[18 June 2007]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
“Got no use for psychiatry / I can talk to the voices in my head for free.”
—JR Hayes, “Lesser Animal”
JR Hayes is on the phone from his D.C. area home, explaining why he draws so much inspiration from the late, great writer/countercultural icon William S. Burroughs when writing the lyrics for his band, Pig Destroyer. “He’s a huge influence on my writing. Especially stylistically, because he showed me that the only rules are the rules you set upon yourself,” he says. “You can cut words in half, cut sentences in half, cut stories in half. I just love that kind of libertine attitude. Charles Bukowski was like that, too. Before I read Bukowski, I thought that every poem had to rhyme. And I started reading these poems and I’m going, who’s this fucking drunk guy who doesn’t know how to rhyme? But poetry and literature is all about emotion and detail. Pictures. And if you can do that, then it doesn’t really matter what your form is.”
If there’s anyone who knows a thing or two about creating indelible mental pictures, it’s Hayes, who over the last seven years has emerged as one of the pre-eminent lyricists in contemporary metal, while fronting a band that has rapidly ascended the extreme music ladder to the point where its brand-new album is one of the most heavily anticipated metal discs of the year. Ingeniously balancing shocking depictions of violent acts (“Your rib cage open like a great white’s jaws”) and a poetic eloquence that dares us to believe that even a musical form as impenetrable as grindcore can have soul (“Dreams of her are violent / All swirled in red like the storm in Jupiter’s eye”), Hayes has brought a new dimension to the genre, leading the listener down the garden path, only to lift up the path stones to reveal the disturbing, ugly reality lurking underneath.
Angelcorpse, Of Lucifer and Lightning (The End) Rating: 4 It’s not that the execution is bad; in fact, the death metal veterans’ first album in eight years has not lost a step. The problem is the production, which is abysmal. We can barely hear J.R. Daniels’s brilliant drumming, and the guitar tone is even worse, sounding like it was filtered through a cardboard tube. What should have been a welcome comeback quickly becomes annoying as hell.
Bergraven, Dödsvisioner (Hydra Head) Rating: 8 It’s not very often that we hear an album that seems to transcend black metal entirely, yet at the same time remains firmly rooted in the genre. Does that even make sense? Dödsvisioner does that to us, languidly shifting style and momentum, making each wild transition seem natural, leaving us wondering what the heck we just heard. Beautiful, grim, and challenging.
Memfis, The Wind Up (Candlelight) Rating: 7 Heavily hyped in its native Sweden, Memfis draws heavily from the progressive strains of countrymen Opeth and Burst, but also injects a strong American element, more specifically Mastodon. Audacious enough to swipe ideas from its favorite bands, yet confident enough to mesh it all in such concise, catchy fashion, this foursome will be a band to reckon with soon.
Toxic Bonkers, Progress (Selfmadegod) Rating: 7 Veterans of the Polish death/grind scene, this band has its sights set on the rest of the world with the release of its fourth full-length. Aided greatly by some superb production, the quintet hammers out a likeable, workmanlike combination of old-school death metal, hardcore, thrash, and crust that’s as crushing is it is groove-oriented.
Visions of Atlantis, Trinity (Napalm) Rating: 6 The Austrian band brings nothing new here, blending the symphonic strains of Nightwish with the male-female gimmick of Lacuna Coil. Despite such incredible lack of originality, most of the songs hold up surprisingly well, including hook-laden tunes like “Passing Dead End” and “My Dark Side Home” led by American operatic bombshell Melissa Ferlaak and counterpart Mario Plank, who serves as a capable vocal foil.
2001’s Prowler in the Yard and 2004’s Terrifyer were enough to turn grindcore on its ear, but Pig Destroyer’s Phantom Limb has both Hayes and his band elevating their game significantly. Anchored by the incredibly versatile guitar work of Scott Hull and the aggressive percussion of Brian Harvey, Pig Destroyer is far from a slave to the grind, evolving from a band proficient at short, minute-long blasts of fury that grind has always been known for, to a much more versatile outfit, incorporating styles ranging from thrash metal to doom, bringing in more dynamic tempo changes, and, most noticeably, making the songs longer. “It’s just a little bit of an expansion—it gives you more room in the song to change the dynamics and build the dramatic element a little bit,” explains Hayes about Phantom Limb‘s turn toward the slightly more accessible. “It’s difficult to establish an atmosphere and a vibe when a song is only 55 seconds long. Don’t get me wrong, I love the 55-second songs [laughs], they’re some of my favorites, but we just like to try out different things. We still like to have every kind of thing represented on the record.”
What becomes immediately noticeable upon listening to the opening salvos of lead-off track “Rotten Yellow” is just how much bigger the band’s sound is, especially when compared to the more grating mix heard on Terrifyer. “When we mixed Terrifyer, we did a lot of different things to try to get that thick sound, but we just kept coming back,” Hayes says. “There was a really early mix of the album that was real noisy and more high-end, and we thought that was the most vicious mix. When we tried to get the thick sound, it seemed to subdue it a little bit, so we went with the real angry, more noisy mix. This time when we went into the studio, we recorded with some tape, did it analog, and that had something to do with that thickness as well.”
Traditionally a band noted for taking its time during the recording process (Terrifyer was recorded over the course of two years), the band took a much more different approach on Phantom Limb, recording the entire album in a whirlwind studio stint this past December, and the resulting product reflects that immediacy. “We [usually] do everything at our own pace, over the course of however many months it takes. It’s a very slow and deliberate process. This time we did the complete opposite: we booked a real studio and wrote all the songs, rehearsed all the songs, had everything down, and then we went in the studio and recorded in three days. I think it was good, though, because there was a little bit of pressure. Sometimes that can bring something good out of you.
“One thing that I think that was very key was that we just had a custom drum set built for Brian [Harvey], and we had the guy who designed the drum set come in and tune the drums. He tuned the drums meticulously, and it was just perfect—a perfect sound. We were going into the studio with the intention that if the only thing we did in five days was just work on drums, then that would be fine, and we could just do everything else later. It was just the drums we wanted to improve upon. Luckily they came together and we were able to record the whole thing in the studio.”
Although Pig Destroyer is far from the most melodic band on the planet, Hayes is starting to bring a more textured approach to his vocals, to the point where we can almost, almost hear what the dude is screaming about. “When we recorded Terrifyer, I would do a song, or mix two songs in a weekend, and just have all day to concentrate on those songs, and play around with effects and make all kinds of different tracks,” explains Hayes. “There were certain places where I threw on three completely individual vocals and just piled them all on. That was the attitude we were going for at that point. This time, I recorded them all in one day, and there’s a couple of additional tracks, and a couple of effects here and there, but it’s more stripped down, it’s more one voice.”
Hull’s guitar work has always been so dominant, doubling as the driving force melodically and forming half of what is an absolutely imposing rhythm section with Harvey. Phantom Limb‘s overall tone is so massive that it’s easy to forget that there’s no bass player, but the fact that the band remains stubbornly bass-less still sticks in the craws of some skeptics. “Everybody else seems to think that it’s weird, but anybody who’s into grindcore knows bands like Discordance Axis and Anal Cunt, and Scott used to play in Anal Cunt, so having no bass player wasn’t a foreign concept to him. To him it was the most natural thing in the world, so we just kind of went with it. As we’ve kind of been around for a while and we’ve changed our sound a little bit, we have slower parts and more elaborate songs, sometime you feel like you could use a bass in there. But luckily Scott’s got a good enough guitar tone and his equipment is loud enough to be able to pull it off.”
The first 10 minutes of Phantom Limb are stunning, as the band tears into seven blistering songs. “Rotten Yellow” alternates between straight-up grind and a death ‘n’ roll groove; “Deathtripper” draws heavily from doom metal; “Thought Crime Spree” is an exercise in old-school technical thrash so exhilarating even Dave Mustaine would be impressed; and “Lesser Animal” launches into a contagious mid-tempo chug before coming to an abrupt halt. After that, though, they get down to brass tacks, starting with the monstrous centerpiece track “Loathsome”, which, at over four minutes, is an epic by Pig Destroyer standards, a prog-oriented suite that rivals anything Mastodon has done in the past three years, yet remains firmly rooted in PxDx’s more primal style. After that key turning point, the next 20 minutes feature Pig Destroyer’s most audacious songwriting yet. Grindcore be damned, this is the kind of genre-defying music all metal fans crave: bold, risky, tightly performed, and powerful beyond comprehension.
Not only does the music take a serious turn toward the adventurous starting with “Loathsome”, but Hayes’s lyrics up the ante considerably as well. “Heathen Temple”‘s tirade against organized religion treads familiar metal territory, but Hayes takes a more articulate approach than many of his atheist peers (“God is in the mirror, not hiding in the skies”), and while “Fourth Degree Burns” is an absolutely searing grind song, Hayes’s lovesick lyrics are a startling contradiction (“Tonight her lips are real and kissing like a head on collision”). The new album might seem like a departure from past conceptual pieces like Prowler in the Yard and Terrifyer‘s surround-sound epic “Natasha”, but according to Hayes, the songs on Phantom Limb aren’t that severe a change. “I think all my lyrics have the same themes running through them: decay and loneliness, exclusion, things like that. Those themes are always there.
“I felt on the last record that I worked really hard on all the different aspects, the lyrics and the story, the Natasha song, and putting the artwork together,” he adds. “When I finally got it all together in one package I was like, ‘man, this is a lot of bullshit.’ I told myself that for this record, I would just kind of scale it back a bit and concentrate on the individual lyrics, and make each individual song as strong as I could, as opposed to focusing on the overall concept. I also told myself that if I came up with a story that I really liked, that I would use it.”
That kind of idea for an album concept very nearly happened, as the ultra-violent “The Machete Twins” continues in the tradition of such memorable, highly deranged character sketches as “Jennifer” and “Natasha”, as characters Shannon and Lucy have their way with a series of unsuspecting men, with graphic, even acerbically funny results. “That was my initial idea for a story for the CD,” says Hayes. “I started it a few times, I probably have 20 or 30 pages of scratched-out bullshit where I was just trying to get it started, and it just never seemed to really work. Then Scott put that song together, and it was a longer song, so I was like, ‘I’ve got a little room to play here,’ and I just decided to see if I could pack ten pounds of story in a five-pound song.”
Hayes’s native Virginia is referenced numerous times on the album, from the town of McLean to Arlington National Cemetery (“There is a dam of corpses holding back the Potomac”), but the eerie “Alexandria” deals most specifically with his home state. “With that song, I was trying to capture the mood that was in the air during all the sniper stuff that went down,” he says. “Obviously, I have a peripheral relationship with the crime…it wasn’t really about the crimes, it was like how isolated incidents like that can affect everybody’s day-to-day life, and really cast kind of a dark cloud over a whole city. There are these feelings of terror and suspicion and everybody’s kind of sitting around and waiting for somebody else to die. Everybody’s glued to the television and glued to the radio, and just waiting for the next person to get shot. It was a strange time. I’d never experienced anything like it, and that song was meant to be a snapshot of being out in public and feeling that tension and terror.”
Hayes outdoes himself on the devastating “Girl in the Slayer Jacket”, an unflinching portrait of small-town isolation and adolescent ostracism that hints at his usual violent themes, but this time he displays compassion for his subject, and the resulting power of the song is undeniable:
She had thick skin but if you cut her the wound would bleed forever
She hung herself from an overpass down in McLean where the old trees loom
Her parents tried to sue Slayer
They blamed her boyfriend and PCP
But the truth is her eyes had been dead since she was five
She just hadn’t disposed of her body
“There is a girl in a Slayer jacket that I know, but that’s where it ends, the rest is pure fiction,” Hayes admits. “I wanted to do something that was really the saddest thing I could come up with, and then see if I could tie in Slayer being sued for killing teenagers, ‘cause that always cracks me up when I think about that. I’m probably the most proud of that one on the record, just because I think it’s really, really sad, and I love sad things.”
Despite being an exceptionally talented lyricist, Hayes knows it’s next to impossible to convey the more introspective, poetic aspect of Pig Destroyer’s music in a live setting, but the fact that he adds that extra ingredient to an already impeccably constructed and executed sound just makes this band all the more unique. It’s all part of the Pig Destroyer experience: there’s the initial adrenaline rush we feel upon hearing the music for the first time, but when we get our hands on the actual CD, absorb the highly detailed, simultaneously disturbing and gorgeous artwork (magnificently rendered this time by John Baizley), and read those lyrics, it makes the music resonate even more.
“It’s kind of silly to listen to grindcore just for lyrics,” says Hayes. “When I want to listen to grindcore, it’s because I want that kind of visceral, psychotic rush that the best grindcore will give you. The lyrics, I just see that as my opportunity to increase the power of the music by making the lyrics s powerful as I can, because I think that makes the overall mood and vibe of the album stronger, people can relate to it more. And it means that there’s more to it than just the visceral rush. I try not to take myself too seriously; I just try to put a lot of thought into them. I just don’t want filler—I fuckin’ hate records that have filler on them. So I try to make every song count.”
He adds, humbly, “People have sent me college term papers that they’ve written about my stuff, which I think is funny because I didn’t graduate from college. I guess I must be doing something right if people are connecting to it.”
Hayes has a knack for tapping into the same kind of literate dementia that Burroughs did so ingeniously, but for all the dismembered corpses, murderous femme fatales, post-apocalyptic visions of mass hysteria, and moments of soul-baring despair depicted in his songs, he remains well-grounded. “I think it’s not just the lyric writing, it’s also the act of playing the music, it’s therapeutic,” he says. “Hanging out and drinking with your band is therapeutic. It’s really just about having some kind of release. I think that’s the problem a lot of people have in life, it’s that they don’t have that. They have all these other things in their life that they’re supposed to be fulfilled by, and it just doesn’t do it. You’ve got to have that thing in your life that sparks your imagination, and keeps your passion alive, or it dies, and you become a miserable human being. My band is that thing to me, and I don’t take it for granted, I try to play every show like it’s going to be the last one I play.”
Plus, it certainly doesn’t hurt that he and his band have just put out what is, without a doubt, the finest American metal album of 2007.
Adrien Begrand has been writing for PopMatters since 2002, and has been writing his monthly metal column Blood & Thunder since 2005. His writing has also appeared in Metal Edge, Sick Sounds, Metallian, graphic novelist Joel Orff's Strum and Drang: Great Moments in Rock 'n' Roll, Knoxville Voice, The Kerouac Quarterly, JackMagazine.com, StylusMagazine.com, and StaticMultimedia.com. A contributing writer for Decibel, Terrorizer, and Dominion magazines and senior writer for Hellbound, he resides, blogs, and does the Twitter thing in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada.