Monday, September 26, 2011

Words From the Exit Wound

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 Violence
While 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”


Ryan Page said...

Weirdly, I think that's one of the songs that got printed wrong in the booklet... No clue on what it actually was at this point, but the "girls are pretty colorful" is actually something different... It may not have been much different, but every time I read it I have this sensation that there is something wrong or missing (listening to just the vocal tracks, I've semi-confirmed that impression, but again, I have no idea what I was actually saying). The same thing is true for "The Square Root of 964".

As a side note, those lyrics were written when i was 17, and we were probably in a similar place about lyrics then.

Thank you for mentioning me. Although, predictably, I'm rather ashamed of my lyrics' poor quality.

Andrew Childers said...

that's interesting. cuz i was thinking the "girls are pretty colorful" line was the key to understanding everything else that was going on. it seemed like a haunting central image that the narrator was either fleeing or pursuing. it as the goal being denied when the "rusty iron gate shuts"

Andrew Childers said...

then again, that could be another case of "andrew overthinking it." that has been know to happen a time or two.

Perpetual Strife said...

I'm happy you talked about Prowler.. as it's not only one of the greatest metal albums ever recorded, but one of the few ones I look to lyrically. What you said about J.R. is spot on.

I will say that with metal a lot of the times it's not the lyrics we care about it's the delivery, emotion, and sound. I find many metal vocalist enjoyable when I listen to their voices like an instrument rather than a form of poetry. This manly brings to mind a band like Swarrrm.

I'm at odds about Ebert, especially since he bashed Raising Arizona and praised episodes 1&3 of Star Wars. He cites the dialogue of Raising Arizona being out of place, missing its humor and quirkiness.

Ryan Page said...

Andrew it could simply be a missing coma. I am incredibly anal about that kind of thing, and yet incredibly sloppy. I wish I knew what the fuck I was talking about then, but I'm 90% sure I was fucking insane during the period I recorded that album...

I think I was also way more into Steve Austin's lyrics back then, so I think that could explain it as well.

DRJones said...

i have always viewed lyrics as bad poetry. i loved the urgency of the music and the matching tone from the vocalist, but learned to block out the actual words somewhere between 'out of step' and 'join the army.'

death metal appealed precisely because the vocalist was ostensibly another instrument augmenting the bass. it's only failing was using randolph carter's diary for their lyrical themes.

my day was made - and in essence, my life changed - in '89 when i heard the mentally murdered ep. it was the fasted punk/crossover ever but with death metal vocals. pure perfection. and those really fast polka beats sat well with me...

Alex Layzell said...

I tend to be apathetic to lyrics, although on occasion I do indulge in reading them if lyrics are provided, in fact sometimes I like to attempt to decipher the lyrics if I am feeling especially challenging.

Andrew Childers said...

strife: i still haven't forgiven roger for hating blue velvet either. but dammit his enthusiasm is just so damn infectious. he clearly loves film to an inordinate degree.

fishooks: i also like that the vocals are an instrument. i can read a book with headphones on without being distracted by the lyrics. however, i wish i didn't do a pained sigh every time i read the lyrics. maybe the death of physical media will save me. no more lyric sheets to pore over.

Bill Willingham IV, Esquire said...

I guess I have become somewhat apathetic to lyrics, having been bashed over the head with so many shitty examples.

Bad lyrics can be pretty awesome (old Slayer) despite/because of their shittiness, but only work when screamed over thrash, obviously.

I'm a fan of the examples you brought up, but would add Rich Hoak. He's probably my favorite grind lyricist. He touches on a lot of the tropes of the genre, but does it in such a batshit, upbeat way that I dig it. Even when he's telling you the world sucks, he seems to be laughing about it and suggesting you should be a good person, anyway.

I'm probably a pessimist by nature, which means I am often annoyingly positive about things a lot of the time, probably to counter that natural inclination. A lot of metal/grind lyrics are just too fucking whiny for me (which is why it's awesome that Jacob Bannon just sounds like a dog barking through a distortion pedal). I just want to shake them and yell, "Chin up, man!" sometimes. I have to tell myself that, really, this is just venting, burning off the excess. Bands that seem to be intent on wallowing in it are a real turnoff (sad forest black-metal, for example).

That's probably more of a hangup for me than for a lot of metalheads. Now I just want to listen to the guy from Doomriders tell me that I have the heart of a lion while I work out, haha.

DesiccatedVeins said...

I definitely agree with a lot of these, especially Jon Chang and most especially J.R. All of PitY has fantastic lyrics, and "Hyperviolet" hits it out of the park. "Evacuating Heaven" is so great and concise, too: "Certain things fascinate me.
First I went blind and then the sun went out.
The way you hold a match so steady.
How heaven is collapsing under so much joy."

I'm also a fan of Iron Lung's lyrics, especially on Sexless // No Sex. I like that they have a strange personal weight to them, and the thematic elements of the fragility of flesh and the politics of modern medicine that runs through the record is a welcome turn.

DesiccatedVeins said...

You also can't not love "Jennifer"; I used to be able to do the whole thing perfectly, and I'd call my girlfriend up and without saying anything, just start reciting it to her. As much as she loves that record, she wasn't really a fan of that.

Perpetual Strife said...

PiTY was probably one of my first ventures into really extreme stuff and I remember reading the booklet and really getting something out of it. It's a special album,and those words in the booklet are just a continuation of the music.

Andrew Childers said...

prowler is the first album that ever flat out disturbed me. like put it in the back of the cabinet and not listen to it for two weeks disturbed. but i could not resist it's creepy allure.

Andrew Childers said...

also, nigel's gf hereby wins the G&P lifetime achievement award for tolerating your bf's crazy musical interests.

Ryan Page said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
DRJones said...

so is it masochism (i know they suck but i'm gonna read the inlay card anyway)?
optimism (some band has to get it right eventually)?
or is it your gambling addiction? you know the house always wins (lyrics suck) but you *feel* due for a winning streak?

Pascal Cretain said...

Thanks Andrew for an excellent conversation starter.

I am a sucker for words, but do have a peculiar connection to lyrics. I usually am not interested in reading the entire lyric sheet and if I feel compatible with the words, I get all I need from either the title alone, or maybe just a tiny part of the lyrics. Oscar Wilde described this attitude nicely: "To know the vintage and quality of a wine, one need not drink the whole cask".

As such, when I heard about a grindcore band named Discordance Axis and their album Inalienable Dreamless, I was sold there and then. I did go ahead and read the entire lyric sheet, but it did not add anything to the experience, as I was already floating in a bizarre, constructed world. Naturally, none of that would have happened if their music did not shred.

I'd also like to mention a couple of European bands that have had similar impact of me; most of these are more hardcore than grind, but here goes:

+ Underule was a short-lived band from the UK that had a single LP out named "misfortune comes by means of the mouth". Lyric sheet was not provided; some titles included "self-destructive leadership" and "never a true word spoken". This album puts me in a very bizarre place. Strongly recommend it, sounds to me like a cross between Stampin' Ground and Morbid Angel.

+ Medulla Nocte was another great band from the UK with a charismatic frontman, Paul Catten, who's now playing in Lazarus Blackstar if I am not mistaken. Paul was going through a lot when he was in Medulla Nocte - think Dwid Integrity - and this really showed in his lyrics and his overall vocal delivery (and of course the live shows). One his songs, "Bleed this illness", reads "my paranoia turns my stomach inside out, you know I'm lethal when I'm left on my own. My self-demise is a proof there's a wrong to mankind. Afflicted, conflicted my emotions self-inflicted. I have no instinct, no answer to this thing. I lie here bleeding. I can't take any more."

+ Sweden's Refused had some excellent lyrics too. These are the starting lines from a track called "The Slayer": "Turn Off, Hail to the deafening. End Life For ego reasoning. Consumer of selfishness, feel it bleed. Death traditions feeds the suffering. Acquire by-products, breed the industry. Modern death camps, feel their suffering"

+ Late(r) Napalm Death lyrics did the trick for me as well: "The wrong time, the wrong place Our smiling face of distrust Buried the seed deep in all our heads Prepared ourselves for the fall."

Andrew Childers said...

fishooks: i guess i'm just an optimist. i'm a romantic like that.

pascal: oh noes! you quoted "greed killing" that's a sure way to conjure jon chang to tell us why diatribes sucks and napalm lost their way post-FETO. (you know i kid, jon)

Ryan Page said...

Conjure is a nice image. Does it work if I rub my hypothetical vinyl copy of "Fear Emptiness Dispair" or does miss honey simply bust through a nightclub looking for the Australian who killed her partner?

Take a second and decode that.

Andrew Childers said...

it's like beetlejuice. if you say "harmony corruption" three times in a row it allows him to cross over into our realm.

Anonymous said...

Great post.

I think Assück's "Misery Index" has the qualities you mention in the intro.
Honorable mention to Nuclear Death for most disturbing lyrics.

Keep up the good work.

206 said...

no way - forward or back
in stalemate we stagnate
life cycle is in automation
instinctively - we race to get ahead
~unfit earth

you know the adage: a fool speaks because he feels the need to say something. barney always had something to say. and in that stretch from harmony to utopia he was the perfect juxtaposition of poignant and succinct. in my mind he is the one by which all other grindcore authors are judged.

my judgment: modern grindcore lyrics are puerile.

Andrew Childers said...

you're tugging at my heart strings there. "unfit earth" is probably my fave harmony corruption song.

also, welcome back.

206 said...

those are from 'the world keeps turning.' not sure how i managed to mangle that but i accept full responsibility. apologies to all involved. cheers.

Andrew Childers said...

doh. you're right. haha. oops. still love unfit earth though.