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Mapping The Roiling Shifts In Extreme Grind From Unsane To Pig Destroyer

ACTION MEN: Unsane’s grating early-’90s noise rock hits as abrasively now as then.

By By Andrew Earles | Posted 6/15/2005

Barring their shared Relapse imprint, the current tour of Pig Destroyer with rejuvenated stalwart Unsane doesn’t make sense on paper. Pig Destroyer needs sparse introduction to those even lazily plugged-in to the metal underground, but Unsane could have unreasonably fallen through the cracks for younger fans. Truth is, this old vs. new pairing covers two ends of what conveniently falls under the umbrella, and soon to be useless, term “extreme music.” How about the apples and oranges of aggro?

New York’s audio answer to bloody street accidents and nasty warehouses, Unsane in its nascent years was removed from the metal underground. Unsane’s original contemporaries clutter indie dollar bins, a few fetch real money on eBay or are regarded as groundbreakers, and an even smaller number morphed out of the style altogether. However you view the 1988-’93 aggro noise movement, it was omnipresent to those clued-in, and was a more focused product of both post-hardcore’s fertility and the indie-rock explosion of the era.

Maybe too focused. Supporting locales (usually Texas, Chicago, Minneapolis, and New York) and labels (period-specific tendencies of Touch and Go, Amphetamine-Reptile, and Sub Pop) provided a torrent of testosterone and negativity by way of many innocuous practitioners. To rise above the gutter heap, something special was needed. You could employ the unhinged, confrontational frontman (Cows, Jesus Lizard), you could be drunk and from Australia (Lubricated Goat, Cosmic Psychos), on drugs and from Texas (Ed Hall, Crust), subtly sociopathic and genuinely scary (Hammerhead), or you could get famous (Helmet). Or you could take the volume up a few notches, lock into both a signature direction in visuals and guitar work, and be Unsane.

Named after the edited U.S. version of Dario Argento’s Tenebre, the trio was an astonishing but powerful mess in its early years. Deceased original drummer Charlie Ondras swung loosely but hit so hard that his kit had to be bolstered by cinder blocks. A mismatch in hindsight, Unsane’s self-titled debut with Ondras was released on Matador in 1991. Founder (and only remaining original member) Chris Spencer pulled something out of his Telecaster that was part riff, part industrial scrape, and all antagonism. The latter can be also said for his unique trapped-and-dying-man distorted vocals, which remain wholly unlike the barkings or yelpings associated with the 1990s noise rockers. In addition, Unsane’s members never followed the Gap look of Tar or Helmet, retaining a nondescript presence, but looking as if they might wordlessly beat your ass if provoked. Then there are the trademark album covers. The O-type-saturated scenes were mostly staged with animal blood and are tame compared to the subsequent practices of the gore-grind, but a couple, like the debut (a subway suicide/decapitation), are real.

Remedying the ‘92 setback of Ondras’ overdose death was tattoo artist and former Swans and Foetus pounder Vinnie Signorelli, who helped make the band tighter, clearer, and one of the more hilarious results of a time when major labels hemorrhaged record deals. Unsurprisingly, the band lasted for but one album on Atlantic (1993’s Total Destruction) before switching to the more appropriate AmRep, where it soon became known to those out-of-the-know as the band with that crazy skate video, “Scrape,” from 1995’s Scattered, Smothered, and Covered (its sole album for this label). As Relapse spread its wings and quickly became known as more than a death/grind safe house, it signed Unsane in 1998 for Occupational Hazard. A consummate road band, Unsane toured and toured (a reputed 300 days a year), before promptly taking a much-needed hiatus.

Encouraged by a friend to reform for a party in Austin at the tail end of 2003, the trio then began compiling what would become Lambhouse: The Collection 1991-1998, a CD/DVD package that spans all of the band’s proper full-lengths, until, well, it decided to write and record the brand-new Blood Run (the band-given name for its cover shoots). Though the second track, “Release” is particularly brutal and catchy for the band’s usual fare, the new Unsane is unmistakably the old Unsane, continuing on and schooling newcomers with something that would have failed or sounded awkward with major stylistic changes.

Washington, D.C.’s Pig Destroyer could snugly fit five or six tracks inside an average Unsane statement. Scott Hull, late of Agoraphobic Nosebleed, is arguably the world’s fastest player of the riff, and vocalist/lyricist J.R. Hayes’ emotionally and physically catastrophic examination of the man/woman issue is like a hetero treatment of Dennis Cooper’s violently transgressive fiction, an admitted influence on Hayes. (Cooper is thanked in the liner notes to last year’s Terrifyer.)

The band’s inventiveness has unwillingly incited the tag “art-grind,” and, yeah, sure, it’s grind if brevity and the ridiculous riff hurricane are the only studies, but it’s so much more (and with a less a cumbersome bass player). Similar to how Mastodon gave the death, thrash, and power genres some breathing room and thus turned into an all-around great metal band, Pig Destroyer opened up the possibilities of first-wave grind (early Napalm Death and Carcass) and classic breakneck crossover thrash. Hard to classify from the onset, PD developed loudly since 1997 and then blew the ass off of grindcore preconceptions with 2001’s rightfully universally lauded Prowler in the Yard. At once, throngs of faceless grind, power-violence, and hardcore bands were negated, and Pig Destroyer sat on top with few other names. The extreme-metal follow-up frenzy that put Mastodon, High on Fire, and Isis on the line also tested the Pig Destroyer goods, and like those bands, the D.C. trio delivered big and indulgent. All at once, disc one of Terrifyer is hookier, busier, and better-written than Prowler, with Hayes momentarily singing, if that’s what a Steve Austin-esque death rattle can be considered. Disc two brazenly assumes that Pig Destroyer fans want to sit in the middle of a room and subject their neighbors to “Natasha,” the 25-minute neo-doom epic that’s recorded in 5.1 Surround and can only be played in a DVD deck. Think Japan’s Corrupted meets Jesu, and then you should probably stop thinking and let the track do its business. Whether or not the tour is seen as a cross-generational coupling, it is nonetheless a wide example of pummeling, top-notch urban aggression—where it is going, and where it has been.

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