A new segment! every now and then I shall heroically leap to the defense of an artist, style, instrument or whatever which routinely comes under fire from the public, (whether deservedly or undeservedly), in an effort to promote a bit of thought and open-mindedness. Yeah I’m supposed to be reviewing an album right now but that can wait. To kick us off, I’m starting with a genre. Grindcore.
Few musical styles draw reactions of horror and revulsion more than poor old grindcore. A furious amalgam of hardcore punk and elements of extreme metal. Unlike death metal and gangsta rap which come under fire for their “amoral” lyrical content, grindcore is savaged purely for its musical merit (or perceived lack thereof). So much so that it’s often met with protests of “it’s not even music”, “it’s just noise” “what kind of sick person could enjoy this?” etc etc. Even death metal is usually acknowledged by haters as being technically meritorious due to its speed, complexity and abundance of guitar solos (among many other things). Not so grindcore. This is music stripped to the bone and taken to its illogical extreme.
Whether or not it is music is not debatable. It is expressed and conceived by humans. An art of sound across time. It possesses consistent rhythm, melody and harmony (however dissonant or buried those elements may be). To say it is not music is completely incorrect. It may be music you cannot stand, but it is indisputably music by definition.
Ok now we’ve got that out of the way, it’s not a style one can appreciate without being a little familiar with the evolution which led to it… It’s like trying to understand calculus without first grasping basic arithmetic. Get your head around a bit of thrash metal and hardcore punk then triple the speed… now you’re getting somewhere.
Coming under particular attack is the approach of the “vocalist” who generally employs a combination of grunts and shrieks. Don’t try and find melody or understand the lyrics, this is unconventional singing. Think of the vocals simply as a percussive instrument which helps you keep time with the blinding tempos. Each roar a drum strike and each scream a cymbal hit. You’ll appreciate it a lot more if you try this approach.
If you have access to a lyric sheet you’ll see that GC bands are deceptively humanist in their messages. Animal welfare, human rights, gender, racial and sexual equality are popular themes. So misunderstood is the genre that several bands have had their lyrics and artwork misinterpreted completely. Carcass’ butcher album cover collages and brutal lyrics describing human evisceration were simply a protest at animal cruelty and merely served as a vehicle to convey the band’s veganism. Ditto Cattle Decapitation etc.
Though the music is generally devoid of melody in a traditional sense (there aren’t even guitar solos) the guitar riffs is where you find the melodic content… though it may take some effort depending on the clarity of the production. There is less a focus on emotional weight and more a focus on pure energy.
The musical heroes of GC are surely the drummers. Ever in search of phenomenal speed, it would be easy to take a defeatist attitude of “humans can only go so fast” but playing techniques are constantly evolving. When Morbid Angel first hit the scene in the late ’80s I thought goddamn… it can’t get any heavier and faster than this… and now look! One example is the “gravity blast”. A snare drum technique whereby the drummer rocks the stick off the rim, hitting the skin as the stick is raised as well as on the downstroke. This effectively doubles the speed at which the snare can be struck.
As well as playing at breakneck speed, most GC bands have worked slower sections and groove based riffs into their 30 second “songs” which provide a respite from the pure insanity… not for long though, self indulgence begone!
It will never be for everyone, it’s not passive or background music that can be enjoyed at dinner parties. It’s an enveloping, divisive experience analogous to a hallucinogenic experience: hell for some, heaven for others.
As with all genres, some is great and some is terrible but when it’s all said and done this is music without pretense.
As a genre, grindcore is not only pushing the boundaries of musical technique, it’s pure cathartic energy with a deceptively humane message. Open your ears and let it wash over you.
This is Singaporean band Wormrot’s album ‘Dirge’ from a couple of years back… give it a shot.