Out of all the scrungy, grungy guitar-rock bands in the Athens, Ga., scene in the 1990s, one act stands above all in terms of absolute heaviness — both sonically and thematically. Although they never established themselves outside of Athens as much more than a “cult favorite,” Harvey Milk were truly revered as an artistically ambitious, uncompromising, stunningly versatile rock band. And despite what Amber and Ed from roving hard-rock duo Jucifer (or their rabid local fans) say, Harvey Milk were the loudest, meanest-sounding, most experimental rock band ever to pummel the Athens audience.
Collected from over 17 hours of live footage, the newly-released, limited edition DVD Anthem is a 3-1/2-hour, 44-song live documentary chronicling Harvey Milk from their first shows in early 1990s to their recent stint of reunion shows, from their old days with Paul Trudeau on the kit through their more anthemic (ha!) late period with the addition of drummer Kyle Spence to the lineup. The three-disc set includes liner notes by Chunklet publisher Henry H. Owings.
“Shot almost entirely on broadcast quality television cameras, Anthem is a mandatory release for any fan of the band or any fan of metal, avant-garde, or plain old rock ‘n’ roll,” says Owings. Indeed.
In the early ’90s, guitarist Creston Spiers, bassist Stephen Tanner, and drummer Paul Trudeau played a slow, detuned, distorted, very exact, and very loud style of rock music that combined ugliness and beauty and could only be comprehended live. The band debuted in the fall of 1991 with a low-key show in front of a typically slacker crowd. They sometimes cleared the room and sometimes inspired awe. Certainly, the complexity and dirgy elements of the music caught the ears of a lot of people, but the disembodied howling of Spiers’ singing voice stood out, too.
One of the most memorable Harvey Milk shows at the 40 Watt was on April Fool’s Day, 1993, where they headlined with a surprise rendition of R.E.M.’s Reckoning. Milk played the entire album from front to back in order, slightly heavier on the guitar distortion than Buck originally intended, perhaps, but respectfully and accurately.
Evidence of the band’s willingness to go way out on a limb during this time was perhaps best demonstrated on the massive “All Live Long Day,” a slow-moving, unsettling dirge about a railroad crew comprised of Jesus’ disciples and the mutiny they plotted against their boss. The piece begins with a grand introduction riff and a sudden halt, after which Tanner and Trudeau pound out a droning, one-note death march played in slow-moving half-steps on the downbeat. Spiers eventually begins bellowing in one of his most pained deliveries, “I work hard all day and this is what do!/I swing a 12-pound hammer on a 12-man crew.” In the studio recording, Spiers simulated a “hammer-on-the-spike” sound by actually slinging a sledgehammer and slamming a steel pipe tied to a wooden box right on the upbeat, punctuating each phrase with a bang.
Other highlights include renditions of fan faves off of such releases as the Refuel: 8 More Bands From Athens and Atlanta comp, the elegantly titled My Love Is Higher Than Your Assessment Of What My Love Can Be, Courtesy And Goodwill Toward Men, various 7″ singles, and their final, rifftageous LP, The Pleaser.