Eleven people have died so far this year inside the Oklahoma County Detention Center. That building’s threatening facade is framed by a rat’s nest of substation power lines on the cover of God’s Country, the debut album from Oklahoma City noise rock band Chat Pile.
With an annual body count surpassing New York’s Rikers Island, the deadly county jail lodged in the lower gut of the Great Plains is a fitting image to announce the quartet’s ferocious brand of smoked-out sludge and middle-of-nowhere misery.
“It’s right in the center of downtown. You can see it from basically anywhere,” says bassist Stin, who uses a stage name like the rest of his bandmates. “That punitive, authoritarian hand is always right over you at any given time.”
Welcome to God’s Country. Drawing often from real-life episodes of hometown horror, like a 2014 beheading at a local food processing plant (album opener “Slaughterhouse”) and a 1978 mass shooting at an all-you-can-eat steak buffet (“The Mask”), Chat Pile’s punishingly heavy music plays in part like an anti-tourism campaign for a forgotten corner of a country in decline.
“Oklahoma has a very specific style of suffering. I mean, you could maybe lump North Texas in as well — the Southern Plains,” Stin says. “The fact that the weather tries to kill us every season, for one thing. There’s a unique misery that comes with that.”
Drawing this geographical distress into sharp relief, a field recording of Oklahoma City’s weekly tornado siren test wails miserably beneath the final bruising moments of “Why”, the most powerful and pulverizing track in the band’s brief catalog. Described by singer Raygun Busch as “probably the scariest song on the record,” the brutal meditation on homelessness grinds a stubbornly righteous question into oblivion (“Why do people have to live outside?”) before exploding in a primal fit of anger and grief.
“Horror story,” he growls over the commotion as the band crashes together in a sickening, speaker-rattling dirge. “Real American horror story.”
But despite the gruesomeness of Chat Pile — whose name comes from the mountains of toxic mining waste (called “chat”) in the rural northeastern corner of their home state — there’s an approachability to the music that defies expectation. Pushing against the frequently antisocial lyrics unspooling the rambling and repulsive thoughts of serial killers and psychos, a sly playfulness not unlike the camp of ’70s slasher films gives the album a buoyant charm that floats the listener through its 40-minute runtime.
“It’s supposed to be kind of fun, I think. I hate when you look at band pictures, and their whole image down to everything is just so grim and serious,” says Raygun Busch. “It’s like, ‘Yeah, bro. I also live on earth, you dumb motherfucker.'”
Musically, that spirit of fun is baked into the low-end lurch of ass-kicking caveman riffs that slam with a sort of ignorant middle school glee. Driven by the thundering industrial pulse of drummer Cap’n Ron’s e-kit, the dizzying racket draws as much from 1990s sludge metal bands like Eyehategod and the Melvins as from the millennial mall rock of nu-metal outfits like Korn and Slipknot: nasty and menacing, but easily accessible.
“We’re all big rhythm guys — and huge rhythms are fun in general,” says guitarist Luther Manhole. “We’re not doing super ambient, textural music where you really have to put headphones on and fucking dissect it. We want you nodding your head.”
That groove-forward approach to extreme music is tinged with a decidedly cinematic quality, giving the nine tracks on God’s Country a sense of dread and drama. Calling back to records like Nick Cave’s Murder Ballads (1996), which Raygun Busch cites as an influence, a similar focus on storytelling and character is behind the wheel of this unforgiving and unforgettable collection of songs.
That movie-like penchant for narrative shines through in tracks like “Pamela”, a disarmingly vulnerable Side A standout inspired by the grief-stricken horror of Friday the 13th and Toni Morrison’s 1987 novel Beloved. “Wonder if all this pain I carry is strong enough to lift your body from the water and make you be alive again,” Raygun Busch mumbles over a splashy post-punk rhythm. “I think stupid things like this all the time.”
Elsewhere in the grim reaches of God’s Country, we enter the mind prisons of desperate drug users (“Wicked Puppet Dance”), mass shooting victims (“Anytime”), and American psychos (“Tropical Beaches, Inc.”). In Chat Pile’s dark refraction of the misery and mayhem of life in the United States, there’s always a grimacing human face staring back at you.
This eye-to-eye quality of the band’s distinct brand of misery is likely a big part of what has struck a chord with a devoted legion of listeners across the country. On the heels of two beloved EPs that caught fire online in the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, the new full-length will no doubt earn the Oklahoma City bruisers an even more cultish following.
“People have been asking, ‘When’s the album coming out?’ for a few years now,” says Luther Manhole. “We didn’t really know what level of hype there would be or anything, but we definitely felt like some people were looking forward to this thing, so we better make a good one.”
Now that it’s here — and indeed, quite good — God’s Country might signal the arrival of a new lynchpin in the world of heavy music. That’s no small feat for a band that began with little thought of reaching audiences outside their Oklahoma City practice space.
“We started this band just as a way to goof off, really not expecting anything out of it,” Stin says. “In fact, I thought I was gonna mess around with this for a little while and maybe do a couple of recordings, then quit music forever.”
But with an eager audience hungry for the first major statement from a band that began as a low-stakes pastime among friends, Raygun Busch says he saw a chance to say something substantive about the “real American horror story” of life in the middle of the country.
“I was thinking, ‘Well, this is maybe the only time people will really be listening en masse. So I might as well not say nothing, you know?”