A New Generation Is Discovering Underground Metal, And Misery Index Loves The Company
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It’s Memorial Day weekend, and suddenly the sun is out and the sky is sagging with humidity, an early taste of the three-month mugging Baltimore is about to receive. The parking lot outside of Sonar, hosting the Maryland Deathfest this weekend, looks like a church youth group social gone horribly awry. Metal kids are sprawled everywhere, smoking caged cigarettes, laughing with their friends, and soaking up rays. No one looks over the age of 21. Everyone’s T-shirt is black and quite a bit of the hair is, too, neither of which look comfortable in near-90-degree weather.
Misery Index guitarist Sparky Voyles observes this impromptu picnic with a grin while perched on a wooden parking bumper a few yards away. Hammerjacks is pumping out hip-hop in the distance, and it’s mixing with the traffic noise from the overpass and the rumble inside Sonar to create a subliminal din far more disorienting than any metal record. If these kids don’t know Voyles by face, they probably know Misery Index’s skin-flaying mix of death metal and grindcore. And at least one knows his Exodus T-shirt, bellowing “bathed in blooood” as she walks by.
“Me and Jason, our bass player, we’re kids of the ’80s,” the thirtysomething Voyles says. “With the rise of Korn and the nü-metal movement, it brought a lot of kids into the scene who maybe weren’t familiar with what we call ‘true metal.’ Now it’s like a whole new generation of kids, man. When Jason and I were in Dying Fetus and did our last record on Relapse, a 16-year-old kid was 10 years old.”
Voyles is tired this afternoon, but he’s already started in on the interview before there’s even been a chance to switch on the tape recorder. On Thursday the band was onstage in Pittsburgh and the night before the interview Misery Index played the Deathfest pre-party at the Ottobar. And Voyles is only going to get busier, because Misery Index has just released a brand-new album, Discordia—which means another tour.
“And the minute I get inside [Deathfest], it’s like old-home week,” he jokes. He’s got a shoulder-length mane and a beard that’s currently locked in an epic struggle between its original brown and invading gray. And like a lot of aging metalheads, Voyles is a loquacious, thoughtful guy.
“I think the scene now is probably bigger and stronger now than at any time in its history,” he says. “Just from our own touring experience from the last few years, you see a lot more people at the shows—and a lot more girls, too.”
Formed in 2001 after Voyles and vocalist/bassist Jason Netherton left the gloriously offensive Dying Fetus, Misery Index has plugged away for five years on endless get-in-the-van tours, releasing a handful of EPs and one LP, 2003’s Retaliate (Nuclear Blast). Its sophomore effort, Discordia, appears on Relapse, arguably the biggest underground metal label in the world. “I think from the outside there’s a lot of people who will sit around and criticize your scene credibility,” Voyles says. “‘Oh, they’re not underground anymore, they signed to Relapse.’ But the last time I checked, Relapse didn’t have any bands in their roster that had a gold record. We’re not making any more money off of it. I fuckin’ can’t even pay my rent.”
And far from being more commercial, Discordia is Misery Index’s nastiest hunk of phlegmatic metallic mucous yet. It doesn’t represent an evolution from Retaliate so much as an intensification. On opener “Unmarked Graves” and the breakneck “Conquistadores,” new drummer Adam Jarvis sounds like a human helicopter, his rotors chopping away furiously. (The double-bass drum blast beats on “Conquistadores” will make your legs ache just listening to them.) Mostly shorn of solos—though dig the squealing frets that open “Sensory Deprivation”—the guitars riff like gargling gargoyles. But unlike too much extreme metal—which can be so hot and heavy to go faster and louder than everyone else that it comes out a formless mass of noise—Misery Index remembers that dynamics keep things interesting, adding breakdowns from hardcore and even laying off the gas pedal for the grinding, midtempo title track.
The lyrics, written mostly by Netherton, are political without being cause-oriented. (The horrors of war always make for great metal lyrics.) “In the early days of Fetus, the lyrics were more traditionally goregrind,” Voyles says. “You know, ‘I’m gonna rip off your head and shit down your neck.’ But even by the last Fetus record [we played on], the lyrics had already started getting more political.” Misery Index’s lyrics are the verbal equivalent of Discordia’s cover, where bloody skulls sit on pikes as a bombed-out, post-apocalyptic horizon looms behind them. “I think just being on the East Coast, the speed of things, the density of living . . . it adds something different [to the music],” Voyles says when asked if life in rough and tumble Charm City had impacted Misery Index’s sunny disposition at all.
“I’ve lived in Maryland since 1980,” Voyles says. “My dad was a musician for years and years. He passed away a couple years ago, but he was always playing guitar in bands. So having a guy in the house that was always playing music was a very big influence. [But] I didn’t actually pick up a guitar until I was like 16 or 17.” What made him finally pick it up? “Started listening to metal. In high school, I’d be sitting there tapping on my desk and writing lyrics to songs.” Voyles played in a series of hardcore, grindcore, and death metal bands throughout the late ’80s and early ’90s, before a stint as a roadie with Dying Fetus in 1996 led to him joining the band.
“The first time I got a taste of being out there for a month and being away from normal existence, that really set the hook,” he says. “Tour was always some dream. You look at the back of a T-shirt and there are all these dates on it. Like, wow, people actually do that. Then you actually go all the way across the U.S. and into Canada and you see all this stuff and you’re like, Whoa, you can actually do this.”
The current Misery Index lineup has been in place since February of 2005, when St. Louis-based guitarist Mark Kloeppal and drummer Jarvis were recruited to replace the outgoing Bruce Greig and Matt Bryers. The band has just returned from one tour and leaves for another June 11. For Voyles, the metal lifer, there’s no other way.
“I don’t really understand bands that want to complain and cry that they don’t get anywhere and their labels don’t want to support them when they’re sitting at home,” he says. “And I think so many times a live performance can really sway people if they’re so-so on a recording. We always try to get up on stage and jump around and be jackasses and have a good time. I figure [playing music is] the only thing I know how to do on the planet, so I may as well kind of go with it. I see a lot of guys who are really great musicians trying to deny who they are. There’s no reason to fight it.”