Andrew at 17 (perhaps facetiously): Pffft. Lyrics are sooooooo overrated.
Andrew at 33 (perhaps despairingly): Sweet Christ, these lyrics are just sooooooo awful.
The cookie monster vocal was the greatest thing to happen to metal, hardcore and grind because (let’s all be honest) most metal lyrics are absolutely terrible. They're full of pathetic posturing and insincere braggadocio. It’s often better not to know what they’re screaming at you. Metal and grind have become a tired mish-mash of completely interchangeable pablum, recycling a miserly handful of topics – religion, politics, horror flicks, gore, hatred – that have been denuded of any meaning by 25 years of repetition. Those topics, enjoyable in their own right if done well, can be frustrating because there’s no emotional honesty involved. Listeners are held at emotional arm’s length by safe and conventional abstract topics. There’s no vulnerability and no risk involved. It bothers me because I find the older I get, the less tolerant I am of shitty, moronic lyrics. So that must mean lyricists are getting worse because clearly I’m exactly the same person that I was at 17, right? I’m left craving someone who has something fresh and honest to say.
And I know exactly what you’re going to say next: But, Andrew, you’ll say, it’s only mindless entertainment. Stop being such a picky, arty farty douchenozzle.
That’s the same defense I hear on film blogs when somebody points out Michael Bay is not fit to direct a kindergarten Christmas play. But entertaining doesn’t have to mean vapid. If you’ll indulge me as I turn to my muse, Roger Ebert, one more time, I was reminded of something he said in a tribute to Pulp Fiction.
“Watching many movies, I realize that all of the dialogue is entirely devoted to explaining or furthering the plot, and no joy is taken in the style of language and idiom for its own sake,” he said. “There is not a single line in Pearl Harbor you would want to quote with anything but derision. Most conversations in most movies are deadly boring—which is why directors with no gift for dialogue depend so heavily on action and special effects.”
Too many times grindcore lyrics are the equivalent of Pearl Harbor’s dialog. The blastbeats and riffs become the equivalent of Michael Bay’s explosions and jump cuts, pretty distractions from the central hollowness. There’s no reason grindcore lyricists can’t aspire to something better, more lasting, more insightful. I’m longing for musicians who can connect lyrically on an emotional level, lyricists who have something interesting to say about the human condition. I don’t want grind bands to start pretending they are Sartre or something, but I would like to hear more lyrics that at least have some depth and insight.
Too much of grind is outwardly focused: it’s really good at telling you what’s wrong with you and everyone else. It’s never been so good at self examination or vulnerability. So when you find lyricists who are willing to tackle the spectrum of human emotions – and in less than 90 seconds! – it’s worth taking a moment to praise them.
Domestic Power ViolenceWhile I manage to enjoy recent Agoraphobic Nosebleed offerings for what they are, it does bother me that they seem to have bought into their own lyrical shtick. Instead of honestly capturing the dinginess and despair of contemporary existence, they’re too busy trying to shock and provoke for no other reason than to get a reaction (I call this “Seth Putnam Syndrome;” look for it in DSM-5). It’s doubly disappointing because I know how clinically incisive ANb’s various component parts can be. Take one of my personal favorites, “Blind Hatred Finds a Tit” from early touchstone Frozen Corpse Stuffed With Dope. It’s a horrifyingly causal and – most disturbingly – accurate vacation in the skull of an abuser. While J. Randall’s lyrics eventually become more “J. Randally” with digressions into toddler abortions and the like, the opening two lines are the most chilling snapshot of an unthinkingly brutal psyche:
“You let me hit you, so I won’t touch the children/ So how hard do I have to fuckin’ beat you to have a crack at the kids?”
Roses are Red, Hyperviolets are Blue
Prowler in the Yard is not only one of the two greatest breakup letters ever set to music (Jane Doe being the other, natch), but Pig Destroyer open it with what might be best first line in grind history: “Semen tastes like gunmetal, she said smiling.” (Wait, what?) I can’t tell you the hours I’ve spend pondering the first line of “Cheerleader Corpses,” but it’s later in the album, “Hyperviolet,” where you get a sense of why J.R. Hayes may have taken the split so hard. The song is a loving (relatively speaking, this is Pig Destroyer after all) ode to a special lady friend. Though the accustomed menace lurks in the lyrics, Hayes also manages to conjure up a striking tenderness:
“Traced in wet sand her name in perfect cursive/ a love letter to the crescent moon/ by tomorrow it will be gone, I told her/ there is no tomorrow, she said/ I can feel her in a bikini of coiled snakes dancing to the hiss of the wind/ postcards from a paradise in flames/ she used to be so right/ so right about everything.”
Nutless WonderAs with J.R. Hayes, Discordance Axis’ Jon Chang was able to convert interpersonal failures into penetrating, incisive art. Though it’s shrouded in layers of metaphor and striking visuals, Chang’s “Castration Rite” was a purgative self-flagellation that set the tone for the remainder of The Inalienable Dreamless. It manages to blend self-mutilation with nods to both William Faulkner and the Bible in way that stands as both honest and individual. Maybe we shouldn’t let Chang handle sharp objects for a while:
“An axis in motion distributing ran/ Into the poverty of my ego/ Distortion screaming streaming sending/ Eurhythmic continuity skips no double taps/ Split open my chest and cut out my lungs/ Sew me back up just the same/ A stigmata a mutilation/ Your blood dies with me I can’t help but laugh/ I can’t help/Help but laugh/As I take/ Knife in hand/ And castrate my fucking self/ Would god I could die for thee/ O Absalom my son”
From the outset, Richard Johnson has grounded Drugs of Faith in concrete realities. That’s never so apparent as on “Never Fail,” leadoff tune from the band’s eponymous debut EP. In yet another tale about a failed relationship (I’m starting to question grinder’s social skills), Johnson performs an impressive bit of lyrical legerdemain by positing it from the perspective of the guilt wracked rejecter rather than, as is more typical, the miserable rejectee. It’s not you, it’s me, but it hurts just the same:
“I remain under the covers forever reliving the curse of that elusive outcome which inside I cherish so much/ I’m the one with whom you haven’t a chance/ I have to respect my feelings/ And at the end of the night I return to my bed alone/ At the end of the night I’ll return to my bed alone.”
That’s Not a Knife; This is a Knife
Taking the Silent Hill games as a controlling metaphor, Body Hammer’s Ryan Page penned an impressive ode to isolation and despair on Jigoku’s midpoint song “Greatknife.” A deft blend of arresting imagery wrapped in oblique metaphors, Page manages to mimic the deceptive mix of brevity and simplicity that undergirds the haiku tradition (complete with a leftfield lyrical twist at the end). In just a few words he so evocatively conjures emotions out of listeners:
“Running through the darkness/ girls are pretty colorful/ one room leads to more of the same/ if I traced my footsteps you could/ follow my eyes/ a rusty iron gate shuts”