoats. It’s uncanny how many of these mutant hardcore bands were like modern-day sin-eaters—mad monks drunk on words and possessed with divine disillusionment. SPIKE IN VAIN and their ilk were future seekers, death-taunters, and they ran themselves ragged, sometimes straight into an early grave. NO TREND might come to mind when pondering this type of off-the-beaten-path hardcore, but SPIKE IN VAIN were even more feral, less calculated in their punk scene mockery, more likely to be found passed out by the railroad tracks. Despite switching off between instruments and vocals, SPIKE IN VAIN never lost focus or intensity. Even though hardcore was still chugging away, the music on these two albums can be seen as “post-hardcore,” in the sense that they were illuminating possible escape routes out of the fallow thrash fields that surrounded them. Disease Is Relative was released in 1984 and lit the torch so bright that it almost burned down all of Cuyahoga County (finishing off the job the river started fifteen years earlier). On all of their material, even the simpler punk songs, SPIKE IN VAIN sound much older than their teen ages suggest. Hell, SPIKE IN VAIN seems to have hit retirement age right after puberty, like coal miners—crawling around in the darkness—aging decades within months. The best moments come when SPIKE’s ambition and ideas take them far beyond hardcore’s borders—which is fitting as Disease is Relative was recorded in a little house in the middle of the woods on the distant outskirts of Cleveland proper. But Cleveland haunts this album like an angry ghost. “A Means to An End” is Dance With Me-era TSOL getting dragged face-first through a scrap metal yard on West 65th, right past Lorain Ave (one of the saddest streets in America). “God On Drugs” is an absurdist classic, an existential cry of despair that also doubles as a stupid, etched-into-a-desk joke that any misanthropic kid can appreciate. “No Name” has more in common with CIRCLE X’s doomsaying no wave than some rote hardcore angst. A haunted house take on BIG BOYS’ party funk, “E.K.G.” comes complete with a spastic bass solo. “Children Of The Subway” is as nihilistic and pugilistic as any hardcore coming from either coast; count yourself lucky if you make it to your stop after blasting this one on the earbuds. With its relentlessly shifting sections, “Disorder” keeps you off-kilter like prime SACCHARINE TRUST. Years before noise rock became codified, SPIKE IN VAIN was manipulating feedback like Foley artists, setting you up for shocks and scares and keeping your ears on a constant state of alert. Disease is Relative is a stone-cold classic and finally back in print, so that’s a reason to keep drawing breath for us miserable types. 

The unreleased follow-up, Death Drives a Cadillac, was recorded a year later and brings in Official Cleveland Treasure—Scott Pickering—on drums. At this point, SPIKE IN VAIN was distinctly not hardcore, instead approaching an early version of grunge and (singer/guitarist/Scat Recs guy) Robert Griffin’s later PRISONSHAKE. The band’s gutter literary aspirations were coming to the fore and they sought the darkness with renewed vigor. In the mid-’80s, cowpunk was trending in the underground, but SPIKE IN VAIN cast a pall over any sort of yeehaw-ing by coming across like urban cowboys from midnight city, armed with switchblades and baseball bats, not fancy spurs and a cowardly six-shooter. The other half of SPIKE IN VAIN’s creative axis was the Marec brothers, and their wayward energy helps power these tracks beyond genre exercise. “Rattlesnake’s Wedding” betrays a heavy GUN CLUB influence, while “Dogsled in Heaven” has plenty of slide guitar and even some tastefully applied Jew’s harp. “Escape From The Zoo” nails this new hybrid—a kind of roots-rock hardcore punk that doesn’t waste a good hook. “Party In The Ground” sounds like the REPLACEMENTS having a hootenanny in the cemetery, while “Gospel Motel” strains hard against its criminal-spiritual duality. While not as immediately visceral as their debut, Death Drives a Cadillac shows that SPIKE IN VAIN still had plenty of gas left in the tank.