Spectrum Culture work, vol 8

I went long about one of my favorite albums from 2007, Phantom Limb, from one of my favorite acts in all of extreme music, Pig Destroyer.

Say you’re in a respected grindcore band whose first record was promising (2000’s Explosions in Ward 6), its second impressive (2001’s Prowler in the Yard) and its third genre-defining (2004’s Terrifyer). More importantly, these included (gasp!) songwriting elements that extend past the genre’s rigid boundaries, with each release stepping further outward.

So what’s next? If you’re Pig Destroyer, you take what made those albums great and run with it. In this case it’s sharper lyricism, better production/engineering and some (relatively speaking) traditional song structures alongside the frantic conniptions for which they’re known. The result is 2007’s Phantom Limb, the band’s finest LP and the one that found the Virginia outfit refine their focus without rounding off the violent and ugly edges of their sound.

Additionally, Phantom marked the moment when PxDx became not only the best band in grind, but among the best in all of extreme music. It also marked the moment when they became rule-breakers. “Jupiter’s Eye,” “Loathsome,” “Heathen Temple” and “The Machete Twins” feature some actual grooves in between flailing sprints of insanity. The album as a whole features a number of memorable riffs: “Alexandria” alone has more than one; “Girl in the Slayer Jacket” even has a recurring motif(!). You can actually tell songs apart, something of a no-no within the genre.

In other words, PxDx decided to try writing more than simply a collection of spastic fits and it shows. Not only is Phantom a fantastic piece of grind, it’s a fantastic album in general. Its pacing, with its peaks and valleys, makes an already sickening ride even more so. This is a record that delights in its own repulsiveness.

To wit, the album opens with “Rotten Yellow” and its first lyrics are, “Stench of solvent/Covers stench of rot/I didn’t even recognize her/Like a painting/A masterpiece in pieces/And set to flame.” From there, Phantom goes to the darkest corners of vocalist and lyricist J.R. Hayes’ mind to match the utter psychopathy of his bandmates (guitarist Scott Hull, drummer Brian Harvey and sampler/noisemaker Blake Harrison). As Hayes stated in a 2015 interview, “I’ve always been fascinated slash haunted by death, morbid thoughts and morbid subjects”.

But Hayes doesn’t just rummage through demented material for its own sake (unlike, say, Cannibal Corpse’s Alex Webster). Instead, he paints images and scenes, exploring characters within each – if only for 90 seconds at a time. In the case of “Rotten Yellow,” the song is a window into the mind of a deeply unbalanced individual. After disturbing, aforementioned opening lyric, the narrator gets oddly poetic about his victim’s appearance: “Her skin/Is yellow/Like wildflowers/In July”. By the song’s (quick) end, he’s conversing with her: “She asks me how she looks/And I tell her/That she’s as lovely as the vultures/As pretty as the larvae of the fly”.

Neither the scene or character would be out of place in a Thomas Harris novel. Indeed, Hayes’ fearlessness makes him an unparalleled lyricist, both in extreme music and pop music in general. It’s also what makes him PxDx’s secret weapon. Other acts have tested the tensile strength of grind’s boundaries – even old-school heroes like Brutal Truth and Napalm Death – but no band can offer the unique talent of Hayes.

Appropriately, as it is for the rest of the band, Phantom Limb is Hayes’ crowning achievement. To that end, just as important as his diction is his succinctness. The violently lurching “Fourth Degree Burns” has only 39 words, but not a single one is wasted as Hayes describes a breakup: “I see everything sour before it’s ripe/Tomorrow she’ll step on that plane and disappear/But tonight her lips are real”. Of course, because this is Pig Destroyer, the partner in question kisses “like a head-on collision.” Hayes also discusses romantic troubles in “Jupiter’s Eye”: “It’s like losing a limb/This agonizing goodbye/My dreams of her are violent/All swirled in red/Like the storm in Jupiter’s eye”. It’s a bit demented, but purposefully so.

Which is a great way to describe Phantom Limb and PxDx as a whole. Hayes’ tortured screams over the sputtering racket from his bandmates is grotesque, sure, but it’s also as beautiful and poetic – and special – as Hayes’ lyrics. There is some real ugliness to be found within Phantom Limb, including “Thought Crime Spree.” Over two minutes of darting madness, Hayes splices some surprisingly deep self-reflection (“I don’t have any scars/Only dormant wounds/That crack like fault lines”) into a murder fantasy (“I only have/Five thoughts anymore/And four of them/Are of you/Body bursts and leaks/Like a trash bag.”

Pig Destroyer would follow-up Phantom five years later with the superb Book Burner. Yet while that album’s highs matched those of its predecessor (including “Sis,” “The Diplomat” and “King of Clubs”), Book was a slight step backward for the band. That’s not a dig at Book, though, rather further illustration of how exceptional Phantom Limb is.

 

On Louis C.K. and Common Sense Politics

Louis C.K. is undoubtedly the finest comedian working today. He marries the absurd and the profane and, in so doing, he’s allowed himself the freedom to go anywhere with his comedy. He’s as fearless as any comic in history.

He’s openly called one of his daughters “an asshole” on stage as well as discussing how nothing she says at age 5 is worth listening to. He’s says “faggot,” “cunt,” and “nigger” on stage without any hesitation. (Within that bit is an insightful discussion on language.) And then there’s “Of Course But Maybe,” a piece of comedy that may well go down as both the pinnacle of his career and an all-time classic routine.

Which brings me to politics. Over the last handful of comedy specials, Louis has emerged as a comedian doing political humor without being a political or topical comic in the vein of Lewis Black or Jon Stewart. That is, he doesn’t make his living being political, nor does his audience expect him to be so. Instead, when politics comes up in his act, it’s because that’s where the humor happens to be for whatever point he’s making. That said, the point found at the end of “Of Course” seems to have become a hallmark of Louis’s worldview – namely, politically minded but based on common sense. It’s interesting to note that common sense in this appears to be largely leftist in nature.

See, “Of Course But Maybe” (taken from his 2013 special Oh My God) ends on what is not only a fantastic punchline but also a valid point. I won’t ruin it, but it has to do with how humans are shitty to each other, and perhaps that’s how we achieved things like the Great Pyramids, the US railroad system and smartphones – in particular, iPhones and Foxconn. As he rightly declares, “There’s no end to what you can do when you don’t give a fuck about a particular people.”

God also find Louis talking about how men are the most dangerous threat to women and wondering why the latter would ever willingly spend time alone with the former. And he’s right. Over the course of history, he argues, men have been “shitty people” to women and it is a miracle that any woman would accept an invitation for a date with a man. It’s so historically recorded, ingrained and, at least for part of the population, sadly systemic of the male psyche that a term was created to describe the viewpoint of a man approaching a women on the street: Schrödinger’s Rapist. It’s seemingly feminist in its delivery and viewpoint. And is also derived from common sense.

But it’s only the beginning of Louis’s argument. He’s expanded on that same point – that people are shitty to each other – to include all white people. 2011’s Live at the Beacon Theater includes musings on when Europeans came over to America and called Native Americans “Indians”…even though they weren’t from India:

They weren’t even Indians. We called them that by accident, and we still call them that. Like, we knew in a month that it wasn’t Indians, but we just don’t give a shit. We never corrected.

It’s not politically correct in its tone. It is, however, more in line with the movement to excise racism from sports than it is with the view that Redskins is “just a name.” Which is to say, a bit left. And, again, common sense: Why call a person born in America an Indian and not a Native American if you knew better?

He then goes on to argue white people might not be from Earth because “we don’t like it here.” He observes that we need “smooth surfaces,” “right angles,” and the temperature to be just right. Then he moves on to discussing environmentalism and Christianity – or, rather, that many who oppose environmental regulations because they hurt the economy are also Christians, and how odd it is:

If you believe that God gave you the Earth, that God created the Earth for you, why would you not have to look after it? Why would you not think when He came back, he wouldn’t go, “What the fuck did you do? I gave this to you, motherfucker. Are you crazy?!

He then imagines a conversation between a person and God, where God is asking why this person started drilling for oil. Louis imagines him meekly replying with “Because I wanted to go faster, I’m not fast enough” and because he was cold. God replies, “What do you mean cold? I gave you everything you need, you piece of shit.” The man responds, “Because…jobs.”

God then demands an explanation of what a job is and why anyone would need one. The man explains jobs are for money, for food. God says money isn’t needed because food is in nature. “Yeah, but it doesn’t have bacon around it.” It’s absurdist, to be sure. Yet, under the silliness lies some seriously biting commentary of people, especially Americans. Yes, Americans are stereotypically gluttonous and the phrase “bacon wrapped” is a microcosm of that. Go a little further, though, and you find the seedlings of leftist economic thought: Communism.

[I’d like to pause here to note something. When I suggest that a portion of a Louis C.K. bit might be communist or leans towards a communist notion, I don’t mean it pejoratively. I’m not using it to frame an American media “Us v Them” mentality or anything of the sort. I’m not trying to be a talking head spouting off crazy shit on a cable news network to secure ratings. I’m simply applying outside analysis to help make a larger point. (This is to say nothing of the fact that I have a political science degree and can actually explain what Communism is and is not.) I’m also trying to avoid any arguments later that might devolve into this.]

Louis’s point is: What did humans truly need money or jobs or an economy for when life as we know it began? Humanity did more or less have everything it needed before money or government was invented, so what’s the point? Which, effectively, is what Karl Marx envisioned: true Communism removes the need for wealth, jobs or government. Hell, you could easily argue that the Garden of Eden was the first Communist society. Perhaps God is a commie. (I’d love it if one day we found out God is a Marxist. Holy shit, would that piss off the Red States. I think Ted Cruz’s head would explode.)

Whatever your opinion of Communism or leftist economic thought, Louis simply worked backwards from basic logic to arrive where he did. In that hypothetical exchange between God and man, he cut away any excess in human life to get to “What do you need money for?!” in a spectacularly simple fashion. He path was abstract and silly, but that’s what makes comedy so great: Louis CK goes places no one else would go, or even think to go. It’s also what makes his politically-minded bits so powerful – they’re based on reason and logic, with emotion and stupidity completely stripped away.

This brings us back to the trifecta of faggot, cunt and nigger. Louis’s use of all three on stage is defended by the comedian himself through a very plain argument: they’re just words. On stage, he didn’t and doesn’t use them towards a gay person, a black person or a woman. The terms are just that, terms. People may use these three – or any “offensive” word – to hurt others, but that isn’t Louis’s intention. As he explains:

A lotta words, they’re not bad words. No words are bad, but some people start using them to hurt other people and then they become bad. There’s words that I love that I can’t use ’cause other people use them wrong – to hurt other people.

His belief in the freedom of speech, especially in extreme cases, is consistent with other common sense views mentioned above. It’s certainly a liberal viewpoint – “liberal” here being classical liberalism, not the left-right bullshit term used in the US – but that doesn’t make it any less reasonable.

“Reasonable” is perhaps the best way to describe his stance on gay marriage from 2006’s Shameless: “Who gives a shit? It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t have any effect on your life. What the fuck do you care?” He then addresses the social component of those opposed to same-sex marriage:

Like when you see someone stand up on a talk show and say, “How am I supposed to explain to my child that two men are getting married?” I dunno, it’s your shitty kid. You fucking tell them. Why is that anyone else’s problem? Two guys are in love but they can’t get married ’cause you don’t wanna talk to your ugly child for five minutes?

Marriage, it should be noted, is how G.W. F. Hegel believed civil society should function: Everyone in a society should act as if s/he needs everyone else in a quasi-symbiotic relationship. It’s elegant in its simplicity and in its common sense approach. Or, to put that in Louis’s parlance: If we could all just be a little nicer to each other, we’d be so much better off. Which, again, is a leftist view. Perhaps more accurately, it’s more left than right. What’s truly noteworthy, though, is just how many times common sense has apparently led Louis C.K. to form left-leaning opinions.