Unlike labelmates Die Kreuzen and Scratch Acid — who were merely abrasive and unsettling — Detroit’s Laughing Hyenas were, at the outset anyway, an actively threatening outgrowth of Midwestern hardcore. Banshee John Brannon (ex-Negative Approach) rolled his eyes back in his head and smashed mics into his teeth; dressed in bad-luck tattoos, the scowling Kevin Strickland wrestled his bass; Jim Kimball menaced his drums like a criminal. Larissa Strickland (ex-L7) was the only member with a smile, but her chilling, isolated guitar playing was an equally intimidating part of the group’s violent makeup.
The six-song 12-inch EP, produced (as were the next two records) by Butch Vig, lays out the Hyenas’ basic plan, but there isn’t enough equilibrium between the understated music and the overdone vocals to be convincing. Bits work, but Brannon’s full-throttle efforts leave his bandmates in the dust.
You Can’t Pray a Lie gets the balance right. Strickland’s charged contributions (it sounds like she’s been listening to her Rapeman records) give the singer a high-intensity run for his money. Ironically, while the challenge inspires Brannon to greater feats of frenzy, his roars — mixed to a nearly equal footing with the music — become easier to endure, if not exactly enjoy.
Continuing to organize its four-wheel drive into real forward motion, the Laughing Hyenas lash out with unified vehemence on Life of Crime, honoring the spiritual memory of those legendary Ann Arbor forefathers, the Stooges. The Hyenas’ muscular, lurching version of the blues finds a precision and concision lacking on dirgier early releases. The album is a dynamo of bad vibes, the entire band hitting angrily as one tough fist of coordinated animosity. Larissa, who began playing guitar only six months before joining the Hyenas, is a cunning self-made stylist, combining limber melodic flashes with soaring, crying chords. Brannon still seems an inexhaustible well of rage, and Kimball and Kevin knock out deep, repeating grooves like cavemen sucker-punching mastodons. (The Life of Crime CD includes You Can’t Pray a Lie in its entirety.)
The rhythm section left in 1992 to form the disappointing Mule; Crawl shows the remaining half also worse for the split. Brannon and Larissa are in howling fine form on “Living in Darkness” and the violent “Girl,” but the basically excellent accessible four- song effort lacks the electricity to inspire all-out panic. Even rebuilt with bassist Kevin Reis (soon replaced by Ron Sakowski) and drummer Todd Swalla of the Necros, the Hyenas’ momentum is clearly shaken.
Coming five years after Life of Crime, Hard Times — seven long songs — is the sound of all-out weariness. Plenty of straight-ahead sludge rock stays true to the Stooges, the Stones and AC/DC, but the band’s steel nerves have gone to pot. Straight-ahead beats and repetitious material run down what energy is left, and no one sounds like they care. The 1995 CD reissue of the Birthday Party-like Merry Go Round (originally six songs on vinyl and seven on cassette; the new edition adds four early tracks, including a cover of Alice Cooper’s “Public Animal #9” from a Sub Pop single and a live version of “Dedications to the One I Love”) would seem to be either a red flag or a eulogy, as this debut portrays the Hyenas as a most volatile and ambitious adventure.
Strickland died, reportedly of a drug overdose, in 2006.