It’s been eight years. California-based grindcore/death metal outfit Cretin have finally returned with a sophomore album. And Stranger is, well, pretty sick. As in, “this is one sick and awesome album!” And, also, “this album is so sick that it made me ralph.” To be sure, Cretin is something of an acquired taste, but an interesting acquired taste nonetheless. To put it mildly, if you’re unsure if this is an album for you, imagine someone tearing your neck off your shoulders and fornicating with the bloody stump left behind on your torso. That’s a pretty vivid image, to be sure, but it’s basically a very apt one. Cretin is a no-holds barred band. The imagery in their lyrics is grotesque – and owes a bit to Stephen King with a song here titled “It” and another “Ghost of Teeth and Hair” has lyrics that go, “your teeth, hair and fingernails in my brain” and is about a twin whose remnants exist, literally, inside the protagonist’s head. (Which, of course, is shades of The Dark Half.) So gorehounds and fans of the outright gross will absolutely love this record. And, to be true, I have a very ribald side that can appreciate this material – unless, say, the latest release from the Meatmen, which was just (possibly offensively) juvenile, Cretin has an almost transgressive literary fiction bent. I was lucky enough to score the lyrics via a PDF and they’re not printed in typical verse format. Rather, they run as paragraphs, making them more akin to short stories than anything.
So Cretin has that going for them. However, do you like songs about poop? Well, Cretin has one here. “Mister Frye, the Janitor Guy” – I wonder if he’s a distant relative of Bill Nye? – is about a school janitor who winds up stealing turds when the toilets wouldn’t flush. So, yes, eeewwww. Still, the song is more than just an ode to poo. It’s actually about the frustration of toiling in a low-paying, go nowhere job for decades, to the point where you might not want to live anymore. So there’s something more at work here, and, even though it’s rooted in ugliness, the song has some serious themes. Say what you want, but Cretin certainly takes the vulgar and bawdy, and elevates it. And, sure, you could say that there’s a perverse sense of humour at work there, too. That’s pretty much the theme of Stranger: it’s bizarro fiction with a wink so you can’t quite take it seriously – or can you? The album, then, is a rotting, fetid piece of meat that you can’t help but take a bite out of. Song after song, story after story, this is a record about oddballs who can’t seem to fit into society and act out in outlandish and freaky ways. “Honey and Venom”, for instance, sees a woman carry a beehive into a shopping mall, as she’s dripped in honey and flowers – and who knows why she has done what she has? Stranger is, indeed, strange, and about the freaks who just can’t seem to fit in.
But no discussion of this album would be complete without an examination of the breakneck music. To be honest, it’s a bit of a thrash fest. Great guitar soloing aside, which is quite virtuoso, much of the record is just one long song divided into 14 parts. The guitars shred, the pace is machine gun quick, and the vocals are growled to the point of incomprehension. So, pretty standard in many respects. That’s not to say that the record isn’t enjoyable. It’s just not overly inventive, and its real strength lies in the lyric sheet, which, as noted, causes pause. Still, there are moments of goofiness that are quite enjoyable. On opening song “It”, the word “it” is spat out like lead vocalist Marissa Martinez is expectorating a hair ball. And when the group sings the chorus of “We Live In a Cave” it’s a downright “heck, yeah!” moment. Sure, these guys (and gals) are cavemen (and women) and they play down and dirty as though they’re discovering how to make crude cave drawings for the very first time. That’s what ultimately makes Stranger pretty enjoyable, even if it isn’t terribly pioneering. It is what it is, and that’s all it is, and that’s really good enough.
In conclusion, basically how much you enjoy Stranger hinges on how much you enjoy these weird tales, how much of a stomach you have for some acid reflux-esque imagery, how much grind you can take throughout the course of a half hour. Still, there’s something terribly absorbing at work – this LP really is like passing by a car wreck as you go about your daily business, and you cannot help but rubberneck. The disc, then, plays up to the human condition of our morbid curiosities. Even though the lyrics may be crude and guh-ross, there’s something about them, something that’s hard to put a finger on, that makes one feel as though there’s more to this than just regaling in debauchery. Plus, purists may get a kick out of the fact that there doesn’t seem to be anything in the way of computer assistance: this feels pretty damn unadulterated, playing-wise. If you like to get low down and dirty, digging your fingers into humanity’s darkest filth and, sure, poo, Stranger will undoubtedly hit the spot. It’s going to be a record that’s not for everyone, and certainly not the meek. Yet, every now and then, we need to be reminded that the world isn’t a perfect place, that people are indeed strange, and folks sometimes give in to the most base urges: to light fires, to commit suicide, to fill their pockets with human waste. Stranger is definitely one pretty peculiar trip, and those who decide to make it, may be rewarded with something that’s a cut above average. Just be aware that you might not have a head left when you’re finished with this, and God knows what may happen to it.