Drill Your Brain, Drill Your Soul
I’m writing this with my headphones jammed on my ears and the volume cranked up high. It is an ill-advised thing to do. Because I’m listening to a band called Pig Destroyer. They’re from Washington DC and they play a genre of music that is known as grindcore. Grindcore is loud. LOUD. It is probably the heaviest, most distorted and abrasive kind of music that I have ever heard. I’ve heard various types of heavy metal–doom, death and thrash metal, Japanese bands that routinely blow out the audience’s eardrums and cause nosebleeds and heart attacks and others of their ilk from the US and Europe. But nothing comes close to what I’m getting fed into my ears via my headphones right now.
The album that I’m listening to is called Phantom Limb. it was released in 2007 and on its 15 (mostly mercifully short) songs, vocalist J. R. Hayes shrieks, growls and emits sounds that I have not ever heard a human being produce. The guitar riffs by Hayes’ bandmate Scott Hull are again of the most gratingly abrasive kinds that I’ve encountered in years of indiscriminate listening to music of all kinds. But somehow, I find Phantom Limb a big relief.
Frankly, I never thought I’d be listening to a genre such as grindcore. In fact, I did because of the circumstances. I’d been wandering around on the NPR (America’s National Public Radio) website and found a first listen stream of Pig Destroyer’s latest album, Book Burner, which had not yet been released and, intrigued by the startling violence of their music, I went ahead to Relapse Records, their label, and bought a download of 2007’s Phantom Limb.
But the real reason why I opted for Pig Destroyer on the headphones was an ongoing weekend disturbance at home. My two girls—one about to be 18 and the other eight—were dueling with each other (it’s a routine thing that I’m slowly getting used to) over what they wanted to listen to on the stereo. The younger one insisted (and got) to play Best Coast’s The Only Place and then Kishi Bashi’s 151a, both albums that this household has heard a zillion times and more. The older one wanted Radiohead, Nine Inch Nails and some My Morning Jacket. By then the younger one, a headstrong Taurean, was obsessively keen on Green Day’s American Idiot. The older one indulgently gave in but the CD could not be found. The album wasn’t ripped on any of my iPods either. Domestic tension ensued. I retreated, headphone in tow and settled for Pig Destroyer.
One way—not a foolproof one, though–of recognising a grindcore band is by its name. Pig Destroyer’s frontman Hayes has been in bands with names such as Agoraphobic Nosebleeds, Japanese Torture Comedy Hour and another one with a two-word name (one begins with A and the other with C; look it up) that I cannot mention in a family magazine such as this without risking the ire of, well, everyone. Shrieks, growls, guitars that sear and cut like electric powered saws and an overall sense of anarchy is what grindcore can come across as and Pig Destroyer is no different.
Yet, there is something to Pig Destroyer’s music and I realised it only after a couple of spins of Phantom Limbs. It is in the lyrics. Traditionally, grindcore songs have dealt with gore and killing and morbid violence. But it really doesn’t matter because I am not sure anyone outside the band knows what a grindcore ensemble is singing about. Indeed, after listening to the way a grindcore vocalist sings a single song, it is difficult to imagine that his vocal chords can function normally ever after that. But Pig Destroyer’s songs have something about them that stands apart. And probably that’s the reason their albums have managed to edge into the mainstream.
As I said, I bought Phantom Limb from Relapse’s website, and the download comes with lyrics. On Deathtripper, Hayes sings (or rather screams unintelligibly unless you’re reading the words): I hold your hand in mine/The rest of you is scattered/ All over/ Your rib cage is open/ Like a great white’s jaws/ Your legs/ Look so sexy out of context/ Out of context. On Lesser Animal, he growls: Got no use/ For psychiatry/ I can talk to the voices in my head for free/ Mood swings like an axe/ Into those around me/ My tongue is a double agent.
Let’s say i was making a playlist for a commute or a workout or just like that, grindcore will probably not be a genre that I’ll reach for instinctively. But, as I recently discovered after an interlude with Pig Destroyer, it can be a great escape route—your mind pounded by shrieks, shredded sandpaper-like guitar riffs and lyrics that are more gory than gore. By the time I’d finished listening to Phantom Limb (it is around 38 minutes and the new one, Book Burner, is even shorter, the siblings had settled their dispute over what to play and were engrossed in re-watching the The Chronicles of Narnia. What a relief!
American soul singer Cody ChesnuTT’s (yes, two capital Ts, don’t ask me why!) mainstream recognition came when the hip-hop group, The Roots, picked up one of his songs and adapted it. I heard Cody live on a recent broadcast of the Seattle FM station KEXP and that triggered me to try his 10-year-old album, The Headphone Masterpiece. ChesnuTT infuses jazz, gospel and Afrobeat into his soul offerings and his lyrics have a contemporary feel. I’m waiting to get his new album, Landing On A Hundred, which will be out soon.