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Album Review: Pig Destroyer’s Head Cage Will Free Your Mind

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In Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, the Monolith signals impending evolution; so it’s wholly appropriate that the ghostly chorus which serves as that onyx slab’s theme is sampled* on the “The Tunnel Under the Tracks,” the intro track on Pig Destroyer’s new album, Head Cage. ‘Cause Head Cage ain’t your daddy’s Pig Destroyer album. Just as Ape evolves into Man and Man evolves into Star Child, Pig Destroyer have now evolved past being ‘just’ a grind band into something entirely more versatile and impressive.

First, and most obviously, Head Cage is the first PxDx album to feature a bassist (John Jarvis, who has been playing live with the band since 2013). Guitarist/producer Scott Hull utilizes a groovier, pudgier tone and quick, doodle-like asides to add variation and make the riffs truly come alive (e.g., forty seconds into “The Torture Fields”), and his overall production style feels at once fuller and looser, warmer, more organic. And while I haven’t done a count, I’d wager that the (uniformly nut-crushing) drums, by Adam Jarvis (he and John are cousins), contain fewer blast beats than any previous Pig Destroyer full-length to date.

Which is not to suggest that Head Cage is lacking for what one might call ‘traditional’ grindcore. Tracks like “Dark Train,” “Terminal Itch,” and “Mt. Skull” are under-two-minute flurries of audio violence; each one comes swinging right out of the gate, and expertly builds to a H-bomb detonation that any metal band in the world would kill to have written. They’re the kinds of songs that have made Pig Destroyer one of the most respected grind bands in the world today.

But Head Cage isn’t Phantom Limb 2: Still Itchy; it’s heavy as fuck and totally rocks from start to finish, but it’s not wall-to-wall aural chaos. Your parents will still hate Head Cage, but they might recognize some of its songs as, well, songs. Just as its title suggests, “Concrete Beast” lumbers angularly (and, like “Terminal Itch,” features a terrific guest turn by Agoraphobic Nosebleed’s Kat Katz). “Circle River” is a snotty, punkish, invigorating invitation to riot. The drolly-titled “The Adventures of Jason and J.R.” is a thrashy  duet between frontman J.R. Hayes and Jason Hodges (Suppression, Brown Piss, Bermuda Triangles, etc.), in which the lyrics and music work in perfect tandem to tell the fantastical tale of an eventful trip to an Iron Lung show, like a scored short story. “The Last Song” (which actually isn’t the last song on the record) starts out creepy before… well, it stays pretty creepy, but it also really makes you wanna circle pit. “House of Snakes” might be the best doom metal song of the year, and the anthemic “Army of Cops,” featuring Richard Johnson from ANb and Drugs of Faith, is the best hardcore song of the year.

All of it is bolstered by Blake Harrison’s redolent sound effects… and, of course, by Hayes’ ferocious vocals and imagination-provoking lyrics. Topics of discussion this go ’round run the gamut from the rise of fascism, Man’s inability to feel joy, utilizing a cockroach as a means of transportation, and evading “Dick Cheney is his Halliburton jetpack.” Sometimes, Hayes’ meaning is clear, as on “Cops” (“Tell me, where does it stop?/ “This tower of law, this army of cops”); other times, it’s largely open for debate, as on “Trap Door Man” (“they can’t see the sentence for the words”) and album closer “House of Snakes,” the latter of which is an impressively moody song with a noirish narrative about a detective and supernatural reptiles (I think).

Hayes’ lyrics may very well be a Rorschach test for the listener, but to my ears, it does seem like there’s a recurring theme of being locked into modes of thinking (note the album’s title). On “Dark Train,” Hayes bemoans an inability to enjoy the sunny side of life (“I see the wonders, I’m not blind/ I’ve just got a one-track mind that serves a dark train”); “Circle River” talks about “cold rationalizations” and “clever ways I’ve devised for dodging confrontation,” “Trap Door Man” warns that “You never know what goes on behind closed minds,” and on “Cops,” Hayes condemns us all as “hypocrites” who claim to want freedom while “secretly we like being kept down.” It’s not difficult to imagine why this concept would be of interest to Hayes right now, given everything that’s going on in the world. But regardless of whether or not he intentionally meant to explore this issue or I’m ‘reading too much into it,’ Hayes’ words always demands a closer reading from the listener, which is not something you can say about most metal lyricists these days.

If many of the cuts on Head Cage are not, musically speaking, wholly recognizable as Pig Destroyer, none of them are wholly unrecognizable as Pig Destroyer, either. That makes Head Cage the kind of creative step forward so many bands try, and completely fail, to take. Pig Destroyer have been willing to think outside the box pretty much their whole careers, but on this outing, they haven’t relegated their more protean tendencies to interludes or a side release like Natasha or Mass & Volume. Having taken grindcore as we know it about as far as it can go, they’ve now fulfilled their destiny of being a creative force unburdened by the need to conform to anyone’s standards besides their own. And they’ve done so spectacularly.

Everyone has to grow up sometime. Leave it to Pig Destroyer to show us all how it’s done.

*Along with at least one other Kubrick film and John Milius’ Conan the Barbarian — it wouldn’t be Pig Destroyer without mixing high and low art.

Pig Destroyer’s Head Cage comes out September 7 on Relapse. You can check out the song “Army of Cops” here and pre-order the album here.

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