Although largely hidden in the sudden explosion of late-’80s thrash-funk combos, this exceptional New York quartet is virtually everything Living Colour would be if Vernon Reid weren’t such an overachieving technician and Corey Glover didn’t take himself so seriously. Jimi Hazel can play guitar in a variety of speedmetal, jazzbuster and post-funk styles, but spends his time contributing to the songs rather than trying to escape them with flash solos; the rhythm section moves easily from junior-gods-of-thunder to thumb-popping bass and irresistible sacroiliac adjustments. Capping it all off, original singer-lyricist Peter Fluid sings his mixture of African-American culture, cogent politics and punky stupidity with confidence and power.
The quartet, which hails from the South Bronx and Manhattan, mixes and matches hardcore punk and tough-minded funk with a touch of rap on Harder Than You to achieve a singularly potent blend. Hazel proves himself an above-average slice-and-dice man on tracks like “Pillage” and the instrumental “Jimi’z Jam,” while Fluid keeps things politically wired on “Social Plague” (an anti-supremacist rant) and “Ballots Not Bullets,” a reggae protest that journalistically details Haiti’s bloody ’87 election. They cover Kool and the Gang (opening and ending a sizzling “Jungle Boogie” with animal noises and adding a bass-popping rap breakdown) and Black Uhuru (“Sponji Reggae”). It’s the band’s freewheeling sense of fun that makes Harder Than You such a visceral joy: cock an ear to the giddily obscene “Spyz Dope,” the bubblethrash goof “Tango Skin Polka” or the ode to a rock-savvy matriarch, “Grandma Dynamite,” for a taste of the Spyz at their unfettered finest.
Employing an uninhibited stylistic palette that seems to reflect whatever springs into the Spyz’s collective consciousness at any given moment, the self-produced Gumbo Millennium winds up retreating to opposite corners of relatively serious hard-rock (still with pungent political/personal lyrics, but now employing a thick, hardened metal-cum-hardcore sound) and flaky digressions that don’t really add up to an album. Bassist Rick Skatore’s “Dude U Knew” is an appealing exercise in airy funk, but then there’s the ska-beat “Culo Posse” and the throbbing world report of “We’ll Have Power.” Throwaways like “Spyz on Piano” and drummer Anthony Johnson’s unconvincing rap on “Don’t Push Me” indicate a dearth of workable new ideas. Still, Hazel’s “Purple Haze”-quoting shred-guitar work on “John Connelly’s Theory” (an instrumental named for the Nuclear Assault guitarist, who’d served as Hazel’s guitar tech on a tour) and “Heaven and Hell” show him blossoming into a bona fide axe hero. Fluid and Johnson left at the end of ’90 and were replaced by, respectively, Jeff Broadnax and Joel Maitoza.
The transitional This Is…24-7 Spyz! EP introduces the new lineup on five new songs for a different label. The autobiographical “Tick, Tick, Tick” is straight-up hardcore, while the cover of Mandrill’s “Peace & Love” roars along at a slower pace. All the pieces come together on a powerful rock expansion of Larry Graham’s “Earthquake.” The lyrics of the metallic “Stuntman” detail the band’s acrimonious split with In-Effect: “Hardcore, grindcore, guitar pop / If you won’t do metal, you’ll get dropped.”
Co-produced to a handsome mid-range sheen by Terry Date and Hazel, the hard-hitting Strength in Numbers reprises “Stuntman” and “My Desire” from the EP, adding some worthy tunes, notably the guitarist’s dreamy romantic ballad “Earth and Sky” and his soaring guitar showcase “Sireality.” Soon after the release of Strength in Numbers, Broadnax departed and Fluid returned to the fold.