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DIE KREUZEN (Buy CDs by this artist)
Cows and Beer EP (Version Sound) 1982
Die Kreuzen (Touch and Go) 1984
October File (Touch and Go) 1986
Century Days (Touch and Go) 1988
Gone Away (Touch and Go) 1989

Milwaukee's Die Kreuzen was simultaneously one of the most thrilling and conservative exponents of American hardcore. While many quality thrash bands have escaped the genre's brutally circumscribed conventions by delving into metal, psychedelia, funk or bohemianism, this quartet played punk strictly by the book. Cows and Beer, a six-song 7-inch debut (all of which is reprised on Die Kreuzen), contains such numbers as "Hate Me," "Pain" and "In School." Although well-played, the music of these brief songs is as familiar as the titles.

On the first LP, armed with an antagonistic attitude and a predilection for velocity, the band burns through 21 explosive songs (riffs, really) that are interchangeable but not redundant. The primary ingredient, hyperkinetic energy, remains constant throughout Die Kreuzen, but the riffs are all different and uncommonly well-articulated. As loud and fast as these guys are, their playing remains crisp. (Dan Kubinski's vocals, however, are utterly unintelligible. What works for Couch Flambeau doesn't fit so well here.)

October File pushes the envelope a bit, diverting the thrash energy into slower, more conceptual outpourings. (It's still loud, raunchy rock, but few of the fourteen songs could be characterized as hardcore.) While Kubinski's impassioned shrieking binds the quartet to a limited realm, the other members — especially guitarist Brian Egeness and bassist Keith Brammer — seem to have other musical directions in mind. (Indeed, the latter joined the more intentionally abrasive Wreck in 1989.) October File and Die Kreuzen were released on a single CD.

With Kubinski's desperate off-key screech still a frequent hazard, Die Kreuzen takes several intriguing detours on Century Days, an album of impressive dynamic range and sonic control. As the band's playing has grown into an atmospheric and powerful noise, the ability to do other things — like drop back for the nearly acoustic plaint of "These Days" and the handsome pop textures of "Slow" (on which Kubinski's singing is perfectly fine), or deliver a serious melodic kick, as in "Elizabeth" — has emerged. Several tracks even part the curtain to reveal horns and piano.

The Gone Away 12-inch has two strong new songs (on a 45 rpm side) of measured rock and (on the 33 rpm reverse) five live'n'loud tracks — including three Century Days numbers — also recorded in January 1989.

Wreck, a Chicago-based trio of Milwaukee natives that includes Brammer on bass, slams harsh guitar power into abrupt Minutemen-styled material on its first two records, creating a hectic rush of jagged electricity within sturdy song structures. A lot less brutal than other current Steve Albini protégés, Wreck doesn't make much of a case for itself on the rather generic-sounding four-song 12-inch. With bracing covers of both the Fall (a great version of "Various Times") and the Sensational Alex Harvey Band (an okay rendition of "Ribs and Balls"), Soul Train covers more ground and demonstrates real growth potential. Shouter/guitarist Dean Schlabowske is a commanding frontman, but the lumbering rhythm section's struggle to find its rightful place in the songs occasionally frustrates his efforts.

[John Leland/Ira Robbins]