Revisiting The Distillers’ Intense Punk Masterpiece 15 Years On
'Coral Fang' is one of the '00s best albums: born from the rage and torment of one relationship ending, and the lust and fire of a new one.
Not our Lord and Saviour but a naked woman. Blood comes like three streams of confetti from her right side. It almost seems as though black rays shoot from her arms but you’re mistaking sunshine for the central beam of the crucifix she’s hanging from. Her head is out of frame so this elegantly-displayed body could belong to any or all women, but it most closely belongs to Brody Dalle. This cover imagery for The Distillers’ third album Coral Fang spoke to Dalle’s personal history. Suffering but adorned with sex; you did this to me but look how good I’ve made it look. And where there is death for someone else’s sins, a resurrection is never far behind.
Distillers frontwoman Brody Dalle was only 16 when through punk circles she met Tim Armstrong of Rancid, who was almost 14 years older than her. Once Dalle had turned 18, the couple got engaged and she moved from her native Australia to LA to live with him. Life had already been turbulent: her biological father was a domestic abuser, she dropped out of two convent schools and was sleeping on the streets and experimenting with drugs by her mid-teens. Once in LA, Dalle says Armstrong extended patriarchal control over her rapidly escalating music career, deciding which label her band would sign to and who she would work with. She grew sick of him controlling her and another rebirth came in the form of new love. The fallout was hideous and public. Backs were turned on Dalle.
“This album is a snapshot of a period of intense transition,” she said around its release in 2003, 15 years ago this week. “It all poured out in the space of two months, the years of pent-up resentment toward my situation.” Out of the rage and torment of her relationship with Armstrong ending and the lust and fire of the new relationship with Queens of the Stone Age frontman Josh Homme came Coral Fang. The stink of death is everywhere and the continual references to red, black and white in the songs permeate until you can practically hear the colours of that cover image. It doesn’t especially sound like anything else; melodies are laced with poison, bridges pretty and sickly but barbed.
From the land of bloodlust and death on “Drain the Blood”, Dalle rasps “I’m living on shattered faith / The kind that likes to restrict your breath” over an opening riff that legitimately sounds like traversing cracked glass. Here all her friends have turned into murderers and a reference is presumably made to older carnivorous men (“all these fiends want teenage meat”). She wants to end a lover, bury or hang him, and be taken apart herself on “Dismantle Me”. But to dismantle is to carefully deconstruct; you do it to a piece of furniture or an ornament, with a rebuild, an assembly in mind.
Before hope, though, the noose must be secured around a dying and unpleasant relationship. “The woman is always painted as the bad guy, and ends up demonised for making a decision without a man’s instructions,” Dalle told the Guardian with regards to the way her marriage ended and she moved on. Urgent and speedy track “Die On A Rope” laments being “dead for years” – Dalle was looking for an out from her marriage for three years – and calls for an end to ownership over her.
She’s not the first women to be socially stigmatised for following her autonomous desires (“I belong to a line of red scent”) and references Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1850 novel, The Scarlet Letter, in which a woman is forced to wear a red “A” for adultress on her dress when in the presence of townspeople to shame her for the rest of her life (“There’s a scarlet letter in my chest”). “The Gallow Is God” riff lurches around, nauseated, the only respite to be found in the comforting shade of the willows, a symbol of life and womanhood, but even the leaves “ hang like a guillotine blade”. Title track “Coral Fang” plays with the tension that often comes with an abusive or dysfunctional relationship that can have the ability to “make you ill” / “make you well.”
But none of the above can be processed without forcing yourself to sit in the blood pools and grieve. A centre-point and climax is “The Hunger”, a glorious masterstudy in the complexity of the words “don’t go” – of telling someone you want them to stay, but not really meaning it; of pushing back against pain but welcoming a collapse into it. It ends with an I miss you barely audible in the pushing-and-pulling of that specific pain that’s so deep it’s euphoric.
Time to “spit out the suffer”. A transformation is in sight through fresh adoration and lust. “Hall Of Mirrors” asks a lover to come along for a ride and “For Tonight You’re Only Here To Know” tells them to sigh. Essentially a perfect pop hit, “Beat Your Heart Out” embodies all the silliness that comes with an inflated crush; Dalle switches from speaking in parables and gallows imagery to cliché (“Baby, you make my heart beat faster”). It’s unlikely a sexier punk song than “Love Is Paranoid” exists. Dalle’s vocals are thick with the dizziness of lust and the riff heavy with the surge of power that comes with knowing your lover feels drunk with the same desire (“I left the lights on so you stumble in devotion”).
The album logically culminates in “Deathsex” – what else? It's 12 minutes of screeching distortion, a melody that circles back half-formed, then Dalle laughs manically; a coming undone. Everything here confirms the truth at the heart of the album: the language, just like the experiences themselves, of losing and gaining love are rarely different. Painful, self-destructive, personally apocalyptic. There’s pleasure and pain and death in all of it, even as you regenerate.
In the revival of interest in Dalle with her solo material a few years ago, and with The Distillers reuniting this year, it’s easy to forget how much bile was directed towards her during this period. When she left Armstrong for Homme, to whom she is still married and has children, Dalle says Armstrong and his punk friends turned on her, blacklisted her band and bad mouthed her in the press. They picked on the fact she’d gone to LA with Armstrong saying she’d used him (in fact she used money received from the Australian government for being sexually abused). Homme too got death threats from Rancid fans for “stealing” Armstrong’s girlfriend. As part of a run of shows supporting Coral Fang, one of the US legs was called The Most Hated Woman on Earth Tour.
Of all three Distillers albums, Coral Fang became the record Dalle is most connected to. “I actually felt liberated,” Dalle said, explaining the reasons behind the favouritism, in 2014. “I felt free for the very first time in my life. I felt like I was starting to become in charge of myself.” A new name was only right – she chose that of her controversial favourite actress Béatrice Dalle in the months prior to the record's release, perhaps to start a fresh lineage under a woman who equally set fire to convention early on in life. The resulting release is unequivocally one of the best punk albums of the noughties.
That iconic cover image – by American artist Tim Presley – incited an intense reaction from religious groups for its blasphemous use of iconography. To avoid getting a blanket ban from big chain stores in the US, concerned execs issued a replacement cover featuring a bunch of animals. Somehow the provocative imagery made it to my local HMV in 2003, sexualised and striking enough for it to have to be mine. Punk had rarely – if ever? – thematically and emotionally explored lust and desire across the space of an entire album, more unique still a woman’s sexual hunger. In 15 years, the violence of those colours hasn’t dulled a shade.
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