The Born Without a Face Box Set: Grinding Souls into the Ground

By Paul LeDuc Pretzer

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Record collecting has obviously gotten its second wind, revived itself, brought its feeble carcass back from the abyss, and found a niche. In some ways, judging from all of the new releases available on vinyl, increasing steadily the last few years, as well as all of the re releases and reissues coming out in a steady flow, one could say that vinyl has done more than simply find a niche, but made itself relevant again. Sometimes reissues can just feel like a cash grab, repackaged or remixed for no apparent reason and with no discernible difference or added material to the new package, and then other times, too rarely, they are not only well done, but completely necessary.

The Born Without a Face box set (Sargent Cherry), released last fall and containing most of their material (7” and cassette releases dating back to ‘82-’86), is a perfect example of being both well done and completely necessary. In fact, I can’t think of a reissue or release that I wanted to see come to life more than this one. The band recorded two cassette tapes, Psyche! and Freakshow, as well as two 7” records, The Unbecoming and Worship, during their days helping to shape the underground music scene here in Michigan, playing regularly in Grand Rapids, Muskegon, and Detroit, among other places. The box set is beautiful, and I mean that in all sincerity. It is designed well and very cool looking. Freakshow, The Unbecoming, and Worship are all included here on two 12” records, as well as “Hostages,” a track that was originally released on the Method To Our Madness compilation album. They have also been kind enough to include a CD of all of the tracks, for those of you whose turntables are broken or temporarily out of order, or you folks that, strange as it may sound, still collect vinyl even though you don’t play it. You also get three 11×14 posters (done in that classic BWAF way) and a Worship sticker. The whole package, including the box, is nicely crafted, as you would expect from a Born Without a Face release.

There are some bands that were a big influence on me when I was coming up that just haven’t translated well over the chasm of time. Sometimes they just don’t sound as good, or maybe they sound a bit dated, or maybe they have just lost their magic, or maybe I can’t figure out what I ever liked about them in the first place. Some other bands, however, manage fit in seamlessly over the expanse of years and sound as fresh as the first time I heard them. Unfortunately, I must admit that it tends to be the former more than the latter. Born Without a Face was, and is special, though. They were ahead of their time back when they were tearing apart the minds and ears of impressionable little sheep, most of them rocked out of their little heads with hallucinogenic and cheap beer, at Viking Hall in the mid eighties, and they sound as relevant today. If there was any doubt to the fact that they were far ahead of the curve and leading the way for crossover bands (before there was ever even the dirty word crossover), there isn’t one any longer with the benefit of hindsight and context.

It had been years since I had been able to listen to my Freakshow cassette, so when got the wrecking ball rolling with Robert screaming “Slumfeeder” I knew that all was right in the world. The great thing is it’s all here, two and a half minute blast after two and a half minute blast, right up in your face with songs like “Stubborn Beast Flesh,” “A Song For All Exiles,” “The Next Big Thing,” “Teeth Machine,” and “Black Narcissus” coming at you one punch after the next. It never gives you a moment to relax, to let your guard down, or even to think or breathe, it only propels you onward, pushes you forward, caught in some sort of “Maelstrom” (….sorry, I just couldn’t resist working in that song title that way!). It’s so heavy without being metal. They came from the Grand Rapids hardcore scene, but they were probably the least “punk” of all of the bands. Maybe that was it, maybe that’s what made them so hardcore, so punk, is that they were nothing like the bands that surrounded them. They were dark, mysterious, and scary when that wasn’t very cool. They had long hair and wore Judas Priest shirts and played Discharge really loud in their cars. They drove Cameros for Pete’s sake! In the middle of a hardcore scene what’s more punk rock than that, I ask you?

One of the most important elements of the band, something that set them apart from their peers, were their visual themes and motifs they used on their posters, flyers, and releases. Born Without a Face understood the importance of creating an image, a concept that could be associated with the band and managed to do it in a way that didn’t feel forced, contrived, or hokey. Instead, it was ambiguous, dark, natural, forbidden, and powerful. This was an era when many hardcore bands failed to see the larger picture, to understand all of the different aspects of a band beyond the songs you played for thirty minutes on stage. When we saw a flyer advertising for a Born Without a Face show, we knew it was one of their shows before we could get close enough to the flyer to be able to read it. They were original and consistent and merged both the visual aspects of the band with the sonic elements of the band, at a time when most people just found a friend to scratch out some make-shift artwork for a tape. Born Without a Face had a vision and a plan, far more than most of the bands in the scene, most of who were just looking to get drunk and make songs bitching about people. I know, that’s where I started. This was the band that made me see that there was so much more one could do with a band, that there was more to it than just making songs about dumb jocks at my high school.

All of this leads me towards the big pink elephant hiding under the coffee table, and that would be the price tag. Several people who I told to buy this, people who I wouldn’t have bothered with the suggestion if I didn’t really feel that they would find it worth it, responded with something about the $80 being a tough sell. The truth is that mine was a Christmas gift, appearing on my doorstep in a slushy snow storm like a long lost friend with a six pack of good beer and a bunch of great stories, so I didn’t have to buy mine. However, I intended on buying one. Whether you believe that or not is up to you, but that was on my short list of purchases, and if you love Born Without a Face already, or if you love heavy/hardcore music, cool 80s reissues, or just want to share an iconic piece of Michigan musical history, then this should be on your short list too. Born Without a Face was ahead of their time, created the blueprint both sonically and visually that so many other bands tried to recreate or imitate, and made some of the most meaningful, raw, and affecting music of the 80s, music that can stand up to anything created since. Isn’t that reason enough to go buy this? And haven’t you spent $80 on a lot dumber stuff than this? I thought so.