Albums for the Apocalypse: Hear Nothing See Nothing Say Nothing

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There are points in history when you can feel the world fall apart, see the threads holding society together grow taut and begin to snap. Whether it’s the looming climate disaster, or a global pandemic, or just a war that destroys all life on earth, there’s always something waiting to collectively fuck us up. What better time then, to revisit the albums that have documented that exact feeling in similarly perilous times.

In 1982, Discharge gave us just such an album—Hear Nothing See Nothing Say Nothing. Clocking in at a lean 27 minutes, the album is absolutely pitiless. Songs rip by one after the other, painting miniature pictures of chaos and destruction. The musical equivalent of a nuclear blast, HNSNSN is both a document of the world at the height of the Cold War and a bold statement that nuclear holocaust is only inevitable if we allow it to be.

If this describes a lot of hardcore and metal you’ve heard over the last 40 years or so, you may be wondering why I chose HNSNSN over anything else. Discharge’s stylistic and lyrical approaches are the key. In pure musical terms, there shouldn’t be a lot to recommend here: every song follows a basic formula of riff intro, drums kicking in the d-beat, a verse, a solo, and an abrupt cut to silence. Every song is essentially the same, grinding waves of detuned guitar and bass over a punishing and invariable d-beat.

What transforms that basic template into greatness isn’t so much a particular element as the unified effect it produces. While HNSNSN is full of absolute classics (“Protest and Survive,” “Free Speech for the Dumb,” “Drunk with Power,” the title track), there’s never a break for the Discharge’s songwriting to meander or get bogged down in specifics. For Discharge, momentum isn’t just an abstract concept but a way of life, their music both the medium and the message in a frantic rush through scenes of musical destruction.

“Napalm tumbles from the sky”

Lyrically, Discharge are possibly the most underrated band to ever walk the earth. Every song is pared down to the barest possible kernel of meaning, like Ezra Pound if someone had beaten the fascism out of him at an early age. Songs like “Free Speech for the Dumb” feature as little as a single line repeated endlessly in Cal Morris’ desperate bark. Cal “sings” entirely without irony or distance, his voice becoming just another instrument turned up to 11 to overwhelm the listener.

What ties the lyrical themes together and elevates them over much of our beloved heavy metal is the focus on both calls for direct action and the impact of the nuclear apocalypse on living, breathing people. Consider the fact that, although flayed skin, radiation burns, and gunshot wounds are documented in stark and grisly fashion, there is little actual death mentioned other than in passing. Discharge were worried more about the people who would have to live with the consequences their leaders had forced on them. This isn’t a morbid fantasy about death for its own sake—the end of the world is serious business, and Discharge always treated it that way.

Kept in line with rifle butts and truncheons
Beaten up behind closed doors
I won’t subscribe to the system, the hands that tighten around my throat

It helps that Discharge have direct (if nebulous) action in mind to prevent the coming cataclysm they describe—tear down the system that allowed us to come this close to the brink in the first place. Mass death and destruction, whether from nuclear Armageddon or COVID-19, are entirely avoidable. The question is solely what we’re willing to excuse from those who are supposed to act in our best interest.

“Half the world is starving dying of disease
World military expenditure increases
Half the world is living in poverty
World military expenditure increases”

Hear Nothing See Nothing Say Nothing is what I want playing in the background when I die, whether that’s next month in an over-crowded ICU or 60 years from now in a serene nursing home. Discharge weren’t just saying not to take the apocalypse lying down. The takeaway here is to get mad—and, better yet—get even.

(Image credit – Katsuhiro Otomo)

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