Let's address the elephant first: the recording sounds fucking awful. SST's releases are all woefully in need of remastering because they lack any sort of punch at all. Everything on "My War" sounds horribly dry, small and separated and you have to totally crank the stereo to uncomfortable volumes to begin to hear the power of the music. It probably didn't help that all of Greg Ginn's guitar parts were overdubbed (he played bass on this recording as well, which he chose to track live so as to lock in better with the drums), and Rollins sounds like he's screaming inside of a cardboard box. Bill Stevenson's drums suffer the most ignoble fate, though-completely stripped of all their heft through terrible mixing his effort comes out sounding far weaker than what it actually was.
Once you get beyond that to the actual songs, it's evident Black Flag were not fucking around. Opening up with the scathing paranoia of "My War" (a track widely considered one of the Flag's best despite its appearance here) it becomes obvious that these people trust no one and have a fairly limitless amount of anger to direct at the outside world. "Can't Decide" is one of my all time fave BF tracks, a meandering chromatic riff-fest boasting some of Greg's best soloing this side of "Slip It In," completely atonal, unhinged and free. "Beat My Head Against the Wall" is one of the first trudging numbers hinting at the lurking mess on the second side, a bruising crawl railing against the mindless complacency of most people, including a goodly number of BF's fans. By this time Ginn was actively disgusted by people's unwillingness to follow the direction he was steering the Flag in and his lyrics begin to reflect that frustration. "I Love You" and "Forever Time" represent the most straightforward rock tracks here, both faster more melodically inclined numbers brimming with sardonic rage and the deep sense of irony that BF always attached to their vision of the world. "I Love You" is very poppy in a wink-wink/nudge sort of way; even though this song was written by Chuck Dukowski, Ginn would revisist this sort of recidivist songwriting on the "Loose Nut" album a little further down the road. "The Swinging Man" caps off the first set, a manic and incredibly jazzy track that bears no resemblance to anything Black Flag had recorded before. This was the true hint of where Ginn was really headed past the Flag's demise-these sorts of songs were the direction he would explore so thoroughly with Gone.
Side Two is the reason this album has borne so much ire with fans over the years and even today most people close to the Flag camp still describe the three songs that take up the side to be totally worthless. It's crazy that even after years and years these people are still missing the point. In some instances Ginn's disgust and anger at people's close-mindedness seem completely justified. To me, Side Two of "My War" is what makes the album fucking amazing. The tracks are slow. Way slow. Melvins/Sabbath level slow, and in the 1980 hardcore landscape that direction was greeted with rancor and rage from the listeners. Black Flag went from being the fastest band in California to a lumbering dirge machine, churning out three tracks that spanned 20 minutes and forced the listener to wade through the psychological muck of Henry Rollins' disturbed, abused mind. "Nothing Left Inside" is a masterpiece of existential torment, an ode to the anger and hurt caused by isolationism and loneliness, backed by a crushing dinosaur of a song that may as well have served as the template for the entire Southern Lord catalog. "Three Nights" goes even further in deconstructionism, a single chord progression beat out incessantly, unendingly, while Ginn layers multiple guitars spitting out feedback over the whole thing. It's genius, completely ahead of its time, as mind-blowing as Hendrix's Band of Gypsies performances. How people could listen to all that guitar waste and not know that they were immersed in something beautifully amazing is beyond me. "Scream" caps it all off, a spacious doomed-out horror that gives itself over to Rollins' improvised visions of persecution and feelings of utter worthlessness. It's frighteningly intense on every level and when it's all over you really feel like you've been pushed facedown in a punishment pool and left to drown.
For many this album signaled the end of Black Flag's importance-this was no mere retread of "Damaged", but rather an exploration of the ideas hinted at on "Damaged I." For Black Flag punk was about personal exorcism and inner exploration, attempting to understand the cause of all the frustrations inside and deal with in some kind of cathartic way. It's scary music, yes, and even today it is super intense and very dark, but it's real, and passionate and not at all self-indulgent like many critics have said. This was quite simply one of Black Flag's finest moments, and the fact that it pissed so many people off and alienated so many fans only speaks to its lasting power and vision.