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.