With a grungey guitar attack and sludgy sonics, Big Chief’s early records sound like prototypical ’90s Seattle — except the band is from Ann Arbor, Michigan. Formed by members of several popular local groups (Laughing Hyenas, Necros, McDonalds, Posse From Hell), Big Chief embraced a wide swath of hard-rock influences, ranging from righteous homeboys the MC5 and the Stooges to Black Sabbath, Blue Cheer and Black Flag. The twist is in the funk, however; Big Chief hails from George Clinton country, too, and their debt to Dr. Funkenstein — an obligation none of their forbears knew from — would become obvious later on.
It was all balls to the wall in the beginning. Launched in 1989, Big Chief eschewed the Detroit/Ann Arbor club scene and took its act worldwide, drumming up attention in Britain with the series of singles that are collected on Drive It Off. Heavy and savage, the album had more to offer than much of the hardcore scene at the time, though it lacked cohesiveness. That problem was resolved with Face, a titanium monster that ranks among the best albums produced in Michigan’s rich rock heritage. “Fresh Vines” kicks things off with a murky, Sabbath-style intro lumbering into a molten groove of grinding guitars (Mark Dancey and Phil Durr) and a thundering rhythm section (bassist Matt O’Brien and drummer Mike Danner); Detroit R&B diva Thornetta Davis provides a striking counterpoint to Barry Henssler’s guttural roar. The rest of Face is filled with steel-booted stomps (“The Ballad of Dylan Cohl,” “Drive It Off,” “500 Reasons”) as well as murky mood pieces like “Desert Jam.” A primal delight.
Mack Avenue Skullgame is a different animal entirely, a film soundtrack that’s an oddity in the Big Chief oeuvre. It’s more the work of a collective than a band, as Big Chief expands its ranks and its sound; there’s much more spare, almost ambient funk and incidental musical passages. The album contains its share of good songs — “Soul on a Roll,” “Let’s Do It Again,” “Cut to the Chase” — but it’s not nearly as satisfying as Face.
The quintet more than makes amends, though, on its major-label debut, Platinum Jive. The rock/funk synthesis is even more seamless, resulting in heavy music that drives hard and with great invention — including ample spicy sonic details provided by flutes, horns and deftly arranged backup vocals. There’s a rap number (“Bona Fide,” with Schoolly D) and a soul croon called “Simply Barry,” but mostly Platinum Jive rocks and roils, from the slamming opener “Lion’s Mouth” through the trippy “Your Days Are Numbered” and the relentlessly rhythmic “The Liquor Talkin’.” Kudos also to the packaging, a hilarious sendup of greatest-hits albums that even lists fictional solo records by the individual Big Chiefs (Henssler’s is called The Sexual Intellectual). The group’s outside activities — including the irreverent Motorbooty magazine, which Dancey edits — tend to put a bit of time between Big Chief’s releases, but the next one can’t come too soon.
The six-cut Big Chief Brand Product has items from Face and Mack Avenue as well as non-LP matter; the five-songer with Thornetta Davis (now recording as a solo artist on Sub Pop) includes a Mack Avenue tune and a couple of funk covers.