Grindcore: origins of a genre

December 19, 2013 –

repulsion-horrified

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).

Precious Metal: Decibel Presents the Stories Behind 25 Extreme Metal Masterpieces, by Albert Mudrian

September 11, 2013 –


Precious Metal:
Decibel Presents the Stories Behind 25 Extreme Metal Masterpieces
edited by Albert Mudrian
365 pages, Da Capo Press, $14

The 25 Masterpieces
Black Sabbath – Heaven and Hell
Diamond Head – Lightning to the Nations
Celtic Frost – Morbid Tales
Slayer – Reign in Blood
Napalm Death – Scum
Repulsion – Horrified
Morbid Angel – Altars of Madness
Obituary – Cause of Death
Entombed – Left Hand Path
Paradise Lost – Gothic
Carcass – Necroticism — Descanting the Insalubrious
Cannibal Corpse – Tomb of the Mutilated
Darkthrone – Transilvanian Hunger
Kyuss – Welcome to Sky Valley
Meshuggah – Destroy Erase Improve
Monster Magnet – Dopes to Infinity
At the Gates – Slaughter of the Soul
Opeth – Orchid
Down – NOLA
Emperor – In the Nightside Eclipse
Sleep – Jerusalem
The Dillinger Escape Plan – Calculating Infinity
Botch – We Are the Romans
Converge – Jane Doe
Eyehategod – Take as Needed for Pain

 

albert_mudrian-precious_metal_decibel_presents_the_stories_behind_25_extreme_metal_masterpiecesRock journalism challenges even the bravest writer. Musicians are not known for being articulate, nor is it easy to pin them down, and lore snowballs in that vacuum. For this reason it’s great to see the series of in-depth explorations that have come about recently regarding many classic events of metal. As musicians age, given that musicians have a shorter life-span than average, this is also a race against time in many cases.

Albert Mudrian’s Precious Metal: Decibel Presents the Stories Behind 25 Extreme Metal Masterpieces presents a welcome addition to the genre of historical metal journalism. Combing through archives, the writers of each piece compiled band statements about the album and put them together in linear form, like a conversation. The result is a whole lot of information delivered in a very digestible form, with the extraneous confusion of live interviews edited right out of the picture. It’s a good starting point for anyone looking into these historical nodal points in the evolution of metal.

Mudrian seems aware how easily a book like this could become repetitive. Not just in the answers, where musicians might make roughly similar statements about touring, band formation, the troubles of collaboration and so forth, but in the similarity of bands. If for example he added another three Swedish death metal bands, it might start to get a little bit stuffy in the virtual room he’s created. Instead, he gives us space between acts and a wide variety of acts, but avoids the really awful nu-metal and tek-deth. However, the price of that spaciousness is that he includes bands like Monster Magnet and Kyuss which really aren’t metal at all.

There are some shockers in content, too. Some of these bands, despite their professions of various depraved behaviors, are insanely business-like in how they go about getting recorded and published. Sleep, Cannibal Corpse, Dillinger Escape Plan, Botch and Converge really had their act together. For a few moments, it was more like reading Forbes than Decibel, but it’s really gratifying to see this side of the business portrayed honestly. If you want your music heard, there’s a certain amount of business activity that must precede that event.

On the whole, these chapters are extremely well edited including the choice of material. They are in question-answer form, where the questions are usually prompts about historical events or general questions applied to specific moments or activities. When an incidental or minor character is cited, he or she speaks up for a few questions and then fades out. The bulk of the material favors the most articulate band members and major actors, but the writers shoehorn in as many diverse perspectives as they can. This makes reading Precious Metal: Decibel Presents the Stories Behind 25 Extreme Metal Masterpieces feel like being in a comfortable pub with these bands, on a rainy day, with a tape recorder next to the ashtray.

Each chapter corresponds to a classic album and comes with an intro paragraph. If anything, here’s where the book could benefit from some uniformity and toning down the “rock journalism” aspects. Perhaps not a just-the-facts-ma’am approach, but more of an assessment of where the band fits into history and why people like them, and leave it at that. Some of these were over the top for the actual function they serve. However, among the bombast is a lot of good information.

At that point the interview(s) compiled into a single form take over. Most of Precious Metal: Decibel Presents the Stories Behind 25 Extreme Metal Masterpieces is the bands speaking, and that is the power of Mudrian’s editing and the work of his colleagues. They’ve trimmed out the transient stuff, the window dressing and repetition, and left us with clear statements from the bands that show them in their own voices and approaching the situation at their own angle. This also helps create an epic feel to the epic interviews because it’s a compilation of the best moments of the band commenting on this album, put into one form that flows naturally.

Was the intro, “Human,” something you had conceived of before you went into the studio?
Ain: Yes, we had the idea before we went into the studio — we wanted to loop a scream and make it perpetual. We also wanted to use it as an intro for the live shows. A regular human scream would never last that long, so we wanted to loop it and make it sound like a scream from hell, like how you would scream if the pain was everlasting.
Warrior: We had talked about it, but we were basically still laymen, so we had no idea how we could put it together. So we told Horst what we wanted to do, and he proposed how to do it. But as I said, we only had six days to do everything. If one thing failed, we would’ve gone over budget or had to go home. So, in hindsight, it’s a miracle that tracks like “Human” or “Danse Macabre” came out the way we wanted them to. We couldn’t rehearse some of those parts, you know? I have no idea how we did that in just a few days, especially given our lack of experience. But therein lies one of the strengths of Celtic Frost to this day: Martin and I usually visualize certain pieces of music down to the last detail without even touching an instrument.

This excerpt reveals the power of Precious Metal: Decibel Presents the Stories Behind 25 Extreme Metal Masterpieces. In the midst of the mundane description of studio struggles, Tom Warrior articulates part of the essence of his band. Many such moments of insight, casually and offhandedly mentioned in describing some rather ordinary thing, flesh out this book and make it more than a fan’s quest but a resource for musicians and anyone else curious about the origins and process of creating extreme metal.

Not everyone will agree on certain aspects of this book and naturally any choices made along these lines are divisive. However, the book has enough to offer just about anyone who loves metal so that the purchase will not be regretted, even if there are chapters you skipped. In fact, I recommend skipping those chapters and approaching this book as a buffet. No matter what sub-genres you adore, you’re going to have at least five you’re dying to read, another five you’re very excited to read, and another five you’re curious about, and the rest will be uncertain but you might find some interesting information there, as I did.

It is impossible to find just 25 to represent metal. Some of these choices are nods to the music industry and mainstream fanbase, like Dillinger Escape Plan, or to history, like Botch, who were the vanguard of the metalcore movement. Some are near-misses like the apologetic At the Gates treatment of their best-seller, but this interview also confirms a lot that reviewers said about this album, namely that it was retro to the past generation of metal and somewhat hasty. Some others, like Converge and Eyehategod, seem marginal in that these bands spent a lot of time disclaiming metal back in the day.

On the whole however Precious Metal: Decibel Presents the Stories Behind 25 Extreme Metal Masterpieces offers a good pan-and-scan perspective of what was going on in metal at the time, and by showing us the fly-over accumulation of variety, Mudrian and Decibel show us not only what these bands were doing, but the forces against which they were struggling to define themselves. The result is a treasure hunt of a book, bristling with secrets and previously undiscovered pathways, for those who enjoy extreme heavy metal.

Napalm Death “Utilitarian” & Terrorizer “Hordes of Zombies”

March 30, 2012 –

Napalm Death – Utilitarian

In rock ‘n’ roll, it’s better to die young. Even that is a cliche, but so is rock itself. Formed when corporate investors found a way to combine blues, country, folk and pop into a single product, rock has no real soul and so it pretends. The result is a parade of cliches and you hope that if you change the order enough, you become the next Jim Morrison or Morrisey. The sad truth is that rock bands come in two types: the ones who have three albums worth of good ideas and then burn out, and the ones who make the same song over and over again when they run out of energy. If a teenage version of yourself ever walked into a record store and spotted the guy with thinning hair, faded tattoos, and a bunch of stories and even more excuses but no accomplishments, you know what the new Napalm Death is. This is the sound of exhaustion pretending it has vitality for long enough to sell the slop to the kids and move on. The songs are built around the same tired chord progressions, which are barely even progressions in any sense except chromatic patterns at convenient places on the fretboard. The rhythms and riff ideas come from past Napalm Death albums, with a few influences borrowed from older death metal scattered throughout. On top of this, the aged suit-wearing corporate rock Napalm Death throws a single “outside” nuance per song. One tries to imitate the noise/avant-jazz of the early 1990s. Another is halfway to being a Rite of Spring tune. Still another apes the blur-core aesthetic of the new style of grindcore. Others try to return to the bouncy glory days of Fear, Emptiness, Despair or Utopia Banished. Underneath the skin however there is a total lack of ideas or even the guts to just go ahead with something that feels right. This is a cynical, manipulative album hiding a plastic soul which just wants your cash. In aging into oblivion instead of dying young as rock heroes, Napalm Death have made a mockery of everything they stood for. By wrapping this in a trendy surface and trying to pull the works of classic death metal over them like a camouflage mantle, Napalm Death have created a gateway into this genre from the soulless and burnt-out. You have made us all hipsters. Avoid this horrible album.

Terrorizer – Hordes of Zombies

Melba toast has a crunchy exterior, yet turns soft in your mouth. Lightly toasted, it is sweet upon contact with saliva, and will never upset your digestion. In fact, it is like baby food, except that it is crunchy. The new Terrorizer is baby food, true, but it’s awesome baby food. The band have focused not on innovation, not on a nifty surface, and definitely not on topic, since they’re beating the dead couch of the zombie album. What they did do was make something that’s easy to digest but unlike almost all metal released at this time, it’s coherent. Riffs fit together and make sense, even if a kind of pidgin. Rhythms mate effortlessly yet have enough variation to give depth to the compositions. Much of this is pure chromatic, but it captures the momentum of a good riot or fistfight. As a result, it’s easy to listen to and yet maintains its intensity throughout. If you can get over expecting something of emotional profundity like World Downfall, and instead look for the Terrorizer equivalent of Napalm Death’s Fear, Emptiness, Despair (or even Aura Noir’s Black Thrash Attack), you will find in this album a guilty pleasure. It throbs with aggression and yet by not attempting anything too complex, always manages to deliver. There is no attempt here other than to make an energetic, fun, musically-competent grindcore album and Hordes of Zombies rages supreme in this area. Oddly the only new influences seem to be a later Swedish death metal melodic tendency, and a study of riffs from the recent post-death metal era in which the punk riff and the recycled speed metal riff have crept back in. Wisely however Terrorizer keep their music extremely basic, along the lines of the first Brutal Truth album, but give it compelling rhythms and an underlying furor that makes us tune in to see how such violence can also be so much fun to listen to.