Spectrum Culture work, vol 9

DREAMCAR (No Doubt + Davey Havok) put out its self-titled debut and I wrote about it. I even brought back some snark from my college days.

Davey Havok is quite the busy man. Since April of last year, two of his projects (AFI and Blaqk Audio) have released full-lengths and toured behind them. Now, it seems, he’s decided to further crowd his ridiculous schedule with a new project: DREAMCAR. It’s a supergroup of sorts, with Havok fronting a band consisting of No Doubt members not named Gwen.

That trio from No Doubt – guitarist Tom Dumont, bassist Tony Kanal and drummer Adrian Young – began writing music for a new project in 2014 and later asked Havok to join. The group’s eponymous debut, presumably, is only now getting a release because this is simply when there was time to promote and tour behind it.

In a recent interview, Kanal says that the project was largely kept a secret, allowing them more creative freedom since they weren’t beholden to a record company exec or a manager. Given that the band brought Tim Pagnotta on board as a producer, this is a curious statement. Pagnotta has worked on two of the most inescapable Skittles overdoses of the last few years: Neon Trees’ “Sleeping with a Friend” and WALK THE MOON’s “Shut Up and Dance.”

“Creative freedom,” then, appears to mean “follow the current trend of doing your best ‘80s pop-rock impression.” In this way, Pagnotta was the logical choice. He knows how to paint any band in bright, “Miami Vice”-esque pastels to get the desired aesthetic, and he does so here with almost cynical precision. Darting and tickling synths are paired with itchy guitar, and they’re polite enough to each other without forming a partnership.

Actually, it’s kinda like how the first third of the record finds Dumont, Kanal and Young answering the question, “How many different ways can we write the same anthem that builds to a soaring chorus over which Havok can howl his goth-tinged kabuki theater witticisms?” Yes, “Kill for Candy” and “Born to Lie” have massive hooks (despite trite lyrics like, “But I’ve grown too tired to lie/ And you’re born so sick of truth”), but they’re hollow and empty. Throughout DREAMCAR, the means are the end – and that’s the problem.

See, when you don’t have an earworm hook (as most of side B demonstrates), you’re left with tepid, mid-tempo synth-rock. There are flashes of brilliance (“The Preferred” struts around on a scratchy guitar lick, and “Don’t Let Me Love” opens with a playful, sing-songy riff that leads to twinkling guitar and pulsing bass effectively complementing each other), but not enough to break up the monotony.

The end result is a record where most of its material demands your attention but is forgotten 10 minutes later. In effect, DREAMCAR is like a sugar binge – you only kept going beyond the first few pieces because it was in front of you, and at the end you’re left feeling unfulfilled and wondering what it was all for. Or as Havok puts it in a bit of laughable irony: “You do nothing for me/ But don’t ignore me.”

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.

 

Spectrum Culture work, vol 7

Full of Hell released their fifth LP, Trumpeting Ecstasy, and I reviewed it.

For all the havoc Full of Hell has wreaked, the first thing you hear on Trumpeting Ecstasy, the group’s new full-length, is not the band. Instead, it opens with German director Werner Herzog speaking. “Nature here is vile and base,” he declares. “Of course, there is a lot of misery, but it is the same misery that is all around us. The trees here are in misery.” As you might imagine, his thick accent (as well as the audio’s manipulation) gives those words a certain malevolence, setting the tone for the audio terrorism to come.

Ecstasy is FoH’s fifth LP overall, but it’s the first non-collaborative album since 2013’s Rudiments of Mutilation. Coming off of a particularly aggressive (and surprisingly catchy) split seven-inch with Nails from this past December, the effort sees FoH fully embrace the death metal aspects of their sound that have slowly creeped to the forefront and use them as the basis for much of the record’s songwriting.

This includes Dylan Walker’s vocals. While he was mostly a vein-bursting screamer in FoH’s early work, he’s added a death growl into the mix over time, giving him two distinct vocal styles to utilize. In some instances, the former controls the song; in other cases, the latter. Sometimes there’s a back-and-forth between them (as on “Gnawed Flesh”), allowing Walker to perform as if two personalities are fighting for control of his mind.

While a sizable chunk of Ecstasy is death metal-tinged, FoH is still a grindcore band. Interestingly, “Bound Sphinx” and the six-minute closer “At the Cauldron’s Bottom” seem to act as a bridge between the two worlds. Both begin as flailing nightmares before suddenly pivoting into droning, hardcore-esque marches. Perhaps as a way to reiterate the band’s roots, there appear to be nods to other grind stalwarts. “Crawling Back to God” has a zig-zagging riff that would make Pig Destroyer proud, while the sub-minute spastic tantrums “Branches of Yew,” “Digital Prison” and “Fractured Quartz” recall early Napalm Death.

Speaking of Napalm Death, Walker’s lyrics are similarly (far) left. Walker is one of extreme music’s sharpest lyricists, and has tackled left-leaning subjects before (proletariat suffering, societal apathy, etc.). Thus, it was only a matter of time before “man vs. nature” was discussed – hence the album’s opening. Nature as a literal topic, however, is only part of the story. Walker addresses man’s egotistical towering over nature (“Society is a blister on the skin of the planet/ Man is a pustule on the face of the Earth” and “The planet sings sweetly of empty chambers/ Of a future without the threat of species”). But he also reflects on man’s egotism in other aspects as well. “The Cosmic Vein” and “Gnawed Flesh” both castigate man’s assuredness of itself (with “Man will fail/ Man will always fail” being a blunt thesis), while “Crawling Back to God” and “Branches of Yew” see Walker return to a classic punching bag: religion.

Despite being only 23 minutes, Trumpeting Ecstasy offers much to unpack both lyrically and musically, and is a beautifully paced soundtrack to the apocalypse. And while Full of Hell’s whirling dervish outbursts aren’t anything new or unexpected in grind (except for the title track, which resembles last year’s joint work with The Body, One Day You Will Ache Like I Ache), Ecstasy is nonetheless a worthy addition to the genre.