The Quirky Circumstances Surrounding Southeast Asian Grindcore
When Wormrot was signed to Earache Records in 2010, they surprised the hell out of most people in the extreme metal world. How many have actually heard of Southeast Asian grindcore before then? What unique conditions helped to spawn this small regional scene?
To Be Political
There is a difference between lyrics that are “politically aware” and those that are “politically inclined”. Unless they want to risk getting into legal trouble like British writer Alan Shadrake, rational Southeast Asian grindcore bands will never want to fall under the former category because of the negative impact it could have on the non-musical aspects of their lives. Their region’s suffocating political climate causes most of them to end up in the latter category, in which their ‘political’ lyrics, if any at all, are generally passionate, verbal bashing of the existing government and its practices.
This difference can be clearly seen when comparing lyrical excerpts between select Napalm Death and Noxa songs.
In the Napalm Death song, “Per Capita” (from their 2002 album, Order of the Leech), vocalist Mark “Barney” Greenway wrote these lines:
All placated and humoured
Self-interest in the pure sense is pushing for the privilege
Not to be undervalued or singled out as surplus dead weight
Per Capita, they've got your number
Turning the rest against your so-called reprehensible deviance
Setting new precedents for crass behaviour
And so persists the untouchable elite
Greenway notes how the Western capitalist system benefits the rich and powerful by making them even richer and powerful, and not the middle class and poor. This criticism is well known in the realm of academia and is perhaps the most famous flaw of the economical side of Western democracy. Now, this would be considered an informed observation.
In the Noxa song, “Keharuran Moral” (from their 2006 album, Grind Viruses), vocalist Tonny Christian Pangemanan wrote these lines (which have been translated from Bahasa Indonesia):
Corruption and collusion, destroy self-esteem
Public manipulation, blinding eyes of the heart
Do not have a sense of shame, to live as you please
Corruption and collusion, blinding eyes of the heart
Now it becomes the culture, life
There are no real steps, fight disease
Everything is lulled by the sweet promise of the giver
Worse off and cannot stand
Pangemanan laments how nothing substantial is being done to resolve the rampant corruption plaguing Indonesia’s government and its law enforcement agencies. Notice how his jab at the corrupt government is very expressive, but lacking the informative quality seen in Greenway’s lyrics.
Subjectively, listeners who actually care about grindcore lyrics will better connect with Pangemanan than Greenway. Objectively however, their rationale demands that they understand Greenway’s criticism as being more substantial than Pangemanan’s.
Moving with the Times
When Earache founder and CEO Digby Pearson signed Wormrot more than two years ago, he noted “UK in 1988 was a very different time and place as compared to Singapore in 2010.”
“It would have been dishonest to expect Wormrot to be singing about the exact same things, because it was a totally different era then,” Pearson explained. “Apartheid was still the law in South Africa, and vegetarianism was a niche concern. It really was so last century.”
He continued: “I signed Wormrot mainly because drummer Fit is a world-class talent, and also because of how the band didn't just pay homage to the ‘80s grindcore scene, but gave it their own twist as well.”
“I absolutely loved the idea of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs cover on their debut album. It marked the band down as being unafraid to defy conventions, and that’s pretty much what I like in acts I choose to work with – iconoclasm.”
As mentioned earlier, a defining trait of traditional grindcore music is the political nature of its lyrics. But those who read Wormrot’s lyrics will realize that the band does not sing about politics at all. In fact, frontman Arif Rot finds it utterly banal to do so.
“We don't really bother much about the world's politics, as personally, I always find it pointless to blabber about it on every album,” said Rot. “Wormrot’s lyrics are always about social issues, the ups and downs of touring life and my military experience. It’s somewhat like a diary-ish album in which you can look back in time and have a laugh or get pissed off all over again, because it relates so much to your life than an album about the world's issues.”
Wormrot - "Principle of Puppet Warfare"
“We have no intentions of giving hidden messages about saving the Earth -- we all know it’s already fucked on so many levels. There are still bands keeping that tradition, which I have no problems with. But honestly, I just want to hear the blast beats.”
Apart from personal experiences, Southeast Asian grindcore bands also sing about gore, violence and sex. These sub-genre names are not unfamiliar to those in the know -- namely, goregrind and pornogrind -- and they are as prevalent in this region’s grindcore community as they are in the West.
Thai Goregrinders Smallpox Aroma
It is intriguing to see how the region’s rich political history completely does not influence some Southeast Asian grindcore bands to write political lyrics. After all, most Southeast Asian countries were British colonies during the pre-WWII era. Additionally, there are also never-ending territorial disputes between Southeast Asian countries pertaining to land such as the Spratly Islands, yet these disputes are not cared about enough to be mentioned in song lyrics.
“We don’t sing about political issues because we fall under the category of grindcore’s sub-genre, goregrind. Yes, there may be goregrind bands that also sing about political issues in their songs, but we prefer to sing about gore alone, because we are mostly influenced by goregrind bands with purely gory lyrical themes,” said Ip, vocalist and drummer of Thailand’s Smallpox Aroma. “More than that, we don’t really focus on lyrics; just gurgling, shouting, shrieking, burping and making whatever other inhuman sound there is in our songs.”
Smallpox Aroma - "The Abnormal Conversion of Fibrinogen by the Unimmunization of the Enzyme Thrombin"
Thailand was the only Southeast Asian country that was not colonized by any European power during the pre-WW2 and WW2 era. Couple this with the fact that the Thai king holds great influence over the Thai people, and it could be argued that Thailand seems to be a historically politically stable Southeast Asian country. But in the last decade, there has been much political disturbance in the form of conflicts between the Thai military and the civilians; especially the much talked about exile of former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. On top of that, there are social issues too, as Thailand has a violent underworld that is inhabited by both corrupt policemen and drug lords.
Yet despite the proximity and prominence of such issues, Ip chooses to sing solely about gore in the manner of old Carcass. To him, it certainly seems to be a case of personal preference over stubbornly adhering to tradition. He admits that Southeast Asian grindcore bands “did inherit sociopolitical lyrics from their Western seniors” initially, but at the end of the day, it does not necessarily mean that their ankles have to be chained to the boulder of creative influence. He observed: “There are a lot of Western bands that write lyrics about gore, violence, and sex as well.”
Perhaps the general political apathy found in Southeast Asian grindcore lyrics really is simply the result of DWTHOP (Doing Whatever The Hell One Pleases).