Victims Family don’t taste like chicken. They don’t sound like Teengenerate or Superchunk. Any thinking person would be hard-pressed to arrive at any conclusive decision as to what they sound like. They are one of a rare handful of bands that formed around the punk scene that have chiseled out their own unmistakable sound over the years. For a while in the ’90s, they were pegged as “jazzcore,” when it was fashionable and convenient to affix “-core” to disparate music styles. But Victims Family have little to do with jazz, or at least with what most people consider jazz. There are no horns, no modal changes, no explorations of exotic scales, no trading off solos. What they do draw from jazz is an almost preternatural dexterity with their respective instruments—a dexterity which is never used merely for its own sake, but for astonishing displays of innovation and unlikely collusions of sound.
Part of what makes Victims Family such an intriguing and enduring outfit is the obvious musical cohesion between guitarist/vocalist Ralf Spight and bassist Larry Boothroyd. Since forming in Petaluma, Calif. in 1984, the two have outlasted a series of drummers, a couple of name changes, and six albums’ worth of completely original, inspired work. Though Voltage and Violets, their debut album, hems pretty closely with the punk rock orthodoxy of the day (i.e., high-speed blasts with lyrical spews about Reagan, the military-industrial complex, organized religion, and so forth), there lurks below the surface an eminent need to tweak the formula. By 1988’s Things I Hate to Admit, their second LP, they had already defined and perfected their attack. Confusing time signatures, discordant guitar squeals and ululations, abrupt and unseemly changes of course mid-song— all of these contributed to the trademark unpredictable Victims Family style through these and three more albums. Their third LP, 1989’s White Bread Blues, is easily the most jaw-dropping display of craftsmanship and talent used for all the right reasons. The listener comes away from that record confused and disoriented from the flurry of instrumental acrobatics, yet somehow strangely enervated by the performance, especially if he likes typewriter solos.
After 1995’s Headache Remedy, drummer Tim Solyan left the band to become a roadie for Primus. Taking this as a cue to try something different, Ralf and Larry reformed as Saturn’s Flea Collar, with Larry on drums and Austin freak Jason Henhenderchristian on bass. This one-album project was a semi-successful exercise in Zappa-style weirdness and effects-pedal tomfoolery, but nowhere near approaching the greatness of Victims Family. In 1998 they retooled again as the Hellworms, this time with Larry back on bass and a mysterious man named Joaquin, who favored Mexican wrestling masks, on drums. The Hellworms may as well have been Victims Family for all their similarities, but for reasons unknown to the public, this project too lasted for only one album.
Last year Ralf and Larry somehow commandeered the services of ace drummer Dave Gleza, formerly of the unbelievably far-out Tacoma band My Name and re-reformed again as Victims Family. No stranger to punk rock aesthetics or to uncategorizable ensemble playing, Gleza is the natural choice for this older (probably nearly 40!) but unsullied-by-age reincarnation of Victims Family. In fact, his more muscular style lends itself well to the band, whose previous two drummers emphasized finesse over power. On their latest album, Apocalicious, Ralf and Larry are in classic good form, with Ralf’s vocal style (which brings to mind a Vegas version of Bobcat Goldthwait) still thankfully intact. Larry’s bass lines weave subtly in and out of Ralf’s cruel and improbable guitar forays, while Dave Gleza locks in tight, but not without a few of his inimitable high-school-jazz-band flourishes for good measure.
In the live setting they are not to be missed under any circumstances. Every ounce of power and thrust on their records translates to the stage effortlessly. Watching Larry wrestle his curlicue bass with such fluidity should be part of the required curriculum for any aspiring young rocker. And if Ralf seems a bit stiff and starchy onstage, you’ll do well to remember that he is taking on the gargantuan task of singing (or shrieking, as the case may be) while playing those absurdly complex guitar parts.