Boiling any music down to its rawest ingredients is a near constant compulsion found nested within fully fleshed out genres. There will always be artists that exist in defiance of a genre’s aspirations toward coffeehouse talking point status. Work enough jazz, enough esotericism and self-referential nods to the favoured music theory of the day, and maybe death metal too will be welcomed into serious musical circles, and receive the patronage of the *right* publications. It’s a disingenuous way to describe the proggy impulses of death metal that gained traction as the 90s wore on, but it certainly helps to tee up these two artists, who made a point of shunning any pretensions towards layers, complex displays of theory, duality of meaning, or any hint at musical innuendo at all. But in sticking so doggedly to the philosophy of Cro-Magnon it took them in weirdly left-field places at times.
Carcass and Repulsion may have laid the foundation for grindcore and death metal’s fixation with gore, but Illinois’s Impetigo injected the genre with its bizarre and rampant use of film samples, usually with little alteration or integration into the music itself. It would normally be worth mentioning samples on a metal album only in passing, occurring as they do as incidental to the music, deployed in order to enhance a given moment, or nudge the audience in a particular cultural direction. But Impetigo are for all the world an unremarkable deathgrind outfit – albeit an early iteration of the genre – that make such liberal use of cinematic clippings throughout their work as to be their calling card. Their second album, 1992’s ‘Horror of the Zombies’ saw a marked raising of the bar in terms of song writing when compared to their debut ‘Ultimo Mondo Cannibale’ (1990), and solidified many of the nodes we now associate with the subgenre. This could hardly be called a dazzling feat however, given that the subgenre in question is famed for its limitations and primitivism as much as the gore and violence.
Musically there is really not that much to talk about. The riffs are about as basic as they come for death metal. The tempos are not fast or relentless enough for this to be considered pure grindcore, making the primitive rumination of this work all the messier. The guitars seem to struggle to keep up with the drums when faced with a blast-beat, preferring to swagger along at traditional punk tempos. The bass is distorted to fuck, meaning it essentially functions as a rhythm guitar. Vocals are perhaps the most interesting feature of the mix. Sticking with a surprisingly controlled death growl that allows many of the lyrics some audibility, but Stevo Dobbins is capable of throwing in some pretty monstrous outbursts when it counts, gifting the music the closest thing it has to dynamic range.
In taking the most basic iterations of death metal riffing as it was at the time, working in near compulsive horror film references by way of samples, lyrics, and cover art, Impetigo were arguably breaking new ground. There is a “d’fuck you gonna do about it?” rejoinder to any criticism that sophisticates are capable of levelling at this band. This is death metal tapping into the newfound nihilism of early 90s Gen Xers with renewed vigour. Sure, death metal (and metal at large) had toyed with irony before, the shield that emotional distance from art it can provide. But Impetigo took this a step further.
This is a world made up entirely of references to other pieces of culture: spare parts from death metal, magazine and comic book clippings, reels of tape, the scribblings of a teenager after watching ‘Return of the Living Dead’. But if parents, prog enthusiasts, or the just plain confused were to attempt to point out the creative dead end awaiting this pursuit, there’s a simple “we don’t give a fuck” catch all response that defies the dictates of artistic progress. For that reason it’s certainly arguable that – fun as Impetigo are to dive into now and then – they did metal a great diservice. Sarcastic detachment from art which – in the case of Gen X – was achieved by way of understanding the world through pop culture is ultimately the enemy of art as a pursuit that aims to transcend the limits of time and place. The latter requiring a degree of commitment that simply won’t tolerate downbeat sarcasm. It is these crimes that Impetigo are guilty of, far more than the raw simplicity of the actual music that greets us on ‘Horror of the Zombies’.
Brazil’s Krisiun are (just) a step above Impetigo on almost every musical measure. Their brand of death metal is at the other end of town however, so a direct musical comparison will be uninformative. Their debut ‘Black Force Domain’ (1995) takes the rampant thrash metal of the late 80s up a notch. Whilst “thrash but more” is a limited reading of death metal’s history, Krisiun are literally that; thrash metal if it had continued on the trajectory of extremity without the rude interruption of death metal’s loftier ambitions. The point is that the latter superseded thrash not just by virtue of extremity or violence, but via musical complexity, layers of sound, increasingly intricate and numerous riffs that needed to be organised into cohesive units of sonic energy. Krisiun bypassed all of that, and simply took thrash up a notch from where it was circa ‘Reign in Blood’. This is a near constant blast-beat, underpinning a barrage of almost indistinguishable riffs, no chord left hanging, no space left un-noised, every guitar solo is an onslaught of shredding, vocals a barrage of controlled aggression.
What do we make of such a raw statement, made as it was in 1995? Well, the first thing to note is the expertise behind the execution. Krisiun are tight players. They pull off the cacophony with ease. This provides a good foundation on which to analyse this album in context. Because it’s one thing to look at the progressive direction of Death, the increasingly commercial leanings of Morbid Angel, the melodic pop-metal of Carcass and At the Gates, and say fuck all that, let’s go back to the start. But it’s entirely another thing to pull this off as Krisiun did. That’s to say they acknowledged a degree of showmanship and precision required to get noticed in extreme metal as it was in the mid-1990s. This is not simply a re-iteration of first principles. It is rather a reimagining and revamping of them, juicing them up in order to get them match fit for a post Deicide world.
It is in this sense that we can look at ‘Black Force Domain’ – and pretty much every Krisiun album that followed – as a distilled artistic statement on the virtues of clarity. It’s as if to say, “here are some of the most common musical nodes with which people come into contact with in extreme metal, and here is a full length album constructed of these and nothing else”. It’s for this reason that listening to a Krisiun album does not feel like an act of regression, even though the musical ontology presented to us says otherwise. The meaning is to be found in the statement that supervenes on these components – and the aforementioned ability and conviction with which to pull it off – rather than a study of the raw musicality. This also goes some way to explaining why this album is not a monotonous slog when so many albums of a similar intent are just that. The key to its success is the performance and single-minded manner in which they carry it out. So, ‘Black Force Domain’ can be said to reach beyond the sum of its parts, which puts it more in the realm of a piece of art as opposed to a mere call back to a simpler time.
Two regressive statements, two entirely different outcomes? What explains the divergence in quality between these two releases? It cannot be a matter of plain stylistic differences. But the answer might as well be just as simple. The fact is that Krisun truly believed in what they were doing. And this bleeds out of every beat that they play. Impetigo by contrast certainly enjoyed what they were up to, but there’s a sense in which they were unable or unwilling to believe in it to the degree that Krisiun did in their craft. And to be fair to Impetigo, to truly believe with conviction in a stitched together collection of pop culture references and half-formed riffs is just not an authentic position to hold. And there’s no further critical backing required to justify why we are landing firmly on the Krisiun side this week.