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Pig Destroyer - Head Cage Music Album Reviews

The Mid-Atlantic’s grindcore standard bearers have never done it better than they do on their sixth studio album, the strangest, strongest, and most accessible record in the band’s 20-year history.

APig Destroyer album in the Age of Trump, huh? It feels too easy—a standing invitation to catharsis, complete with a return envelope and postage already paid. The Mid-Atlantic’s grindcore standard bearers have rarely been overtly political, but they’ve often been relentless with their social critiques. A mental health regimen meant to curb eccentricity, a power structure where shutting up advances résumés, a religious system where ideas are presented as directives: Especially during the last decade, Pig Destroyer have attached J.R. Hayes’ subtly poetic and explicitly scathing notions to music so meticulous and belligerent that it could drive you to enlist with whatever side he’s on. Now seems like the time for Hayes to rage, to make his coded frustrations loud and clear.

But Pig Destroyer are not the kind of band to fulfill expectations. During their 20-year career, they have morphed in stepwise, deliberate fashion from grindcore exemplars into subgenre subversives, interrupting tantrums with plunges into doom and coarsening their sound with sheets of noise. They’ve never done it better than they do on Head Cage, the band’s strangest, strongest, and most accessible album ever. The landscape it paints is of a planet more terrifying than a mere president or the politics he represents could ever be. Pig Destroyer sidestep political diatribes to build a world of sheer terror, where broken hearts sink into abjection and satisfaction is a quasi-religious myth. There is a scene of Lovecraft-like horror and another of apocalyptic gloom, all animated by music as uneasy as the tribulations these dozen songs portray.

Head Cage is a vivid compendium of modern crises, where the likes of Trump are symptoms of causes too complicated for a single impeachment to eradicate. Hayes lambasts social ills one at a time, an outsider criticizing the inner workings of systems he abhors. During “Army of Cops,” he rages that we enjoy the complacent glow of contentment too much to overrun the heavy hand of the state. On “Terminal Itch,” he notes that we’ll try anything to stay young and beautiful for now, even if it means an uglier death later. And in “Mt. Skull,” he laments how we exploit the places we love until we’ve choked them into wastelands. Hayes shifts briefly into fantasy for “The Adventures of Jason and J.R.,” where a run-in with deep-state operatives and “Dick Cheney in his Halliburton jet pack” ruins a trip to the hardcore show. Even ordinary nights get crazy now.

Pig Destroyer answer these odd times by ripping apart their grindcore fabric for good, twisting the threads into surprising chimeras. In the distant past, they could fit 38 tracks into less than 40 minutes. While they’ve slowed that pace, in general, they reverted to their more straightforward hustle as recently as 2012’s Book Burner. But these dozen songs are an unabashed detour. “Army of Cops” and “Circle River” are meant for shouting out loud, anthems waiting to be echoed back to the band by heaving, sweat-soaked clubs. Navigating a hangman riff, “The Torture Fields” moves from an invocation of lumbering doom to a sermon of circle-pit madness. Grand finale “House of Snakes” suggests Neurosis writing after epinephrine injections. This is as close to crossover approachability as Pig Destroyer have ever gotten.

As with 2007’s Phantom Limb, Pig Destroyer’s breakthrough with a wider audience and their earliest clean split with genre orthodoxy, the success of Head Cage stems in part from a new addition. A dozen years ago, it was Blake Harrison, whose squeal of squelch and samples added a terrifying depth to Pig Destroyer’s charge. This time, it’s John Jarvis, the band’s first-ever bassist and the cousin of drummer Adam Jarvis. He strengthens the sound, a back brace offering support for the occasional dead-ahead rumble like “Terminal Itch” and the thrash of “Mt. Skull.” And he supplies textural breadth for the high-treble attack, battling against Harrison’s ghastly noise during “Concrete Beast.”

More important, though, is his role as a musical pivot point, allowing the band to change directions in an instant and his cousin to stretch and compress time itself. The bass holds the center of “Dark Train,” for instance, while Adam occasionally leaps over the meter, only to splash back down in a blast beat, creating the continuous sensation of whiplash. It’s like watching Usain Bolt skip through the middle of a 100-meter dash before easily sprinting to the win. And in “The Adventures of Jason and J.R.,” Pig Destroyer slide steadily from a mid-tempo march to a breakneck onslaught around the time Dick Cheney arrives, the band translating the anxious spirit of the story into sound. A quintet now, Pig Destroyer are not only louder and bigger but also more dynamic and versatile, capable of bolder ideas and executions.

One of the year’s best and most urgent metal records, Head Cage is a fitting counterpart to another essential bit of 2018 heaviness, Thou’s Magus. Like Hayes, Thou’s Bryan Funck confronted our confounding times and walked away with complicated questions about what we’ve demanded from ourselves, our leaders, and our world. Both records place blame on responsible parties but also ask that we all try harder—or that we, as Hayes puts it, fight against our urge to be “kept down.” His and Funck’s respective bands respond in kind by using subgenre strictures as starting points, not finish lines. Like Magus, Head Cage attempts to wrestle ageless ideas from the specific stresses of our age without deigning to call them by name.

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