Embodying the live-fast-die-young aesthetic of West Coast hardcore with lifestyles as reckless as their music, San Diego’s Battalion of Saints plugged through the first half of the Reagan era before falling victim to inevitable self-destruction. Assembled from San Diego’s Nutrons and Standbys, the band was led by vocalist George Anthony and guitarist Chris Smith, who forged a sound distinct from hardcore monotony by incorporating selective trappings of before-you-were-punk classic-rock.
The four-song Fighting Boys debut finds the Bats (as they were known) in fighting shape. With singalong choruses, Anthony’s high-pitched yelp and politically charged lyrics (the only exception being “I Wanna Make You Scream,” about the Hillside Strangler), the sound is most comparable to sometime billmates the Dead Kennedys. The red-hot pogo songs charge forward without hesitation and ooze with smirking defiance; it is easy to lose track of the vitriol amid the fun being had here.
Dysfunction catches up with the merriment on Second Coming, the Bats’ only proper album. Anthony bemoans a baker’s dozen types of personal and societal malaise, but the band maintains its engaging wit, exemplified by Smith’s shambling quotation of “The Merry-Go-Round Broke Down” during a break in “My Mind’s Diseased.” The speedy material is varied, as is the production: pounding toms, throaty distortion, upfront vocals. The thick, nuanced sound suits the Bats’ rocked-out approach (see the Hendrix nod at the beginning of “No More Lies” and Smith’s frenzied solo breaks throughout the album). Anthony manages an impressive range of shouts and screeches, at once frenetic and swaggering. If his nihilistic lyrics aren’t always clever (or even comprehensible); the singer’s pure force of vocal character often steals the show. Highly recommended even to casual fans of early ’80s hardcore.
The Bats fell apart when Chris Smith moved to New York to join Kraut not long after the release of Second Coming; the guitarist’s drug-related death shortly thereafter dashed any hopes of Battalion of Saints regrouping. Rock in Peace is an unauthorized retrospective of live material and studio tracks, both released and otherwise.
With Anthony’s blessing, Taang! obtained the rights to the band’s out of print catalogue and issued Death-R-Us (named in acknowledgment of the four ex-members who were dead by the time of its release). It’s everything Bats fans could want: Fighting Boys and Second Coming plus a previously unreleased vintage track, a couple of compilation contributions and two tracks by Battalion of Saints A.D., George Anthony’s first recorded work in the decade since the original band’s demise.
The new Bats — essentially a collaboration between Anthony and guitarist Terry “Tezz” Bones, a founding member of British hardcore giants Discharge and Broken Bones — attempts to make a more thorough case for itself on the disappointing Cuts. Failing to deliver on the promise of the Death-R-Us tracks, the album’s rush past in a pounding blur, a solid but uninspired reflection of Bones’ training in the more ferocious quarters of UK punk. Battalion of Saints A.D. sound three times angrier than the first-run Bats ever did, but that’s just the problem — without the screwball appeal of his younger years, Anthony has become an aging punk curmudgeon. Probably good for keeping the neighbor’s kids out of the yard, but not much fun. Stop yelling already!
Battalion of Saints A.D. disbanded in 1998. A few years later, Anthony assembled a new group using the Battalion of Saints banner, this time with a new generation of San Diego punks, alumni of the city’s Gravity Records emocore scene of the ’90s.