Blake Harrison chuckles like a wise uncle when he remembers his favorite neologism for Pig Destroyer, the boundary-exploding grindcore powerhouse he joined 14 years ago: falsegrind.
“Oh, I love that one,” says Harrison, his raspy laugh conveying just how many times he’s heard that jeer. “If we’re talking to some grindcore purist, they’re always going to tell us, ‘Pig Destroyer sold out a long time ago.’ But we don’t really care about any of that.”
This apathy for outside expectations has been a Pig Destroyer hallmark since their start in 1997. By that point, guitarist Scott Hull had been leading Agoraphobic Nosebleed for several years. Blissfully ridiculous and chaotic, Agoraphobic Nosebleed joined a boomlet of drum-machine-centered grindcore bands; projects that programmed their beats rather than asking a human to maintain such an insane pace. They were on the eve of their Relapse Records debut, the hilariously belligerent Honky Reduction, when Hull regrouped with actual people. He tapped screamer J.R. Hayes and drummer Brian Harvey for a new project that would get back to grind’s dense rock ‘n’ roll core—Pig Destroyer, because Cop Destroyer just felt too predictable.
Even during the earliest days, when the sans-bass trio’s records felt like a meticulous sequence of controlled explosions, you could sense deeper development was underway. Hull’s guitars flirted with thrash and classic rock, doom and math-rock. And Hayes roared beautifully rendered scenes of despair, his vivid language suggesting a budding Bukowski of the American metal underground.
Soon after their 2004 breakthrough, Terrifyer, Pig Destroyer drafted Harrison, a longtime fan and friend, to add horror-show samples and dissonant puncture wounds. They later switched drummers and eventually added the ballast of bass, moves that allowed them to expand their palette without adulterating the rage. Pig Destroyer, in turn, explored drone, doom, horror soundtracks, and harsh noise on a set of experimental EPs, work that made their subsequent albums richer. There is very little that Pig Destroyer won’t fit into what they still call grindcore—or at least try.
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The new EP, The Octagonal Stairway, is a six-track field guide to Pig Destroyer’s expansive kingdom, a partial survey of just how far they have roamed during a quarter-century. Two foreboding collages suggest Lustmord or the Bomb Squad, while a closing 11-minute soundscape conjures some aspiring musique concrete composer decorating for Halloween.
“The Cavalry” is a tirade against the way political stalemates leave the public to suffer. This idea is illustrated by brief impasses that stall the band’s momentum like speed bumps on a freeway. The commanding “Cameraman” wraps lean muscle around Harrison’s feedback howls and digital blasts—it is, after all this time, perhaps their most convincing mix of heavy metal and howling circuits. The Octagonal Stairway proclaims, happily, that Pig Destroyer is not yet finished finding novel ways to make, well, “falsegrind.”
“The idea of never putting out the same record is the most rewarding thing for us,” boasts Harrison. “We don’t do Pig Destroyer for a living, so it’s not a factory. This band is for us.”
We sorted through Pig Destroyer’s discography, listening for the ways they’ve always been morphing beyond atavistic aggression. Along the way, we even found a screaming parrot.
Deciding where to start with Pig Destroyer is a question of gauging one’s musical masochism: How many times do you want to get pummeled? How hard? How long? In the late ’90s, Hull drafted drummer Brian Harvey and began grooming younger vocalist J.R. Hayes by pointing out some poets he loved. He shared, as Harrison remembers, this credo: “I don’t like songs about your feelings. I like songs about stuff.” The new trio convulsed with productivity, churning out a series of splits, singles, EPs, and the diabolical debut, Prowler in the Yard, in their first five years. But the most compelling document of this early pugnacity and Hull’s ability to wind the most essential metal elements into meticulous grindcore skeins is their second compendium, 2004’s relentless and wild Painter of Dead Girls.
The set gathers Pig Destroyer’s two splits for the then-nascent, since-great label Robotic Empire. It’s a showcase of their burgeoning range. In only the first two of these 19 tracks, they switch between squealing, mid-tempo doom and full-on grindcore assault. They brutalize Hayes’ beautiful little poem about a putrescent animal under an overpass during “Immune to Life,” a 28-second barrage that’s as barbaric as they’ve ever been. “Forgotten Child” is a glorious dog-pile of incisive riffs, crisscrossing endlessly, as Hull forms a bulwark for fending off the depression of which Hayes screams. The Stooges cover whips ass. The Dwarves cover feels like a street-fight soundtrack. And the reverent Helmet cover captures how they could ride a groove, not just sprint. This set is the capstone for early Pig Destroyer, a real-time retrospective that hints at the evolution underway.
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Grindcore has often been a hellscape, a putrid subgenre where misogyny, homophobia, and racism have often festered stealthily behind rapid-fire guitars and lyrics coughed up as incomprehensible jeremiads. The arrow of infamy between Anal Cunt and pornogrind, after all, is rather straight. Pig Destroyer admittedly flirted with and lifted from that vile side of the form, from their blood-stained album covers to their violent fantasies crammed into half-minute outbursts. The cover portrait of Terrifyer—a blood-speckled woman, face obscured but breasts thrust forward—telegraphs what the record seems to be about: sexual frustration, romantic rejection, the wicked thoughts that follow.
But the story that unfolds during these 21 tracks is not so simple. Yes, Hayes plays with images of hurting someone he still cares for, but he directs just as much hatred toward himself, especially his inability to be interesting and good enough to maintain this relationship. These two are stuck in a cycle of mutually assured destruction, like the Mountain Goats’ Alpha Couple in overdrive. These songs serve as his sick coping mechanisms, Hayes working through worst-case scenarios with detailed and disturbing poetry. “‘Your heart looks delicious,’ she says, licking her lips as her kamikaze fists crash into floating ribs,” he screams in the first 15 seconds of the maniacal “Soft Assassin,” somewhere between being turned-on and scared for his life.
That tension drives the self-recorded Terrifyer: Hayes’ favorite Pig Destroyer LP, a seamless, breathless album that landed the group a much-deserved slot on Rolling Stone’s 2017 list of the 100 best metal albums ever made. Yes, grindcore holds the center here, from the opening pummel of the vengeful “Pretty in Casts” to the title-track finale, an exercise in paranoia. But this trio—precise but fluid, savage but sophisticated—is always pressing against the form’s borders, tilting into doom here or drifting through a psychedelic haze there. They use a harrowing sample from Luc Ferrari’s tape experiments on “Gravedancer” but deliver a perfect early thrash riff for “Carrion Fairy,” a tirade they chant like an anthem. In such moments, Terrifyer foreshadows the turns in Pig Destroyer’s catalog to come, but it remains a standalone thriller, too.
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In Pig Destroyer’s world of grotesque excess, one breakthrough deserves another. Where Terrifyer proclaimed they would scramble the structure of grindcore from within, Natasha—originally released as a DVD included with the album, longer than the album itself—showed they could ignore the genre almost altogether, too. A 38-minute horror musical, Natasha shifts from long stretches of sinister samples to doom worthy of Neurosis, from creepy balladic singing to serrated noise Wolf Eyes might dig.
The story begins as a sort of epilogue to a murder ballad, some sadass man revisiting the spot where he killed his teenaged paramour—“mistress of seventeen smiles”—two years before. When he returns to her tomb in a fugue of regret, her ghost has spawned 1,000 eyes that replay what she saw as he killed her. As the riff grows and tightens like a vine, the tomb pulls the murderer into the earth, enacting vengeance through suffocation. You hear him scream in desperation as he slips beneath the soil in this ghoulish bit of redemptive justice. Natasha offered pointed rebuttals of the subgenre’s misogynistic escapades and formulaic strictures, ideas Pig Destroyer may have initially indulged but steadily eroded.
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Several years after finishing Phantom Limb, Hull pinned the album’s structural repetition and relatively slower tempos on Harvey, the band’s longtime drumming dynamo. Beset by economic anxiety and leaning into booze, according to Hull, Harvey seemed to be losing interest and energy for Pig Destroyer’s highest-octane stuff. This is simply what he could manage on his final album with the band. Fair enough, but, in this case, the bug is a feature.
Phantom Limb—another unlikely breakthrough for Pig Destroyer—sports several of the band’s most memorable songs, primarily because they did slow down and reassert their best points. “Heathen Temple” is a chugging anthem about self-determination and growth, not that far off from a Baroness hit. The lunging “Girl In The Slayer Jacket,” a testimonial about a teenage friend whose suicide prompted her parents to sue Slayer, is completely engrossing. And the prurient “Deathripper” may find you shouting along to this double entendre of a hook: “Your legs/ Look so sexy out of context.”
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If Phantom Limb is a volley of short stories about murderous minds and radical deviants, Mass & Volume is the exhalation at the end, a pause to ponder what it all means, man. In December 2006, Pig Destroyer—with Harrison as the new fourth member, wielding samples—had raced through the album’s 15 tracks at a Maryland studio. With an extra day baked into the budget, they decided to get weird, even recruiting a Rhodes keyboardist for a Pink Floyd-like jam that Harrison swears will never be released. But they did finish two very different lumbering pieces of doom, united by philosophical musings on our cumbersome awareness of our own mortality.
For 19 minutes of Boris-style amplifier worship, Pig Destroyer slow-walk a riff for “Mass & Volume,” circling it with radiant feedback and a surfeit of static. Hayes bellows about being burdened by time and the inescapable self-knowledge that life will be his death. But it’s B-side “Red Tar” that better predicts the ways Pig Destroyer would soon warp. They march through this fit of self-doubt, lashing at the rhythm with the insistence of the South’s sludge metal legion. Notice the way the guitars seem to glow, a sheen of hope lacquered across the ire. “Try to keep in mind/ It’s all finite,” Hayes screams at the climax, the guitars lifting in this celebration of impermanence. Pig Destroyer released these reflections six years after Phantom Limb to benefit a memorial fund for a longtime Relapse employee—a fitting tribute for someone who helped this unruly band find an unexpected audience.
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Pig Destroyer in the era of Trump was always a tantalizing idea. If their Mid-Atlantic brethren of Municipal Waste could paint the president mid-suicide, what exactly could these violent poets of grind do? Turns out, take the more nuanced view. Rather than attack the symptom on their first album in six years, Pig Destroyer lambasted the root causes and associated conditions—our apparent compulsion to give bad actors (see: gun-toting pigs, big pharma, wonton capitalists) more power, our tendency to fight amongst ourselves until the actual enemy earned the advantage, our constant complaints about everything. Pig Destroyer had presciently taken on fake news and the mighty fist of authoritarianism for Book Burner back in 2012—they now took a step back, surveying the wicked landscape and seething.
Their ire is self-evident in the sound of Head Cage, arguably the heaviest and least predictable Pig Destroyer album. After nearly a quarter-century sans bassist, they drafted John Jarvis for the job. He makes everything sound bigger and thicker, deepening grooves that had sometimes felt like mere scratches in the surface. He gives Hull’s guitars and Harrison’s electronics a cushion, allowing them to command the band from the middle. Perhaps best of all, Hayes has never sounded more like the bandleader, as if he’s suddenly the sharp blade at the end of this blunt instrument. “Why would god create something so weak?,” he screams during the sardonic “Army of Cops,” one of the Pig Destroyer’s most compelling and clear calls to arms. “Unless he wanted it to suffer?” Never before had Pig Destroyer foregrounded one of metal’s best writers so much. The timing was, and is still, right.
Whether talking about the riffs or the politics or violent invective used as a sort of healthy exorcism, Pig Destroyer are serious. But they’ve happily been a touch absurd and ridiculous since the start, too—you don’t make a 38-track record called 38 Counts of Battery, after all, with a completely straight face. Harrison has recently doubled down on that humor with the weird and wondrous Hatebeak, a berserk death metal trio fronted by Waldo, a Congo African grey parrot. “I’m a rascal,” Harrison admits.
Named for and devoted to puns, Hatebeak is purportedly the world’s only bird-fronted band, and, well, they kind of rule. On a split last year with Boar Glue—that is, Death’s Richard Christy and his three guinea pigs—Harrison and Mark Sloan ride spiraling riffs while Waldo yells in paroxysmal fury, as though its feathers are being plucked. During “Nested Are the Sick,” Waldo bellows with existential terror over tremolo guitars. You sort of have to wonder when the Parrot will sit (fly?) in for its own Pig Destroyer session.