“Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.”
― Edgar Degas
Book Burner is the fifth full-length from Virginia-based grindcore quartet Pig Destroyer. To say the metal fraternity is hugely anticipating the album’s release might just be the understatement of the year. Pig Destroyer’s songs, crammed with emotional and musical carnage, are executed with barbaric, pinpoint precision, and they have long been hailed as superlative examples of the ingenious artistry found in extreme metal.
Few metals acts, grindcore or otherwise, come close to matching Pig Destroyer’s unrelenting sonic brutality. The band’s articulations have drawn praise from well outside the boundaries of the metal scene, with the worlds of art and academia taking an interest. Five years on from the band’s widely acclaimed 2007 album, Phantom Limb, Pig Destroyer returns with another sledgehammer blow to the senses. Although Book Burner is a less complex release than its predecessor, it is equally formidable.
Guitarist Scott Hull, who established celebrated turbo-grind outfit Agoraphobic Nosebleed in 1994, joined vocalist J. R. Hayes to form Pig Destroyer in ‘97. Original drummer John Evans joined soon after. The band’s 2001 release, Prowler in the Yard, was unwaveringly propulsive. Supplemented by eruptions of effects, it ratcheted up the intensity in an abrasive fashion, not once lessening the auditory assault. Recognized as a masterpiece of cacophony and chaos, Prowler in the Yard realigned many fans’ expectations of grindcore, and Pig Destroyer coiled the noose even tighter on 2004’s rampaging Terrifyer.
Meticulously recorded over two years, Terrifyer was stacked with white-hot bursts of power-violence, hardcore and hyper-animated death and thrash – all combined with memorable grinding hooks. Hull’s riffs were multifaceted and unflaggingly ferocious, new drummer Brian Harvey was stop-on-a-dime precise, and Hayes’ growls and lyrics were fittingly monstrous. Terrifyer was another masterwork. However, a bonus disc, containing the 38-minute track “Natasha”, revealed a whole new side to Pig Destroyer. It was a radical change of gear, with doom and dark ambient sounds engulfing an elongated, über-creepy tale.
Expectations for 2007’s Phantom Limb were accordingly high, and Pig Destroyer did not disappoint. Chosen as metal album of the year by many critics, it was a watershed release for Pig Destroyer as well as the grindcore scene as a whole. While not vastly experimental, grindcore has had its forward-thinking moments (see recent releases from Napalm Death and Cattle Decapitation, or travel back in time to discover Discordance Axis). Diffuse and adventurous influences were brought to the fore on Phantom Limb. Pig Destroyer spat out off-kilter blistering grindcore, as “noise technician” and new member Blake Harrison provided distorting screeds.
The usual criticisms of grindcore (it’s too muddy, too simplistic, it all sounds the same) were crushed beneath Phantom Limb‘s dynamic and evolving whirlwinds of supersonic noise. The band wrapped high-velocity vortexes around multi-faceted onslaughts; the resulting songs were pummeling, nuanced, but above all else extremely clever. Book Burner has been touted as a return to a more primitive sound. With 19 songs in 31 minutes, and featuring a phenomenal new drummer in Adam Jarvis, there’s no doubt the album is more svelte. Recording at Hull’s home-built Visceral Sound Studios has clearly allowed the band time to plot its return, and Book Burner is an unrestrained and sadistic lesson in aural violence.
It seems likely that the album’s title and Chris Taylor’s cover art is a nod to Ray Bradbury’s novel, Farenheit 451, and recent political simmerings. As in the past, Book Burner‘s lyrical themes are delivered via cascades of Hayes’ bitter bile. The vocalist and lyricist, renowned for versifying intensely disturbing thoughts and visions, once again paints vivid canvases of cataclysmic insanity and murderousness. Exorcising the demons that torment him – be they personal, surreal or political in nature – Hayes sounds as unhinged as ever, launching his disorientating diatribes with vicious glee.
The music on Book Burner matches Hayes’ hyperactive and corruptive narratives perfectly. In the first 10 minutes you get nine tracks. The briefest, “The Underground Man”, is a 32-second tornado of disjointed mathy swirls and blast beats. The longest, “The Diplomat”, runs just short of three minutes. It’s a groove-laden tirade, imbued with death metal’s befouling stench. The primitivism is abundant; “Sis”, “The American’s Head”, “Eve” and “All Seeing Eye” are all razor sharp torrents. The complexity and additional layers found on Phantom Limb have certainly been peeled back, but the band has not forgone the cutthroat technicality. A track like “Totaled”, in which the band is at its most sparse and orthodox, still makes for a wholly decimating bombardment.
Longer tracks like “Machiavellian”, “Baltimore Strangler” and “Permanent Funeral” (which begins with an old school ramped-up thrash churn) all exhibit the same level of dexterity the band is famed for. Hull’s entangled and injurious riffs draw from a raft of withering sources – death, hardcore, math-rock, trash, noise and icy punk. “The Bug” is one part ruinous and three parts devastating. It illustrates that, although the album is skeletally raw in parts, its vocals, percussion, skewed samples and deluges of shredding riffs still have abundant capacity to awe. And keep in mind, although there’s no bass player here, the album is still thick and extremely heavy.
Book Burner allows ideas to linger ever so briefly. Warping and mutating dissonant tones into uncomfortable postures, Pig Destroyer offers glimpses of sonic structures, only to tear them down, often instantaneously. You may think you know where things are headed, but the band stomps any certainty into submission. Juxtaposing accelerations and decelerations, and smashing contorted riffs against blasting percussion and samples makes for a paroxysm of enthralling grind. Book Burner is more stripped down than Phantom Limb, but it exhibits equally masterful songwriting. Pig Destroyer has devolved without losing an atom of its shrewdness.
The pressure from fans awaiting a follow-up to Phantom Limb must have been enormous. Even if Pig Destroyer chose to ignore that expectation, there still must have been pressure within the band to create an album to satisfy its own level of intensity. And let’s not forget, the band has been plying its trade for a decade and a half. Bodies take a battering, nobody playing grindcore expects to see any significant financial return, and relationships and other real-world concerns can blunt the resolve and enthusiasm of any hardened metal veteran. It would be entirely understandable, even forgivable, if Pig Destroyer had returned with an album less savage than past endeavors. But this is not the case. Pig Destroyer has responded to those pressures with a confrontational, combative and consummate release. It’s torn itself down to its elemental particles, and rebuilt anew. Although it is leaner, it is the same cruel and destructive beast, and has lost none of its muscle. It’s the perfect fighting weight for life’s stresses and tensions.
Pig Destroyer has maintained a distinctive sound over the years. Dedicated to forging its own path, it has sculpted chaotic and traumatic suites – and we have reveled in them. We’ve basked in the madness and barbarity because we know how very close to the bone Pig Destroyer cuts. It may be painful to admit it, but Book Burner is the sound of your conscience unguarded. Incendiary and intelligent, it is an album that propels an already lauded band into the realms of the truly legendary.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work as independent cultural critics and historians. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times. Thanks everyone.