Wednesday, July 18, 2012

A Leaden Stride to Nowhere: A (Not So) Brief History of Ending on a Slow Song

Grindcore is hit and run music. Its strength comes from an unrelenting campaign of musical shock and awe, dispensing with songwriting conventions like verses, choruses and all that other assorted folderol to boil tunes down to their atavistic core. And then it pummels you with a dozen songs in a row, often with no pause between to catch your breath. It's that synergistic adrenaline rush that gives the style its power.
So why do so many bands muck it all up by ending albums with drawn out slow songs? What is this inexplicable compulsion to tack on an unnecessary slow song at the end? It doesn't have to be this way. Discordance Axis made "A Leaden Stride to Nowhere" the penultimate song on masterpiece The Inalienable Dreamless, stabbing you in the earholes with the brutalizing "Drowned" as you limp off spent and bloody. Nasum probably wrote the single greatest slow song ever penned by a grind band with the poignant "The Final Sleep" on Helvete, but they recognized the power of what they had in the tune and stuck it in the middle rather than relegating it to the end.
I've mentioned bands throwing unexpected bits of musical failure at the end of albums before, but this ending on a doom song thing is so pervasive to have become a cliche. How did we get to this place, you ask? Here's a quick jog down memory lane.

Don't Fear the Reaper

Probably the first instance of the phenomenon can be traced to arguably the first ever grind album, Siege's 1984 demo Drop Dead. The length and contents have Drop Dead have shifted and grown over the years as bonus tracks have been added and deleted, but one constant remains: it always ends on the seven minute sax-laden freakout that is "Grim Reaper." The band took the training wheels of fast hardcore and set it on the path of the one true grind, but they also inadvertently established the ending on a doom song cliche as well.

Cursed to Crawl

As with any good grindcore cliche, of course Napalm Death has to factor into the script. Though they set into stone what Siege had pressed into clay, Napalm Death took their time to leave their mark on this one. In fact, the Side A Scum lineup went to the opposite extreme, closing out their half of the album with the two second bliss of "You Suffer." No, it wasn't until 1988's From Enslavement to Obliteration that Napalm Death caught the slow song bug, capping off the album with three minutes of fake Swans plod in the form of "The Curse," which served to bookend the album with slow motion starter "Evolved as One."

Another dozen albums and a whole new lineup later, Napalm Death are still pulling this trick out on occasion. In fact, for The Code is Red...Long Live the Code in 2005 Napalm Death pulled the double whammy, closing out with a pair of slow songs (and again shamelessly stealing from Swans) in the shape of "Morale" and "Our Pain is Their Power."

Semper Grind Fidelis

The stylistic tick didn't take long to embed itself in the second wave of grindcore royalty either. Brutal Truth have never had a problem mixing and matching styles and tempos, but they never really fell under the spell of the last song doom phenomenon until 2009's comeback album Evolution Through Revolution and its end piece, the decidedly non-grinding "Grind Fidelity."

Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid

While I keep saying Phobia's 1998 album Means of Existence is my favorite album of their extensive catalog, the longer I keep writing about it, the more I keep picking up on irritating little quirks. Like the seven minutes of stumbling doom slumber that are album finisher "Ruined." Obviously, I need to stop thinking critically about this record before I ruin it for myself. However, this does help put drummer John Haddad's later jump to doomsters Eyes of Fire into perspective.

In fact, Phobia pulled the exact same stunt three years later on follow up full length Serenity Through Pain. This time they kept last song "Sovereign" to a more concise four minutes of ambient drone and spoken word mumbling.

Go, Go Gadget

If there's a formula to Gadget albums, it would be this: slam listeners in the face with a crazy intense song off the bat and then chill it all out at the end with a slow song. It's a remarkably potent formula that's apparently served them very well because they've done it twice now. Starting with 2004's Remote, Gadget said fare thee well with the rolling bit of ambient unease that was "Tema: Skit."

They clearly thought the formula worked because they did it again at the end of 2006's The Funeral March. Once again the plodding dirge of " Tingens Föbannelse" calmed everyone out on their way out the door. Unfortunately, this one's not available on YouTube and SoundCloud won't let me upload it. So you'll just have to take my word for it on this one.

Mess With Texas

Kill the Client have a well deserved reputation as unrelenting grind maniacs, but they've also succumbed to the seductive allure of getting all down in the dumps at the end of an album. For 2005's Escalation of Hostility, the Texas chainsaw massacre crew departed from their frothing mouthed style to slow everything down like a sizzling, lethargic Texas panhandle summer on "Negative One." Interestingly, they've not gone back to that move since their first full length. The subsequent two long players have been all grind all the time instead and are probably the better for it.

Rotten to the Core

Rotten Sound are fond of shoving the longest song on the album to the end, but they usually kept it grinding. They never went for the full slow song closer until 2008's Cycles. Five albums in, that's when the Finns decided to mix the formula up a tad and get their doom and gloom on with the four minute plod that is "Trust." This is not what Rotten Sound are known for or what they really do best, but if they keep it to one album out of every five, I'll let it slide.

You Suffer...But Why?

I'm going to say it. It needs to be said. If you're in a grind band, your strength is probably in writing great grind songs. Doom is not your thing because otherwise you'd be in a doom band. Case in point, Suffering Mind's "Ostateczny Pogrzeb," which puts paid to At War With Mankind. Now Suffering Mind are an excellent grind band and you won't catch me disparaging their way with a blastbeat, but "Ostateczny Pogrzeb" finds one slow motion riff, rides it to death and then takes it out back and pokes with a stick for a couple extra minutes just to be sure. In a shorter, tighter incarnation, I wouldn't have a problem with it. However, I think as is it ultimately deflates the end of At War With Mankind a tad.

Blasphemy Made Flesh

Baltimore's Triac actually pulled off one the better slow song finales on short album Blue Room. The band's signature brew of blasting grind and scrungy power violence came to a nicely fermented hardcore head on last song "My First Blasphemy." Unlike a lot of other grind bands, Triac actually have a way with a slow song that doesn't completely negate the preceding album experience. Ending on a slow song may be a tired cliche, but I wouldn't be as irritated by it if more songs were this good.

Bloody Hell

The slow final song shows no signs of fading into grindcore history, either. Bloody Phoenix got into the act in 2010. The title track of album Death to Everyone, which opened with a rip on Neurosis, closed out with three minutes of slow rolling drums and jabbering about god being dead. Band mainstay Jerry Flores has been kicking around grindcore for 20 years, but as far as I know, this is the first time he's resorted to this particular genre trope.

The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil

So after all that bitching, I don't want to leave you with the impression that I'm opposed to ending on a slow song entirely. In fact, quite the opposite. Done well, a good slow song at the end lets an album's ideas simmer in the brain, slowly seeping through your cortex to embed themselves in the stuff of your nightmares. Tusk very effectively pulled off that move at the end of 2004 masterwork The Tree of No Return with not one but two slow doom songs at the end. It works largely because the band's cross breeding of Pig Destroyer and Neurosis give them the musical palette to explore wider vistas and the EP's central narrative -- a man gets lost in the wilderness, goes crazy from hunger and thirst and is subsequently eaten by bears -- demands a musical arc that bends from initial grindcore panic to doom metal delirium. So Tusk left us with the twin desolation that was "Starvation Dementia" and "Ursus Arctos -- Walk the Valley." This is how you do ending on a slow song properly.


Luke Oram said...

I agree with the central premise that a bad slow song can weaken an album, however I wonder if you have considered that bands primarily play live- not in a studio- and that the demands of keeping things interesting and also not exhausting themselves 10 minutes into a set do call for the odd slow number?

Andrew Childers said...

a good point. but i don't think i've ever heard a grind band break out a slow song live. but could be. i just don't get why it's always last on the album.

DesiccatedVeins said...

The trope is ending on a slow song, not having them in your repertoire. Nobody begrudges a grind band a well-deserved slow moment or two, but too often the songs themselves are sloppy and, placed at the end of a record, dull the overall effect that the rest of the album was building toward.

DesiccatedVeins said...

I should also express my flat-out love of "Grim Reaper." I know this isn't the popular opinion, but it might be my favorite track on Drop Dead.

Perpetual Strife said...

it does seem like a logical and oft repeated trope for a faster band to end things on a slower note. I love it though, the differences between speeds is my jam (once I found sludge bands with blast beats I was in pure ecstasy).

Surprised you didn't bring up "Terrifyer." I hate that album, but that opening riff for the title track is great.

Ryan Page said...

What's your take on starting with a slow song, ie robocop?

Andrew Childers said...

veins: i love "grim reaper" too. though i know shane hates it. we've had this argument before.

ryan: i don't think starting with a slow song is enough of a cliche to really stand out as such. though i appreciate the first two napalm death albums both start with slow songs given that they're considered the epitome of blasting. it's an ominous calm before the storm vibe if done right.

like i said (and veins really encapsulated well) i don't have an a priori objection to ending with slow songs, i just think it's really funny that bands do it over and over and over...

Ryan Page said...

Yeah, its definitely pretty much like "oh, here's another one". Its becoming like the skit on a rap album.

gamefaced said...

skit on a rap album - perfect comparison.

PJ said...

I think most people that honestly enjoy Grind music appreciate the trendkill attitude that accompanies it’s assault. The ugly bastard child that is anti-establishment in both it’s sound and it’s subject matter that causes most people to shy away from it. So naturally, when a blueprint is eventually etched and a pattern begins to form, it can be annoying to see the trend within the trendkill, I get it. Yet most every fan of the genre will tell you that the albums are meant to be listened to as a whole, and with the playtime of most albums being within the 10 to 20 minute range, by the time you’ve got your momentum going and all cylinders firing at breakneck speed why hit the parking brake and have to just start all over half-way through (Brutal Truth’s ‘Get a Therapist’ off of Evolution Through Revolution kills that album’s stride for example). I love that feeling of exerting everything I’ve got trying to hold open a closing fist throughout an album and to have that sigh of relief at the end, that space to breathe and reflect. I honestly think a more annoying trend is the slow-ooooo scary-riff at the beginning of an album that we all know is going to launch into something fast and hopefully insane. But I guess some people enjoy the build up as much as I enjoy the ease down.

And why do so many people seem to dislike ‘Terrifyer’ so much? That album lays waste.

Alex Layzell said...

Totally agree that Nasum's final sleep is the best slow grind song, Pig Destroyers Natasha being a close second. Personally I generally prefer my grind to be short vehement bursts of rage or have some amount of activity, but that being said I am all in for grind bands experimenting with slow songs, especially if there is a dense atmospheric edge to it.

Vegas said...

@Ryan and Andrew:

I don't mind records starting with slow songs, but man oh man the doom intro is tired. I'm talking about first track on an album, just a giant, open, sustained chord.

Andrew Childers said...

wzad it is a tad trite too but not to the same extend as ending on a really slow song. i'm actually trying to write something now about bands that kick off albums hard and fast and really just nail you out the gate. gadget is always good about that.