The Apotheosis of America As Seen Through Cataracts of Blood
Thoughts on Pig Destroyer's Phantom Limb
America’s greatest export is violence. We produce it around the clock and ship it anywhere, any time, no questions asked. It comes in a variety of colors and styles -- cartoon, graphic, realistic, accidental – and with a variety of purposes -- as a warning, as a corrective, as a threat, as a reward, as entertainment.
It is that last format in which America excels. Violence as entertainment is our mainline business. We put it in movies, games, books, sports and music.
Pig Destroyer makes music that positively writhes with violence.
And Pig Destroyer makes violence into art.
Phantom Limb, the band’s new album, is the most beautiful, terrifying expression of our most common commodity. And it’s genuinely unsettling.
Murder, psychosis, drug abuse, blood and necrophilia are the basic building blocks of heavy metal. Thousands of bands use them, usually with great, if sometimes unoriginal, results. Pig Destroyer use these all-purpose elements to build something so shattering and unique that the music transcends the accepted parameters of metal, or grind, or noise.
Which is not to say that Pig Destroyer is one of those arty bands masquerading as metal, such as Pelican. Scott Hull’s guitar work is hands-down the most brutally metal thing ever heard in this dimension. His ability to write inventive riffs and play them at blistering speed with gutting fury is unparalleled. Working without a bassist to double his parts or fill the bottom end, Hull instead multi-tracks more guitar parts into the nooks and crannies of each song. New band member Blake Harrison further fills in the crawlspaces with electronic noise, making the music a nightmarishly dense construction. Propelled along by the assault-rifle drums of Brian Harvey, Hull’s riffs scythe and slash like methed-up slaughterhouse workers. Played through headphones at maximum volume, Phantom Limb reveals layer upon discrete layer of sound; it’s a seductive experience, one that pulls you relentlessly into a nightmare world that stretches towards an unseen horizon. Played in an open room at maximum volume, Phantom Limb is simply overwhelming – a blistering spectrum of vitriol that smashes through your brain and rewires your central nervous system, synching up your twitching and flailing with Hull’s furious riffs. Phantom Limb is an all-encompassing experience, impossible to ignore when it’s blasting and unforgettable when it’s over.
But as undeniable as Hull’s riffs are, it may be vocalist JR Hayes who elevates Pig Destroyer from “insanely brilliant metal” to “insanely brilliant art.” Hayes’ lyrics are tautly-stretched short stories, brief interludes of violence and nihilism that should be disgusting or laughable but are instead fascinating. He contorts and manipulates his phrases, his voice distorted and cracking, so that they become another layer of sound in the maelstrom. If you listen carefully Hayes is still intelligible, a raw-throated prophet screaming ugly and scabrous truths. Can something as heinous as the lyrics to “Deathtripper” be beautiful? “Your rib cage is open like a Great White’s jaws/your legs look so sexy out of context,” Hayes’ roars, and instead of being titillating or puerile, there’s a resonant shock in his stark imagery. “Loathsome,” another stand-out track, busts open like a split skull when Hayes reveals the ultimate source of his lyrical prowess, and of Pig Destroyer’s magnificent achievement: “This is my escape art exhibition/And I’m never coming back.”
All the violence that suffuses our lives – the nightly news, the war, the murders, the movies, the cruelties we as a species manufacture and consume with great regularity – is often ignored. We’re desensitized and we don’t recognize how dangerous that is. Pig Destroyer takes all of the unspeakable carnage we commodify and throws it back in our faces. You want violence? This is violence. Not as mere entertainment (although as straight-up, headbanging experience, Phantom Limb is quite entertaining), but as a statement of purpose, an indictment of how we live and what we’ll tolerate or rationalize. Phantom Limb is an artistic achievement on the level of Picasso’s Guernica; you can either revel in this horror or recoil from it – but you should never be able to overlook it.
The last track on the album, an untitled sound collage of night time insects, electronic stutters and a scratchy male voice howling the high lonesome sounds of a distant Country Western station, is more haunting than even the preceding 14 tracks. The forlorn silence that eventually overtakes the ghostly cowboy crooner is the Phantom Limb, the one that’s been gone for so long you can barely remember what its weight felt like, and yet it still aches periodically, a distant echo of something that once mattered greatly to you – that nagging void is where your innocence was.