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Pig Destroyer Rattles The 'Head Cage' Of Grind

Pig Destroyer's <em>Head Cage</em> comes out Sept. 7.
Joey Wharton
Courtesy of the artist
Pig Destroyer's Head Cage comes out Sept. 7.

Note: NPR's First Listen audio comes down after the album is released. However, you can still listen with the Bandcamp playlist at the bottom of the page.

Pig Destroyer is long overdue for its revved-up rock and roll reckoning. Now, the metal band's sixth album in two decades doesn't strut like some glammed-up rock star in tight jeans or trade in the pit for theater seats, but Head Cage does curl its barbed-wire riffs into something like a gnarled swagger. Songs regularly push the three-minute mark, grooves are explored at a prowling pace, guitarist Scott Hull's simultaneously spiraling and exacting riffs are bared with accessible hooks, J.R. Hayes' stark poetry is given over to mic-grabbing gang vocals — this is Pig Destroyer smashing the spotlight and giving its audio terror to the dark.

Two decades in, the DMV-based (that's D.C./Maryland/Virginia) band may be one of the most visible of the grindcore scene, but it's purposefully taken risks in metal by fusing death, sludge and thrash textures with extended forays into noise and drone. The wild through-line from the 30-second blasts of Explosions in Ward 6 and Prowler in the Yard to Terrifyer's restless punk thrash to the polished chaos of Phantom Limb marks not a grindcore band, but an evolutionary timeline of extreme music. Head Cage is the result of stepping back from 2012's Book Burner, a solid if sometimes staid record, and once again expanding Pig Destroyer's rampaging palette.


Don't worry: There are still tried-and-true PxDx tracks, with meatball grinders like "Dark Train" and "Terminal Itch," featuring guest vocals by Kat Katz of Agoraphobic Nosebleed (she also appears in the sludgy "Concrete Beast"). But eyebrows begin to raise with "Army of Cops," which rides a bucking mechanical bull of a riff on a blitzed groove. Another of Hull's Agoraphobic Nosebleed bandmates, Richard Johnson, spits with Hayes about the government's militaristic control, their voices set against a swirling rhythm section and Blake Harrison's terrible screeches of noise. Now bolstered by bassist John Jarvis and Misery Index drummer Adam Jarvis (who joined the band midway through Book Burner's recording), this is where Hull — forever the band's architect — doesn't so much build blocks as stretch the ceiling. You also hear that in the filthy swank of "Circle River," which dials into Pig Destroyer's thrash tendencies with rubber elasticity, allowing the full five-piece band to expand and contract around Hull's spacious guitar work.

But just as Hull finesses and reworks, so does J.R. Hayes. His lyrics, just as compact and economic as Hull's music, don't so much revel in death and violence as they portray their rot and decay on humanity, screaming about hurt and toxicity that has a profound and lasting effect. On Head Cage, he still knows how to paint a grisly image with effectively blunt minimalism, as in the blast-beaten death-thrash of "The Torture Fields" ("I ride a cockroach / Down your streets of trash / Baptized in shadow / Born in a car crash"). But age — Hayes is now 43 — has perhaps sharpened his lyrical insight, as he dips out of violent fantasy for moments like "Mt. Skull," directly into the real world:

The black house
My uncle built still stands
But now I'm just a stranger
From suburban wastelands
Now the Shenandoah's red
Everyone on Mt. Skull is dead
Everyone I love

If Hayes once channeled his twentysomething angst into brokenhearted violence, he's now thinking about mortality and its aftermath. The two Hayes seem to meet in "The Last Song," which her refers to the last song "I'll ever write about your pale skin." In the past, this youthful hurt would retch with revenge, but here he finds resolution: "I admire who you've become / I only want the best for you." If ravaging riffs and piercing electronics could ever be considered romantic, Hayes offers a striking, if blistering, portrait of letting go.

Head Cage, an apt metaphor for the device in which Pig Destroyer's music cannot be contained, closes with the seven-minute "House of Snakes." Compared with the 37-minute doom-noise epic Natasha, it's far from Pig Destroyer's longest track, but it does have the distinction of being the only one of this length on a proper album (that doesn't end with a barrage of samples). Hull flexes his riffology into new realms, as if allowing the Red-era bombast of King Crimson to barrel into the metallic hardcore mayhem of Deadguy. It's a hell of a way to end Head Cage, and it leaves a nasty dagger point in the timeline of Pig Destroyer.

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