Grindcore was a real game changer for extreme metal. With one foot in hardcore punk and one foot in death metal, it’s influence can be felt far beyond the obvious. It’s dual heritage also led to a bizarre binary choice for lyricists, politics or gore, and never the twain shall meet. But whatever limitations it places on music, its appeal has remained surprisingly durable. If for no other reason than it being a talking point within metal, a benchmark of primitivism and extremity by which we measure all our future endeavours.
Belgium’s Agathocles are famed for having released more recorded material than the entire music industry throughout the history of recorded music combined. Their debut LP released in 1992, ‘Theatric Symbolisation of Life’, was released after a string of sixty to seventy thousand EPs, singles, and splits. To some they are known as mincecore, an even more basic version of grindcore, but at this period they were churning out a more sophisticated form of grind closer to death metal.
Tracks will usually open with a hardcore punk riff, before descending into pure grind. A death metal breakdown will follow, and the tempo will collapse below 80 bpm, with simply droning chords reminiscent of Obituary. Vocals take two forms. A guttural death metal growl, and a manic rasp that calls to mind Jeff Walker. The metal tracks are broken up by interludes of poetry readings, the enjoyment of which may be coloured by the political affiliation of the listener. But the strong Belgium accent set to a backdrop of formless guitar noise has its charm.
Although this music is primitive, the extended track lengths allow Agathocles to develop structure more than is usual for the conventions of grind; this allows them to call forth many disparate influences into what is essentially primitive death metal. The production is serviceable, doing justice to the power of the music even if the drums are lost in the chaos at times. The cavernous space of the vocals and the guitars more than makes up this, and adds a layer of foreboding atmosphere to this subversive extreme metal.
On Terrorizer’s ‘World Downfall’ released in 1989, Oscar Garcia heads up an all start line up for this undisputed classic of grind. Jesse Pintado guides us through a plethora of atonal chaos that simply exudes apocalyptic fury from every pour. This is underpinned by a rock solid rhythm section made up of David Vincent and Pete Sandoval’s controlled barrage. This raised the stakes for grindcore as a genre with technical standards. And it is remarkably precise when compared to the Napalm Deaths and Carcasses of the same era. It’s no wonder Napalm Death poached Pintado and headed in a similar direction with their sound.
It also foreshadowed what Brutual Truth would later achieve, with high speed bursts where the musicians seem to completely lose control of the music, only to pull it back from the brink with a pounding d-beat or mid paced ¾ rhythm. Scott Burns, honing the techniques required for extreme metal, produces a razor sharp sound that captures every bass hit and allows the snare to cut through perfectly. Although this sound was later reviled by some kids in Norway, it ushered in a new benchmark of technical standards for musicians within extreme metal.
Vocals are of the hardcore punk variety, showcasing an aggressive half grunt half shout, making some of the lyrics audible above the cacophony. This is one of those albums that sounds like the cover art. These busy Hieronymus Bosch style covers would become popular in grindcore, and here it fits perfectly with the colliding rhythms and tempos, and the amorality that the riffs invoke. A masterclass in how to invoke an undeniable sense of society’s chaotic decline.
In teeing up a comparison between these two albums I have sort of contrived a David and Goliath struggle, and unfortunately this time Goliath won. There’s much to love about Agathocles of this era, the follow ups ‘Black Clouds Determinate’ and ‘Razor Sharp Daggers’ went in a more grind direction, offering a quirky little take on this brand of extreme metal. ‘Theatric Symbolisation of Life’ is their most death metal release (no, I haven’t listened to all eighty thousand of their EPs), and pertains to be a sort of grind version of Obituary. But when comparing it to ‘World Downfall’ these merits pale in comparison to this work. It’s both a great piece of grind in its own right, but it also set a new precedent for precision and technical competence within this proudly punk genre. It also put Pintado’s style on the map as a benchmark in extreme metal, and predicted the Napalm Death that would follow in this album’s wake.