The roadkill of history: Head of David and Zygote

Industrial and crust punk: two obscure little underground movements birthed in the early 80s that would orbit metal for some time. Although boasting more trivial output than quality, what worth there was in these genres at their inception should not be underestimated. Both can boast a mightily fruitful period of creativity no matter how short lived. And, let’s be right about this, both owe a huge debt to the earlier efforts of Killing Joke, especially as far as the two artists we’ll be looking at today are concerned. Metalheads love exploring their roots. They love tracing a line of influence. If this pursuit takes us outside of metal’s borders it can be common to shy away, select the scant gems recommended by more experienced sages and retreat back for cover. Outliers like punk and industrial are treated as static objects, one-time gifts to the metal community to absorb knowledge from, and better the pursuit of neo-romantic heavy guitar music. But what happened to these outliers after their initial stroke of genius? Did they mature? Regress? Follow the money into pop? Or walk away from music altogether? As a metal historian the answer may depend on how far you care to trace these family trees. 1991 was not a year short of activity for any metal fan. But if you’re one that never turns up an opportunity for a bit more context, rewards are waiting.

Any Amebix completist will be well familiar with one time second runners Zygote and their album ‘A Wind of Knives’ (1991). In many ways, it’s hard to imagine what a more perfect follow up to Amebix’s swansong ‘Monolith’ would have looked like. That album boasts some of their most loved moments, but it also saw the magic begin to drain away, as generic Motorhead rock bled through the outer pores, and dumbed down the purity of ‘Arise!’. ‘A Wind of Knives’ addresses this by reigning in the hard rock and returning to the Killing Joke roots of this music. But this is not a typical ‘return to roots’ album, with only four years distance from Amebix splitting, this is hardly a comeback album. Firstly, the songs are more ambitious in tone and structure, the feeling is alienation and disorientation rather than righteous outrage. The production too has been polished, and actually feels fairly modern.

We have the off-key staccato madness of early Killing Joke; a swirling, mechanical mass of chords driven by a joyless groove, a cheerless ecstasy that invokes a feeling of futile urgency over the call to arms that was Amebix. This is of course backed up by a relentless, tribal pounding of tom rolls borrowed from early Killing Joke, which came to define a lot of post punk throughout the 80s. Although this is undoubtably more in post punk territory than crust, there is no attempt to soften the sound with sentiment. This is a cold, uncaring album of discordant, rhythmic punk, that owes as much to early gothic rock as it does anything more metal. Even the reworking of the Amebix track ‘Rite to Ride’ sheds the optimism that runs like a thread through the folklore of this earthy brand of punk. In its place is a cold, dizzying alienation as this music succumbs to postmodern despondency.

With the split of Amebix Rob Miller departed from music to make swords or whatever, so vocal duties are taken up by Stig and George Fletcher. They offer a consistent mix of throaty Lemmy style crooning, that occasionally devolves into intoxicated nihilism. Like most things about this album it rides a fine line between updating the baggage of the 80s into something fresher, but staying true to the original spirit of harsh post punk in all its bacchanalian energy. Given that this was released in 1991 it fell just early enough to avoid the decline of esotericism that colours underground music of the 80s, a decline largely brought about by following the grunge buck. But that was possibly why this album was so overlooked. Killing Joke may have returned to form by 1991, and Godflesh had become a household name, but goth had reckoned with its battle against pop and all but lost (outliers like Fields of the Nephilim aside), Nirvana and alt rock had won the day, and a death metal scene at its zenith was unaware how short its claims to legitimacy would last in the eyes of the mainstream. Such a subtle offering as ‘A Wind of Knives’ – undertaking the noble project of remarrying post punk’s earlier industrial roots with newfound nihilism – all but went overlooked, despite how fresh it sounds now to modern ears.

Head of David: forever known as that band that Justin Broadrick drummed in for a bit, or for the laymen, that band that Fear Factory covered on ‘Demanufacture’ (1995). Their first album, 1987’s ‘Dustbowl’, is revered for mixing industrial, noise rock, post punk, and a small amount of metal into an album that merges the philosophies of abrasion and accessibility without sacrificing any of its ambition. Looking at 1991’s offering ‘Seed State’ in this context may well turn this account into a lament of decline. What a difference four years makes. As the 90s woke up, house music took over Britain, punk, goth, industrial, and metal all took on a positive, groovy bounce. If 80s alternative music raised a fist of defiance in the face of nihilism and imminent destruction, the 90s saw it bend to the mainstream, and dance in the face of despair. Head of David’s short trajectory mirrors this broad trend in microcosm. ‘Seed State’ is a lighter version of Godlfesh’s ‘Pure’. It mixes light industrial hooks, a small degree of goth melodicism, with the driving dance beats of Dream Disciples and the swagger of Pop Will Eat Itself.

In reaching for such lofty comparisons it remains to be seen whether they succeeded. In one sense they did. There is a relentless minimalism to be found even in the more poppy numbers on this album. The tracks are persistent, repetitive, usually made up of little more than two segments shuffled around. This straight-line approach to composition makes even the groovy, catchy hooks feel almost drab by the end of the track. Many will decry the lack of ambition on ‘Seed State’ when compared to ‘Dustbowl’. But the latter was still an album lacking in quality control and pacing in places. Here we have a more focused beast that seems to know what it wants. Each track delivers its thesis efficiently and leaves. But herein lies its downfall, and the downfall of so many musicians as they approach maturity, and adopt a more disciplined creative filter. Whilst it would be unfair to claim this album is a failure, it lacks character and life compared to others operating in this field in the early 1990s. It’s a term I end up using frequently but it applies here: colour by numbers.

But in that assessment lies a caveat not a dismissal. This album never strays too far from the realms of good taste. Even the ballad ‘Kingdom Crawl’ is more meditative in the line of ambitious goth rock than it is vapid sentiment. Head of David never lose site of their remit as a band that mixes driving grooves and catchy riffs with an overarching theme of despair at its core. The repetitive beats, the riffs with every ounce of mileage squeezed out of them, the minimalist vocals usually operating with only a handful of lyrics per track, all amount to an album that is empty at its core; despite it being written by musicians clearly facing in the direction of pop music. So for those interested in the parallel lines that ran through punk and post punk alongside the melodrama of metal at this time, it remains an interesting way to bookmark the times.

In terms of quality output we are clearly siding with Zygote this week. It’s an album that succeeds in its own right as a reassertion of the spirit of early post punk, yet updates this with the aggression and soul of crust punk, and manages to remain fresh to this day as a result. It also did not succumb to the seemingly irresistible trends of the time as so many did in the underground, and release a terrible buck chasing knock off a  year too late. It also remains a far more worthy swansong for Amebix than the patchy nu metal of ‘Sonic Mass’, which was a buck chasing knock off that still managed to be a year (or ten) too late. But that being said, for anyone delving into these old paths-less-taken by metalheads, Head of David’s ‘Seed State’ is a rewarding time capsule that is just so early 90s it hurts, and yet still ends up being a bleak album all the same.

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