Sunday, July 20, 2014

Devil’s Horns: Exploring Grindcore’s Ongoing Fascination With the Saxophone

“And through this revolting graveyard of the universe the muffled, maddening beating of drums, and thin, monotonous whine of blasphemous flutes from inconceivable, unlighted chambers beyond Time; the detestable pounding and piping whereunto dance slowly, awkwardly, and absurdly the gigantic, tenebrous ultimate gods—the blind, voiceless, mindless gargoyles whose soul is Nyarlathotep.”— H.P. Lovecraft, “Nyarlathotep”
It’s time we talk about grindcore’s dirty secret.
For 30 years—literally from the very first moment—grind musicians have been cheating on you with the must un-metal of instruments: the saxophone. (Yes, I know, literally, that's it made out of metal. You know what I mean, smart ass!)
Saxophone is that instrument your parents tried to foist on you when they misunderstood what exactly you meant when you told them you wanted to join a band. It’s probably not the instrument you picture yourself shredding on a stage in front of throngs of panty-throwing fans.

However, it’s probably got more of a grindcore pedigree than you’d credit it at first blush. Its reedy wail has been adding an extra frisson to the wonted arsenal of slashing guitars and thumping drums for decades. If nothing else, dabbling in odd instrumentation will probably get you street cred as a serious musician who’s not afraid to test barriers. Also expect lazy reviewers to drop the term “jazzy” a lot when describing your song.
“Any band with a saxophone that doesn't play ska will eventually be described as jazz,” Dead Neanderthals saxophonist Otto said. “I'm really not into traditional jazz but love free jazz. Maybe we're a little jazz in that sense.”
Saxophone grind is still a bit of a novelty, and I’m certainly not advocating making it a full time thing, but maybe it’s time we recognize it’s not as incongruous as it sounds at first blush.
Grim Tidings

Saxophone was there when grind was still mewling and covered in afterbirth. Grindcore progenitors Siege famously whetted the reed for the carcinogenic seven minute beatnik freakout  “Grim Reaper.” Vocalist Kevin Mahoney showed off his band camp chops as he wailed over the plodding tidings of death and despair that close out the Deranged Records version of Drop Dead. Siege was a band that smashed through the confines of hardcore to lay the foundation for a new breed of musical extremity. They were not a band to be confined to punk’s limited arsenal of instruments. Sax has literally been a part of grind’s DNA from day one.
“I absolutely LOVE Siege and Naked City,” Dead Neanderthals drummer René said. “I grew up listening to both bands. Nowadays, I listen a lot more to Siege than to Naked City. I guess I'm more of a sucker for raw and intense shit! That being said: I'm sure both bands influenced me in some way.”

Sax in the City

Though it sounds odd now, there was a time when grind’s extremity earned it a bizarre bit of cache from the wider musical world. John Peel famously championed England’s first blasters. Additionally, serious musical thinkers started appropriating grind’s skuzzy street energy for their own high art concepts. Enter mad sax man John Zorn who bent grindcore’s energy to his own perverted jazz ends with Naked City. Screeching alto sax mingles with blast beats and quick time changes as Zorn’s omnivorous ADHD music psyche cycles through every genre and musical permutation that can hold his interest for a bar or two.

Chicks Dig It

Looking to spruce up “Feminism Uber Alles” for the Dead Language, Foreign Bodies split, Robocop guitarist Ryan Page hornswaggled saxophonist Joshua Marshall into updating the song with his free jazz keen.
“Generally, Ryan will present me with a bare-bones recording of the most basic/foundational material of a given tune and will ask me to improvise over it,” Marshall said. “We'll do several takes with notes/suggestions from Ryan added over time. I try not to worry to much about 'performance' during these sessions, instead taking Ryan's material in as a source of inspiration, and doing my best to provide him with as much material as possible for him to play around with in the editing phase.”
The result was a radical reinterpretation of a song Robocop had already taken a couple of passes at themselves. It showed off something familiar in a wholly new light. Page said Marshall’s playing brought a new chaotic element to the song.
“Josh has a very aggressive sound when he wants to; there is a cohesion to his playing and a sense that the sounds are moving in a logical direction, but there can be large breaks in dynamics and timbre that cause a particular kind of discomfort that I've attempted to utilize when we've worked together,” Page said. “We're almost always on the same page when an idea is working or isn't, so typically we go through this process of recording a few takes, discussing possible alterations and recording again. This is pretty typical of how I work, especially with friends. I think he and I both had an idea of how we wanted it to sound, so when he heard the final recording of ‘Feminism’ he said something along the lines of, ‘I'm glad you were able to pull that out of there’ which is characteristically humble, but also implies that he knew the sound we needed to create."
For Marshall, his contribution also allowed him to step outside of his familiar prog and jazz background to experiment with something new.
“I think I've always struggled with the idea of finding my voice as a horn player in prog/rock/metal groups,” he said. “Most of what I play would probably be classified as electroacoustic improvisation, freejazz, and/or noise. I feel that there are a lot of nodes of resonance between what I've heard coming out of the grind scene and experiments with timbre and overblowing that you hear from horn players in freejazz and free improvisation. Ryan's approach to grind in particular, which incorporates his love for experimental electronic music, seems to make for fertile ground for a collaboration of this sort.”

If I Had a Hammer

When Page flipped through his rolodex looking for collaborators on the second Body Hammer album, II: The Mechanism of Night, it wasn’t much of a shock to see names like his former Robocop sidekick Luke Abbott. Rekindling his fruitful collaboration  with Marshall wasn’t much of a shock either. The saxophonist contributed mutated lines to a trio of songs, including opening set piece “The Iron Bough.” Marshall said he adapted his free jazz techniques to match the needs of something a tad more extreme.
“As far as approach goes, I don't think it’s that much different than playing saxophone in a free improvisation context, Marshall said. “In either case, my desire is to be able to articulate to myself the particular properties of whatever I'm hearing, and develop some way of contributing to it that employs the full range of sounding possibilities on the saxophone. Overblowing, multiphonics and false fingers are techniques idiomatic to the horn which I think tend to work well with the textures Ryan creates, but I never want to allow those to become cliches. My hope is that I can always challenge myself to interpret a given set of stimuli poetically, paying heed to considerations like timbre and form without mimicking them.”
Body Hammer has drifted even further away from the pure grind aesthetic on The Mechanism of Night and Marshall’s sax playing sets the perfect tone of Page’s ambient nightmarescapes. The sax gets mutated and warped like every other piece of created or found sound that constitutes the soundtrack for that psychological horror film you’ve been meaning to make.

Sweet Dreams

Brutal Truth was not shy about adding unconventional instruments to the mix (didgeridoo-core!) and drummer Rich Hoak carried that same fearlessness over to his other project Total Fucking Destruction. The jazzy, spazzy grindfreak railroad decided to garland “Last Night I Dreamt We Destroyed the World” with an apocalyptic saxophone scream that crushed musical boundaries like Israelites bringing down the walls of Jericho.

Brain Damage

Hearing a particularly clever bon mot at a party, Oscar Wilde was heard to observe, “I wish I had said that.” Painter James Abbott McNeill Whistler (perhaps you’re familiar with his mother) quickly observed, “You will, Oscar, you will.” In that spirit, I offer you a truism: What Brutal Truth did in the ’90s, Cephalic Carnage would inevitably redo in the 2000s. So the Mile High City’s mile-highest trotted out the smooth jazz saxophone to bedazzle the final section of “Global Overhaul Device” for Xenosapien. I’m pretty sure weed was involved in the decision making. I bet you never wondered what adding Kenny G to a swampy death-grind song would sound like. Now you know. I never promised all of these would be good ideas.

A Pox Upon You

With all the hip young things busting out the sax solos, you knew it was only a matter of time before old dogs Napalm Death decided to bust out some new tricks. So it was that with album number 14 Napalm Death, the band whose very name is synonymous with grindcore itself, dropped the sax on “Everyday Pox.” But when you’re Napalm Death your name has the cache to rope in somebody like Zorn who is no stranger to the woodwind/blastbeat confluence (see above). We could debate whether it was a good idea, but for now let’s just be impressed that 20 years into their career, the current incarnation of Napalm Death even bothered to try it at all.

Primitive Weapons

And then there’s Dead Neanderthals.
Where most grind bands will selectively drop in the sax to prove their arty bonafides, the dynamic Dutch duo places the sax front and center, eschewing the wonted guitars, bass and vocals altogether. They make the keening saxophone lines the driving force of their crazy jazz –grind amalgam. But the self-described “New Wave of Dutch Heavy Jazz” duo didn’t set out to reinvent grindcore per se.
“We had drums and sax and what we ended up with was something close to grindcore,” Otto said. “We had no clue we'd end up with what we did. Although that it was hard, loud, and fast was always kind of an implicit assumption.”
Without a guitarist, bassist or vocalist, Otto’s reedy wail has to do more than its fair share of heavy lifting to keep the music moving forward.
“It's not so much 'replacement' as you just do different things with a sax than a guitar,” Otto said. “But one sax is indeed a lot less sound than a regular band. So we make sure our overall energy (and volume) is at ceiling levels.”
No matter how much arty grind bands have tried to mix saxophone into their farty, nobody has gone to the same lengths as Dead Neanderthals in pursuit of bizarre sonic extremity. Grind likes to pretend it’s some sort of transgressive music, but the truth is that after 30 years, it’s highly formalized. Dead Neanderthals prove that, under the right circumstances, it still can be bizarre and abrasive and assaulting.
“I think saxophone is really good at setting a specific mood: whether it's screaming madness or cheesy romance. It's not up to me to say how it's used best, but I guess I like it the most when it's shrieking intensely,” René said.


Alex Layzell said...

As ever a killer article Andy, glad to have you back. You ever checked out Hoak's primal sax, drums and grunting project:

Anonymous said...

Agreed. This type of article is the reason I enjoy this blog so much. --Steve

Anonymous said...

generally speaking there is very little difference, in terms of the raw intensity, between grind and free jazz. i got into free jazz b/c it wasn't that much of a stretch from scum-era napalm, and as you probably know, mick harris played drums in Painkiller with zorn and bill laswell. stuff like painkiller, last exit, paul flaherty, peter brotzmann blur the boundaries between jazz and noisy/experimental rock based shit.