The online music marketplace Bandcamp.com changed the way I discovered new music by offering hassle-free full-album streams of artists of every skill level and geographic origin. The offerings are arranged in a loose network and can be navigated using tags, artist recommendations and searches. Feeling freed from the echo chambers of media, advertisement and social network, I took great delight in delving into this weird pseudo-anonymous trove and finding artists that I enjoyed in an untainted, objective sense. I will spend some time reviewing a number of exemplary Bandcamp releases that I never would have heard or heard about via traditional music-discovery methods.
One thing I have picked up on in my metalhead years is that I’m not much of a traditionalist. Confessions: I’ve only listened to Slayer once or twice. I barely know what Anthrax sounds like. I don’t listen to Judas Priest, Iron Maiden or any of that melodramatic NWOBHM stuff. I only listen to Black Sabbath in passing. I think Dream Theater is corny. Pantera is too dry for me and I don’t find their music “heavy”. I tried listening to Chuck Schuldiner’s Death and didn’t really care for it. In fact I barely know what qualifies as death metal. I try to avoid bands with disgusting morbid/anatomical names. I haven’t listened to Mayhem or Burzum because of the band histories. Most of the time when the house plays metal songs between sets at shows I don’t recognize any of the songs. The same goes for the music at Kuma’s Too[i]. I often smiled and nodded blankly when my drum instructor would discourse (often at length) about apparently essential heavy metal bands and drummers and their rhythmic characteristics.
Do I even like metal? Sometimes I see those longhaired guys with vests and all the patches and feel a weird, sad gulf between us. I feel like I am building a house with no foundation, and when the heavy metal inspector comes calling, he’ll condemn my fanhood and board up my windows. I realize that I should be yelling, “I listen to what I want and I don’t care what anybody thinks!” But at the same time, what’s the point of hovering around this damn weirdo subculture if I don’t have the fundamental knowledge necessary to communicate with my compatriots?
Indeed, I tend to warm almost exclusively to the outliers. These are the artists of shifting, iridescent stripe, the ones that are a struggle to describe to heavy music enthusiasts, let alone your average indie rock or pop music fan. Give me your Dillinger Escape Plans, your Strapping Young Lads, your Discordance Axes, your His Hero is Gones, your Ephel Duaths, your Car Bombs, your Deafheavens, your Kekals, your Krallices, your Intronauts, your Meshuggahs, your maudlin of the Wells and your Oranssi Pazuzus.
Yet, despite all this, once in a while something traditional will tickle my spine. Like a really, really good slice of chocolate cake or bowl of vanilla ice cream, some alchemy, some subtle pattern within the usual recipe will grab me by the throat and hiss “Yesss” in my ear. One such artist, discovered randomly on Bandcamp, is Genital Grinder[ii] and their fabulous half of Split Vinyl from Apathia Records.
I am convinced that this what death metal should sound like. From the getgo, the guitar tone is supreme – spiky and full, yet not excessively trebly, muscular, yet not boomy or bloated. The vocals are quintessential growls, so round and deep and full that they are almost romantic. The drums and bass are situated in good balance, supporting and accentuating the structures of the songs. It all comes together beautifully in opener “Sin to Death”, an ugly beast of a song that is well-balanced – heavy and agile, big and brooding. Behold the essential allure of traditional form. Nothing revolutionary or weird happens, but everything is executed with care, and the result is patently enjoyable to listen to. There’s even an awesome guitar solo.
“Obese” is a similarly enjoyable romp, with a catchy main riff. With its refrain of “They called me obeeeese”, delivered in an anguished satanic growl, makes me suspect that the song is either secretly hilarious, or honest and sad. I can’t discern enough of the lyrics to tell for sure.
“Consensual Torture” might be the weakest song of the bunch in terms of songwriting, but the drummer gets to show off some really fast single strokes in an enjoyable short bridge.
“Green Piss” is a wonderful closer. Here Genital Grinder have constructed a song that manages to be both stately and imposing, but also rollicking and bouncy – Imagine a great smoke-belching behemoth running headlong down a steep hill[iii]. You’ll be sad when it’s over.
After the too-short EP has ended, it’s appropriate to realize that what GG have done here isn’t to blaze new ground, but to take the essential ingredients of death metal and arrange and execute them with such love and enthusiasm that they become fresh and memorable.
My cultural instinct is always to look forward, to seek the avant-garde and neglect the old forms, to count imaginative boldness as accomplishment, even if the final product has notable flaws. But perhaps I have let this philosophy run too far. There is so much to be said for craft and dedication – innovation as an outgrowth of mastery, rather than a rebellious Dada-esque smashing of the old gods.
The lesson that Genital Grinder have to teach is that even within the subjective, often incorporeal world of art, the old forms, the essentials, matter. They should not be discarded and abandoned simply to chase the new, shiny and novel thing. So yes, I’m telling you to listen to Split Vinyl,[iv] but I am also giving advice to myself. That is to seek out and listen to those classic recordings you always thought of as dowdy and mundane – Reign in Blood, Black Sabbath, Vulgar Display of Power, Painkiller – and discover and embrace their subtleties. We have much to learn from the classics, and a house built on sand will not stand.
[i] Kuma’s Corner is a heavy metal-themed burger restaurant in Chicago. The demand to eat there became so overwhelming that the owners opened Kuma’s Too, located ironically in the epicenter of yuppiedom at 666 W. Diversey Pkwy.
[ii] Yes, Genital Grinder. Possessing such a name usually means that a band is either disturbingly depraved and frightening, or deadpan-evil-goofy. Genital Grinder seem to fall into the latter category.
[iii] Like that scene in Howl’s Moving Castle.
[iv] There is another half to Split Vinyl, by Como Muertos. I listened to it briefly and it just didn’t hold a candle to Genital Grinder’s half. However you don’t have to take my word for it, it’s all streaming for free on Bandcamp.