Expressing dissent has always been a huge part of metal, the lyrical sentiment feeding off the aggression and power of the music itself, but more often than not the target of dissent tends to be on the vague side. Authority figures, conformity, and organized religion, especially Christianity, are all common subjects, and from time to time we do get the odd political themes cropping up in heavy music, but more often than not it’s more lip service than anything. The lyrics take a backseat to the more immediate, primal appeal of the riffs and beats at hand. For such a seemingly angry genre, there’s a great deal of complacency rather than activism, which considering the events of the last decade, is a little troubling.
Thankfully, we do have a handful of reliable metal bands out there who want to edify audiences as well as incite the most insane mosh pits possible. Megadeth head honcho Dave Mustaine continues to spout his hamfisted but sincere bile towards political figures, Nuclear Assault combined ultra-left wing themes with searing thrash metal, Barney Greenway of British legends Napalm Death remains an outstanding political lyricist, and System of a Down has proven to be blunt but very effective at rabblerousing. Of the American extreme metal bands today, though, Baltimore foursome Misery Index is at the top of the heap. Named after a formula created by economist Arthur Okun, in which the unemployment rate and inflation rate are added to measure the economic and societal well-being of a country, Misery Index has been churning out some of the most vehement protest music in metal this past decade. Music and political awareness have always gone hand in hand on their releases, with the blistering hybrid of death metal and grindcore backed up by the pointed, often eloquent verses spouted by bassist/vocalist Jason Netherton, who when not writing and playing his music maintains his long-running activist website Demockery.org.
The band has been on a very good run, especially over the last four years, with each new album (2006’s Discordia and 2008’s Traitors) showing great improvements, and that trend continues on their fourth full-length. While it lacks the unmistakable tone of Kurt Ballou, who produced Traitors, musically Heirs to Thievery is one of the most well-rounded, consistent albums they’ve put together to date. The death/grind elements continue to form the foundation, but this time around there’s more of an openness to classic hardcore punk that keeps the songs from sounding impenetrable. Open chord riffs contain sly little melodies that draw listeners in from the get-go, a prime example being the neck-snapping opener “Embracing Extinction”, which actually echoes the ferocity of Converge’s more direct material. The mid-paced chug and crunch of “The Carrion Call” and “The Spectator” hearkens back to the classic New York hardcore Agnostic Front, while the main riff of “You Lose” hints at the proto-thrash swagger of DRI.
That’s not to say that the extreme metal has been done away with. The band is as taut as ever, led by the guitar duo of mark Kloeppel and Sparky Voyles and propelled by the lithe drumming of Adam Jarvis. Insane blastbeats and dexterous lead fills highlight the technically sound yet bruising “Fed to the Wolves”. “The Illuminaught” bears a striking resemblance to the unrelenting brutality of the great Hate Eternal, and not just because Hate Eternal’s Erik Rutan pops in for a vocal cameo. The sludgy, churning “The Seventh Cavalry” is a well-timed respite from all the speed, while the insane “Sleeping Giants” boasts arguably the album’s most twisted opening riff.
As for Netherton’s lyrics, his theme on this album is American imperialism, each song focusing on a different aspect. The album moves from its roots (“Heirs to Thievery”), to the complex machine of consumption that the Western world has become (“Fed to the Wolves”), to the environmental impact (“The Carrion Call”), to cultural apathy (“The Spectator”), to the eventual consequences (“Day of the Dead”). If his audience can’t be convinced into activism, at the very least Netherton can create awareness one listener at a time, and once again he does so in succinct, thoughtful fashion. As of this writing, America’s current misery index is a whopping 12.14, the highest it’s been since 1983. As Netherton and his band insist, now is not the time for complacency, even in the metal community.