Is there a place for GWAR in the musical landscape of 2017?
Despite the tragic death of lead vocalist Dave Brockie, a.k.a. Oderus Urungus, GWAR soldiers on. Brockie was largely responsible for the artistic and musical direction of the group and had the clearest idea of what he wanted GWAR to be. Note that he is the one in GWAR's classic interview with Joan Rivers who does most of the talking. With the band behind Brockie, the members would tend to come and go based on availability and interest, followed his vision. The question then becomes: What does that vision look like now that he's gone?
The Blood of Gods
Release Date: 20 Oct 2017
"I'm a Viking god / Do you understand? / If you want to fuck me / Let me see a show of hands!"
There's a little less "creepy alien" and a little more "creepy uncle" in the modern version of GWAR. Sure, it's hard to play offended now when you're talking about a band that's been around for over 30 years and has a propensity for dismembering facsimiles of celebrities on stage and using a giant inflatable penis to spray various bodily fluids on its audience. But that's just the thing: While the merits of such overtly horrific and decidedly masculine shenanigans as satire can certainly be debated, there is little arguing against the idea that satire is largely the point of GWAR. The musicianship and the songs have always been secondary, a necessary evil for this sort of act, even as they occasionally managed to rise above "rote".
The Blood of Gods is the name of GWAR's new album, and its second track -- the apt-as-hell "Viking Death Machine" -- contains the line quoted above in its bridge. It's otherwise a pretty solid track in a musical sense, as thrashy and propulsive as you could hope for from the band, very much in the vein of previous album Battle Maximus. The lyric up there is one meant for a live setting, and the GWAR live show is a constant onslaught of violence and sex and death. Still, it panders a bit. There's an apparent desire on the part of new ringleader Michael Bishop -- once known within the band as Beefcake the Mighty, but now simply Blothar -- to live up to the shock and awe that Brockie could inspire as Oderus Urungus.
There are moments where Bishop's approach works. "Crushed By the Cross" is a thrashy ode to the evils of Christianity, and its straightforward trajectory, chanted vocals, and hymn-setting bridge are perfect GWAR fodder. Similarly, the characterization of humanity in "Swarm" as a vast plague of useless mouthbreathers is classic GWAR subject matter. "El Presidente", the likely vehicle to serve as a backdrop to an on-stage dismemberment of a Trump dummy, is a decent song with Mike Patton-style vocal overtones whose title is a cute twist of the knife (as it were).
That said, "I'll Be Your Monster" and its full-on tribute to '80s hair metal is just a little precious for its own good, GWAR for mass-consumption, complete with an appropriately ridiculous video that serves as an unintentional(?) tribute to Stockholm Syndrome. None of it works, it's a plea for the notoriety and near-ubiquity that "Sick of You" brought when it showed up on Beavis and Butthead and little more. "Fuck This Place", despite a slightly better musical backdrop is similar, all chants and no substance. The less said about the closing cover of AC/DC's "If You Want Blood (You Got It)" the better; it's a wasted opportunity at best, low-grade karaoke at worst.
Maybe the best thing on the entire album is the straight-faced tribute to Brockie, a power ballad of sorts called "Phantom Limb". It's a metaphor, you see. It's also as affecting as anything GWAR has ever written.
Still, that a straightfaced bit of sorrow comes off better than anything else on The Blood of Gods makes it a little too easy to ask: What's the point? GWAR, as it exists now, is going to go and they're going to do their circus act, and they're going to lap up the attention of a few hundred diehards a night who still live for getting some facsimile of blood and ejaculate and whatever else sprayed on them. Why put out a new album? Is it a statement of purpose from a band fighting to maintain relevance after the death of their leader? Is it a way of making sure their fans can chant along with them at the show? There's little here that's new, other than the aforementioned diminished sense of satire. This is not even to go into the complexity of modern cultural context making the sexualized violence of GWAR feel more than a little tasteless.
The best that can be said for The Blood of Gods is that it's likely energetic enough to convince GWAR's fans that the band will be around a while longer. Maybe that has to be enough.