Vic Records is rereleasing Blood’s 1992 album Christbait on September 28th. This German death metal/grindcore act received some praise in the old archives for successfully adding some conventional musicality to a standard formula. In that regard this is similar to how Carcass and Napalm Death expanded their sounds on Symphonies of Sickness and Harmony Corruption; Christbait is similarly more intelligible and elaborate than Blood’s previous work (although still fairly simplistic) while retaining much of its intensity. Newer bands would do well to learn from these examples if they want to create works of similar quality.
While the new last.fm redesign seems to me another exercise in pointless self-justification by middle management, the ability to see statistics on my listening has entirely changed how I view the music held closest to my heart. Seeing the numbers has shown me how it is one thing to list a band as a favorite or recommendation, and one far different animal to listen to it on a monthly basis. One is assessment alone, as if listening were your sole task, and the other utility, showing that this piece of music has a place in your life of many tasks and goals.
This assessment filters among the upper level of the highest echelon of metal. The assessment itself filters out the nonsense, all of which suffers from a single sin — disorganization — which takes many different forms but reveals a lack of will, purpose and principle in constructing art and always red-flags a directionless listen. But among those bands who have escaped the madness, there is no equality in listening. Some have risen and some have fallen over 20 years of pounding out metal from my speakers as I work or relax at home. In most cases, the reaction was first shock and then realization that the seeds of this knowledge were there all along. Let us look at a few pairs where listening habits elevated one album over a similar one…
Blasphemy Fallen Angel of Doom vs. Blood Impulse to Destroy
Over the years metal has frequently benefited from punk influences because metal, as befits its partially progressive rock heritage, has a tendency to create layers of abstraction and complex musical discourse where punk cuts to the chase. This is both a strength and weakness for each genre; metal is abstract, which makes imitators very obvious but can get lost in muddle-headed musical wanderings, and punk is concrete, which makes it effective but imitation easy. Blasphemy introduced a punk-based genre, grindcore, into black metal. It adopted the aesthetic approach of Sarcofago but underneath applied the percussive lower-five-frets texture musik of grindcore. The result is very effective, and easy to listen to, but also — if you have many other options — kind of boring. In fact, many of these riff patterns are the same ones, albeit simplified, that speed metal bands tried and failed to use to revitalize that genre. As raw motivational material, the music is fantastic, but over time, it fades a bit as one realizes that its strength as low-complexity high impact music also means that its content is one-dimensional. Over the past 20 years, I have thrown this record on five times and apparently terminated it early each time.
I chose Impulse to Destroy because Germany’s Blood also occupies the narrow space of grindcore bands who think like black metal or death metal bands. Grindcore generally self-reduces to extreme minimums and must, like junk food, reintroduce sugar and salt at the surface to spice up the otherwise one-dimensional utilitarian approach. Death metal on the other hand is not utilitarian, while it is consequentialist (“only death is real” being the ultimate statement of that belief) and yet also has a highly aesthetically-motivated but not aesthetically-expressed transcendental outlook. At its best, grindcore overcomes its utilitarian tendencies for a ludic or playful view of the collapsing world, and from that some of the best material emerges. Blood for example creates a dark and morbid absurdism which brings to light all that our society suppresses with itself, and like Blasphemy, creates it through patterning cut from the chromatic strips of the lower registers of guitar. In this case, however, the textures take on a life of their own, like a three-dimensional house made from flat punch-out cards. Different riffs interact with one another and dramatic pauses and collisions give rise to interesting song structures. Like Disharmonic Orchestra Expositions Prophylaxe, Impulse to Destroy provides a wealth of riff archetypes applied with enough personality and purpose to create unique compositions which may be enjoyed for decades or longer despite their simplicity.
Napalm Death Scum vs. Carbonized For the Security
This is one of those albums that most people get for the sake of novelty. “But check these guys out, they’ve got one second songs and stuff, it’s just about noise…” — rock music does not get more ironic than that. And ultimately, that was the power of grindcore. Like punk a decade before, it removed all the pretense of rock and boiled it down to simple songs. It then sometimes added in new flourishes of song structure which made those songs more interesting than radio pop, which had been studied by MBAs and PhDs and reduced to a simple formula distinguished only (barely) by rhythm, production, instrumentation and vocals. But once the money men and white lab coats were able to look at rock as a product like any other, they saw that to please enough people in the audience to make it a hit, they did not have to innovate at all. They only needed a new skin for the same basic patterns and they could produce it over and over again with high margins (well, until digital piracy hit). Like the punk rock and then hardcore punk, grindcore stripped away illusion and replaced it with innovation. The problem here is that these songs are very similar themselves because they rely on dramatic confrontation within each song, which like all things “turned up to 11” becomes expected and thus a sort of background noise. Every time I have listened to this album it has made itself into sonic wallpaper before the halfway point.
Some of the albums which were considered “also-rans” back in the 1990s had more to them than people initially considered. This one has been a favorite for me, along with the second album from Carbonized but not the third, for two decades. I listen to it regularly, finish the whole thing, and sometimes start it over. Record labels tried to shoehorn Carbonized into the “death metal” model despite some clear warning signs, and consequently bungled — the root of all evils is incompetence at some level, starting with the ability to be honest — the career of this promising band, but for those of us who lumped this in with aggressive grindcore like Terrorizer and Repulsion, the similarities outweighed the differences. For the Security expresses paranoia, existential insecurity, melancholic doubt of the future and a desire to explore all that life offers in depth, all within and as part of the same outlook. This is the music of a brighter-than-average teenager who perceives the world honestly and rejects the foolishness but wants to look deeper into the interesting stuff that, because it does not affirm the dominant lie, is rejected by the herd. Chunky riffs alternate with broader rhythms derived from punk and yet are dominated by a desire to make song structure vary with content inherited through metal from progressive rock. Each song forms a sonic sigil to the topic at hand and the response of the artist, making each bursting with personality and reality portrayed in finely-observed ways at the same time. This is a masterful album which will never bore.
As you can see, Dear Reader, these albums are both quite similar on the surface — and quite different underneath. That bands can do so much with a handful of power chords, and have such different outcomes, is endlessly fascinating. Yet not every metal-influenced album is, even among A-listers like these. It may be time for all of us to go back through our listening, search ourselves honestly, and see what has actually stood the test of time.
Sporting the grindcore label, Maruta try very hard and not altogether without failure to insert technical deathcore riffcraft into a grindcore overall approach. While the technical abilities of the band is not in question as the musicianship in this album is superb and clinically precise, and neither is their creativity challenged, as they remain in focus in terms of style and approach through and through as they bring distinct ideas into the album, the premise of it all is not entirely convincing. The reason for this is that the carnival approach that the technical deathcore, although not completely incompatible with grindcore, is deficient by nature, bringing down the music against the effort of a talented band like Maruta.
Grindcore is known for short songs with abrupt beginnings and endings. The genre is characterized by spasmodic outbursts of madness with ventures into heavy and slightly groovy mid-paced sections whose focus remains on the brutality and aura of the music. All this is achieved by Maruta on Remain Dystopian, however, this is only the superficial description of the genre, the first impression it gives to an audience, and this is where most bands, including this one, get trapped. The grindcore of early Napalm Death, Blood or Repulsion can be described in that way, each with different percentages and variations of said description, but there is something that sets them apart from the crowd and it is that at the construction level, the relation between riffs is still carefully maintained. In Impulse to Destroy, Blood remains fluid through riff transitions even when the they switch between speeds or intensity levels, the smoothness within the song is maintained. At the risk of sounding contradictory, I would venture to say that even relatively abrupt transitions remained smoothed out through execution of small fills or very brief affectations that are characteristic of Blood. Maruta, on the other hand, obfuscate the music with the carnival approach of modern metal bands, creating interest through surprise instead of coherence and build up.
All in all Remain Dystopian is a far more accomplished effort than the vast majority of its contemporaries and fans of the genre should keep one eye on them. While fans of modern metal call this incoherence of the music “experimentation” and “nonconformity”, it all boils down to a lazy gimmick. Maruta has the technical chops, and they definitely have the vision as their focused compositions show us, but the chosen direction is perhaps not the best. Were Maruta to correct this direction and it is possible we would have a modern giant of grindcore in the making.
Arising from modern popular music, underground metal has retained many vestigial traits that several artists have consciously tried to erase and that some observers have started to question as detrimental to the effective expression of the genre. As the title of this article reveals, the case in point is the matter of albums as song collections. A good example of this becoming a hindrance to the message of the music is Gorguts’ Obscura.
Clocking in at one hour, Obscura consists of twelve songs, a little over the typical ten tracks of metal albums since the mid 1970s. The number ten has traditionally been associated with wholeness or completeness. In the most mainstream heavy metal circles it is considered only right to fill that exact number. No more, no less. A lot of death and black metal albums have veered slightly away from this rule and tend close their albums with eight or twelve tracks. Grindcore degenerates have never let numbers stand in their way and have completely given the finger to this rule as Repulsion, Napalm Death and Blood have shown us with their two-digit track lists.
The reason why more original and progressive-minded artists pay no attention to these unofficial guidelines is because whatever the artist has to say in an album should not be restricted by too many tracks. Even worse than being limited by the number of tracks is having to fill up tracks in order to reach the required number. This is precisely how we get the albums with “filler” tracks. Tracks nobody cares for but which make the album more “meaty” for those who care about such things.
More important than the adherence to a particular number of songs or tracks in an album is the fact that most bands produce precisely that: individual tracks bundled up in collections. This is Gorguts’ worse enemy even on their classic of classics. Every one of the songs up to the sixth track, Clouded, expresses a very distinct message in its method. After that, we basically get more of the same. The songs aren’t bad at all, but they do not add anything more to the album except extra minutes and more good songs whose essence is not any different from the ones before them. It’s basically thesaurus recitation.
Some propose that metal needs to look beyond the number, both as a rule and as a kind of indulgence. Just because that you have more songs does not mean you have to put them in the album. Just because you have more riffs does not mean they need a song to contain them. It is suggested that the album format in underground metal be exchanged for the classical opus format, where we have movements belonging to a coherent whole work, in which saying the same thing again and again is unnecessary and highly discouraged but in which consistency in style and voice is required to a healthy but not over-restrictive degree. Metal is not young anymore, the time to consciously take the step to the next level has come.
To love grindcore is to love the genre “as you find it.” That is, it doesn’t make sense to go around wishing why there isn’t more progressive symphonic grindcore with world music influences. Grindcore is grindcore.
There’s plenty of room within that genre however. The only rules are brutal punk/metal fusion chromatic riffing and a certain spirit that keeps intensity high and doesn’t deviate into either holiday carols or life-affirming waiting room jazz.
Germany’s Blood have been a secret of the genre for years. Like other minimalist grindcore they specialize in the riff itself, a form of art that is closer to sculpture than music as they use rhythm and direction relative to previous notes to wrest expressive phrasal forms out of chromatic strikes.
Luckily, someone recently uploaded this amazing Blood concert (“show” for you hipsters) in Speyer, Germany. Check it out, and vomit blood!
Very few people have any idea what grindcore means at this point because of the high degree of crossover between grindcore and death metal. Not just one way, but both: grind bands becoming deathy in the Napalm Death style, and death metal bands becoming grindy as happened from Suffocation onward.
But what wasgrindcore? History might show us that punk and metal were birthed in the early 1970s and spend the next three decades crossing over. This resembles a quarter-century negotiation as to what aspects of each to keep in the hybrid with the other. Early hybrids included speed metal, which used uptempo punk rhythms, and thrash, which combined metal riffs with punk songs. Grindcore was a logical extension of thrash.
Thrash — exemplified by Dirty Rotten Imbeciles, Cryptic Slaughter and Corrosion of Conformity — grew out of the “thrasher” community which was composed of skateboarders. These were a 1980s movement that existed in the abandoned areas of modern cities where skating was undetected if not permissible. Anarchistic, but also pragmatist, they were like the ultimate hybrid between the individualistic and hierarchical impulses behind human politics. Thrash bands as a result tended to direct their criticism toward society itself and were less likely to hover on one side of the political spectrum or the other, despite having a huge background influence by the almost-universally anarchist punk movement. We can only assume the additional influences on thrash came from metal, which was more likely to take a historical and impersonal view of life, where punk was much more personal and present-tense.
Where the bands that prompted the early speed metal and thrash hybrids were punk hardcore (The Exploited, Cro-Mags, Black Flag, Minor Threat, GBH) and early crustcore (Discharge, Amebix) bands, thrash in turn spurred hardcore on to become faster and more extreme, resulting in shorter songs with more metal-like (more chord changes, more internal texture) riffs. The later punk hardcore bands like Void, Faith and Siege prompted a gnarlier sound, picking up on the distorted vocals which has become a staple of the previous punk generation, perhaps prompted by Motorhead and Lemmy Kilmister’s incomprehensible gargled-glass screaming.
From this inspiration, a movement caught on in the late mid-1980s. Fronted by bands like Repulsion and Napalm Death, it quickly diversified and spread worldwide. However, like punk before it, grindcore did not have much staying power. The more one streamlines and simplifies, the fewer variations exist, until most things can be described as a modification to an archetype. At that point, bands lose the ability to distinguish themselves and thus realize their talents are better applied elsewhere if they wish to distinguish themselves. Nevertheless, between 1986 and 1990 the foundational masters of grindcore emerged in the form of Repulsion (1984), Napalm Death (1985), Terrorizer (1989), Blood (1989) and Carbonized (1990).