Led by singer/guitarist Greg Sage, Portland, Oregon’s Wipers began as a trio playing heavy rock that mixed high velocity and volume to obscure songs with introspective and intelligent lyrics. Is This Real? is a case in point. Raw, abrasive and hard-hitting, it’s come to be considered such a touchstone in Northwest punk/grunge history that Sub Pop reissued it (adding the three non-LP B-sides from Alien Boy) fourteen years later, after Nirvana covered not one, but two, of its songs.
Youth of America shows much refinement and is highlighted by Sage’s weird guitar work on some long instrumental bridges. The title track is a simple, repetitive, colossal ten-minute monster, the Wipers’ ultimate effort. Over the Edge is as appealing, with some of Sage’s most memorable songs. The thick title track (later covered by Hole), plus the simmering “Doom Town” and the roaring “So Young” define the Wipers’ dense, methodical, chunky aggression, with heavy, cloudy guitar.
Sage recorded the solo Straight Ahead while looking for a new label for the Wipers. Side One sounds like his band, which is fine, but Side Two is just the man and his guitar making hauntingly strange, consciousness-expanding, atmospheric space pieces such as “Astro Cloud.” Intriguing. Wipers is a live album from a 1984 tour that includes three great songs never recorded in a studio.
Land of the Lost reveals no rust after a three-year layoff. “Way of Love” and “Nothing Left to Lose” are charging rockers fed by Sage’s fire-breathing string work, while “Just Say” shows a prettier side of his playing. Follow Blind backsteps a bit, with more hypnotic guitar. On the first moody Wipers LP, Brad Davidson’s prominent bass sets up subconscious undercurrents. The stunning title track and “Any Time You Find” mix Sage’s solo atmospherics with his thicker, repetitive style and are highly affecting.
The Circle‘s scorching opener, “I Want a Way,” and its tumultuous title track are red herrings for Wipers’ business as usual. The album actually includes one of the band’s rare, unabashed pop songs in “Time Marches On” and closes with the slow, somber shudder of three completely different-sounding songs: “Goodbye Again,” “Be There” and “Blue & Red.” Beautiful.
In compiling the 1990 retrospective, Sage favored his recent albums, but the collection includes such rarities as the band’s blistering 1978 debut single “Better Off Dead,” a long-forgotten compilation track and plenty of other goodies. A fine introduction.
Made after Sage relocated to Phoenix, Arizona, his second solo effort, Sacrifice (For Love), picks up where the last three tracks of The Circle left off, only with an unobtrusive drum machine this time. The LP delves further into more somber, reflective auras; even a cover of the Yardbirds’ “For Your Love” comes off as desperate and scared, while only “This Planet Earth” mines the repressed anger of his long career. “Dreams” and “No Turning Back” typify the album’s slow, barely restrained fits of alarmed passion and quiet frustration.
Come the Seattle explosion, the otherwise overlooked Sage (in America: in Europe he has always routinely sold out theaters) suddenly found himself considered a guru of sorts, despite his stylistic distance from the metallic and ’70s-inspired hard-rock bands who held him in such esteem. Accordingly, Portland’s Tim/Kerr label assembled the tribute CD (originally a four-single 7-inch box set) to pay homage. The obvious curiosities are Nirvana’s “Return of the Rat” (the band’s other Is This Real? cover, “D-7,” came from a Peel session and was included on Hormoaning) and the aforementioned Hole cover, but the likes of Thurston Moore, Crackerbash, Poison Idea, Hazel and Nation of Ulysses keep the aggression coming. Perhaps the best and most ironic track is “Potential Suicide” by old Portland contemporaries Napalm Beach; that band’s Sam Henry was the Wipers’ first drummer and had played on the original a dozen years earlier.
Reclaiming the Wipers name (and getting back drummer Steve Plouf) didn’t make Silver Sail Sage’s attempt to capitalize on his new-found prestige. Rather, with characteristic independence, Sage went even prettier, spacier and moodier than his previous work in order to get away from the public desire for him to rock out with his new crop of admirers. A more deliberate pace allows Sage’s virtuoso playing extra opportunity to bob and weave, float and tickle, tease and torment; he introduces hints of quiet surf music, spaghetti westerns and other lonely, timeless sounds. Likewise, his spooky voice sounds unusually beautiful, especially on the crescendos of “Prisoner.” He finally lets loose with two vintage blasts, “Never Win” and “Silver Sail.”
Again recorded as a duo with Plouf, Sage’s tenth studio album, The Herd, swings his direction back around 180 degrees. He’s bringing the fire this time, as evidenced by the clangorous roar of the angry, anthemic “Psychic Vampire” and “The Herd.” The sterling pop melody of the bristlingly loud “Resist” conveys a strong anti-repression message; it’s as if the MC5 had never gone away. For a guy/band approaching the 20-year mark, these rocket-fueled smashers sound every bit as dynamic and pushy as his earliest choleric days, only using more intricate chord patterns and playing. One of America’s greatest independent label talents just keeps getting better.