Wildly influential reissue reminds rockers of their roots
The hugely influential and grossly under recognized band Wipers has reissued their debut album Is This Real?. The album, first released in 1980 by Park Avenue Records, includes 12 tracks, three of which hail from Alien Boy, an EP that comes from an earlier Wipers remaster.
Wipers was led by singer Greg Sage, with accompaniment from drummer Sam Henry and bassist Doug Koupal. The Portland band began in a non-traditional sense—primarily as a recording project. Sage intended Wipers to release 15 albums in 10 years without performing any live sets. This clearly risky experiment was quickly shut down by studios and labels alike. In part due to this early loss, Sage’s idea of personal achievement and independence as a musician was distorted by the music industry’s strong emphasis on profit and commercialism.
Is This Real? went on to become the Wipers’ most successful project. Most notably, the album introduces a new guitar effect, entirely crafted by Sage; it’s the essence of grunge, and embodies the revolutionary sound of that iconic guitar tone. The guitar sound is warm and slow without losing any grimy pointedness. This effect in combination with the influence of a Northwestern punk sound created a notable reckoning within the garage-band community. While initially Wipers paved a safe path for other punk musicians in Portland, the band gained additional notoriety when Is This Real? was mentioned by Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain as one of the singer’s top 50 most influential albums.
The album opens with “Return of the Rat,” blasting a grating guitar sound and equally intense vocals. This song discloses Wipers’ simple but anomalous lyrics, setting the stage for a spectral album. Songs “Doom Town,” “So Young,” “Messenger” and “Potential Suicide” continue with a macabre accent, incorporating gripping guitar and bass lines and off-kilter punk lyrics. Most notably, songs “D7” and “Mystery” became some of the band’s most popular tracks. It only takes a single listen to hear why—the songs, though varying greatly in intensity, have a controlled tone that is indicative of carefully crafty musicians. Miraculously, the songs on this album manage to take risks while maintaining a crowd-pleasing aesthetic and cult-classic desirability.
The thematic insertion of eerie themes like fate, supernatural entities and mental episodes in combination with classic punk anti-establishment and political motifs created an unparalleled listening experiences. These themes extend far beyond instrumental effects, and permeate deeply into the lyrical content, establishing a sort of metaphysical presence. Out of respect for these monumental musical moves, Cobain requested for Wipers to accompany Nirvana as an opening act on tour, and often covered Wipers songs live—Sage, wanting to maintain privacy and humility, declined.
Now, in 2020, the reissue of Is This Real? provides a welcome examination of the history of punk music. With punchy lyrics, an entirely unheard guitar sound and exceptional modesty, Wipers offers an immersive listening experience, recognized and admired by a plethora of punk icons to this day. In fact, many artists claim that the roots of grunge began in the Wipers recording studio in 1977. To listen to Is This Real? is to listen to history in the making, and it’s a damn enjoyable ride.