#22: J.R. Hayes (Pig Destroyer)
MetalSucks recently polled its staff to determine who are The Top 25 Modern Metal Frontmen, and after an incredible amount of arguing, name calling, and physical violence, we have finalized that list! Writers were asked to consider vocal ability, lyrics, and live presence when casting their votes; the only requirements to be eligible for the list were that the musician in question had to a) play metal (duh), b) be a frontman or woman (double-duh), and c) have recorded something AND performed live in the past five years. Today we continue our countdown with Pig Destroyer’s J.R. Hayes…
If you’re a writer or have spent a moderate-to-significant amount of time reading, lyrics are the worst. Metal lyrics especially, because the majority of them carry themselves as if they’re deep and subversive when really, they’re just as hackneyed and vapid as any other genre. In fact, my philosophy toward metal lyrics is fairly regressive: if I can’t understand ‘em, I don’t bother trying to. Sometimes I feel otherwise and check out some Reversing the Undoing, Fleshstripped, Helvete Diabolical or whatever lyrics and go back to business as usual. (You know, just the blastbeats and screaming.) The fact is, having a ripping metal band behind you doesn’t elevate your middle school poetry (most likely written by a doughy 34-year-old man) to transcendence. In fact, that’s a big selling point for extreme metal: you don’t have to go out of your way to ignore shitty lyrics.
Then a guy like J.R. Hayes comes along and makes me look like an aged jackass. Granted, he’s an exception to the rule, but he’s enough of an exception to make one reconsider the rule, even briefly. He’s not terrific at enunciating, but the bilious screams hurling themselves from his throat land on the solid foundation of his lyrics. There aren’t any six-syllable words, references to Odin, or emotionally naked confessionals to be found; instead, Pig Destroyer fans are treated to a very angry man with a gift for narrative and character building. He uses the microcosms of hyperviolence provided to him as a sliver of time to get a story or an unsettling splash of a portrait of the socially maligned across. As important (and bonertastic) as Scott Hull’s grindy powerviolence riffing is to the bands in which he and Hayes have collaborated, J.R. is just as essential. Hull provides the bones and organs; J.R. Hayes provides the curdled personality and rotted soul.
That personality is part of what makes Pig Destroyer as unique as they are. Yeah, they’re a heavy, balls-out grindcore band, but Hayes’ lyrics are just so… disquieting. Part of what makes death metal lyrics so ultimately flat is that they never go deeper than the shock value of naming invasive surgical procedures or artlessly stating what a serial killer does. J.R. inhabits the heads of Pig Destroyer’s menagerie of murderers, rapists, deviants, and chronic masturbators, which somehow makes it more unnerving. You can listen to metal all you like and have an abstract portrait of a killer, but getting into the believable mind of one—and finding something empathetic and relatable while you’re in there—pokes holes in the desensitized and misogynist knuckle-dragging of metal lyrics. It’s one thing to write a song about strangling a girl; it’s another to hear it convincingly from the mouth of the stalker who ultimately backs off in “Baltimore Strangler.” Or the heavy-handed concepts and jumbled prose of the Extreme Metal Anti-Love Song (see: “Entrails of You”) executed briefly and perfectly in the surreal and strangely personal words to “Intimate Slavery.” They don’t just provide a different viewpoint, but feel profoundly lived-in. Pig Destroyer songs are, at worst, shards of an incident or thought (and even then, they’re still fascinating); at best, they’re grindcore short stories leaving one to parse out what J.R. Hayes is saying, and how.
The how is also an interesting part: as his lyrics don’t necessarily fit into couplets, his vocals are chaotic rhythmically, thus splattering his words all over the damn place. He seems to acknowledge the fact that he may not be the most articulate vocalist, but knows that this comes with the territory and best fits what Pig Destroyer are. Then again, there’s something apt about the band having incredible lyrics then having them smashed and hurled away by J.R.’s vicious bark. And speaking of that bark, how great of a voice does J.R. Hayes have? The red in his face is just as much of a part of the words he’s saying as the letters themselves. Would Pig Destroyer’s lyrics matter as much if they didn’t have a mouthpiece like J.R. Hayes presenting them? Probably, yes. But his necessity as a band member, in a very different way from Scott Hull (his hesher Keith Richards), is solidified by the incoherence coming out of his mouth and the substance behind it. Pig Destroyer wouldn’t be the same band without him, and who knows where he would be able to express himself this way outside the band? Probably on death row somewhere, carved into the walls with a plastic fork.
THE LIST SO FAR: