Reviewed by: Max Miller
Like many hazily-remembered American punk bands from the ‘80s, the story of the Micronotz (AKA the Mortal Micronotz) reads like a lost chapter from Our Band Could Be Your Life. A ragtag group of childhood friends from Anywhere, USA (in this case, Lawrence, KS) assemble during high school to make some noise. They show a surprising knack for it, and end up on a local comp. They tour regionally while still finishing high school, inevitably ending up on a bill with the Replacements. They release a series of increasingly nuanced albums which receive underground acclaim, but which never gain them a major following. They finally decide to throw in the towel. One of the members tragically commits suicide. Decades later, a handful of bloggers dig up their albums and decide they’re criminally underrated. This is the story of dozens of bands, and it is the story of the Micronotz. It’s a story that, with only a few tweaks, is still being written to this day, which is probably why it still fascinates people.
Bar/None Records is reissuing five albums by the Micronotz — including The Mortal Micronotz, SMASH!, Live and The Beast That Devoured Itself — but I was given their final album, 40 Fingers, to review. It makes sense to look to the end of their history first; unlike major label bands, these underground bands didn’t continue releasing inferior, bloated albums long after their peak. Often, if they recorded something they felt they couldn’t top, they’d opt to go out on a high note. If any album might serve as the Micronotz’ Zen Arcade or Double Nickels On the Dime, 40 Fingers would be it.
“Pay Your Bill” opens the album with some noncommittal “woah-ohs” from vocalist Jay Hauptli, who made his debut on 40 Fingers following the departure of founding singer Dean Lubensky. He alternates between an almost-gothic baritone and hardcore-indebted shouting which gives his voice an almost Lemmy-like inflection. Musically, this is clearly a record from a post-Hüsker Dü world, with heavy emphasis on guitar and vocal melodies. Of course, ample room is given for more conventional punk rave-ups like “Mannequin Head,” “Push It Out” and the title track.
By 1986, the “ironic punk cover” had entered a rare phase of legitimacy wherein bands like the Replacements could cover KISS without it being seen as merely a joke. The Micronotz contribute to this idiom with their take on “Scarborough Fair,” the traditional English folk ballad popularized by Simon & Garfunkel. The tune is given some extra piss ‘n’ vinegar, but it’s mostly a respectful rendition, harkening to ‘80s post-hardcore’s strange kinship with ‘60s flower power.
The best cut on 40 Fingers is “Exit 301,” which features the most hook-laden riffing and soloing from guitarist John Harper, paired nicely with Hauptli’s “get a gun” refrain. The song goes hand-in-hand with follow-up “Psychodeli,” a headstrong show of speed and melody which could easily have been an influence on bands like Japandroids or Beach Slang. The Micronotz’ era is still such a fertile mining ground for young rock bands that I would not be surprised if these reissues get more attention than the band received in their heyday. However, for the average music fan not obsessed with ‘80s indie rock, the Micronotz may serve as little more than a competent curio — a quaint reminder of the concept of regional heroes, now somewhat antiquated by the advent of the internet.