A volatile stability: Disfear and Poison Idea

Metalheads – including this one – can sometimes have a weird relationship with teleology. We log certain incidental styles and artists only with a view to how they influenced where we are today. Our need to go back time and again and plot the evolution of metal and its subgenres, logging the significant releases and first timers – the blast-beat, the tremolo riff, the down-tuning – all can lead to a disposable attitude toward those small instances in time that changed the course of our sonic evolution.

Whilst the creative range of death, black, thrash, power, or speed metal is not in dispute, the genres tend to go through periods of plateauing and advancing, evolving in jerky an unpredictable motions. But then there are those adjacent genres and micro-instances – hardcore punk or grindcore – which tend to get discarded by metal the moment we have identified their significance for “proper” metal genres, whatever that means. That being said, punk in its purest form remains an volatile chemical. A flashpoint that is seemingly unable to exist in a stable state. And if that is true, what value is there in sustaining its existence?

Disfear remain a bastion of Swedish d-beat. The dual evolution of this subgenre alongside Swedish death metal is so interlinked that it’s almost impossible to talk of them separately. Although originating in England with the genre’s namesake Discharge, a number of Swedish bands such as The Rude Kids, KSMB, Missbrukarna, and Anti Cimex made it their own throughout the 1980s. Growing in tandem was Sweden’s fledging extreme metal scene, with Bathory, Mordid, Merciless, Grotesque, and Nihilist all cross pollinating the primal aggression of d-beat with the lofty romanticism of metal.

One may wonder then, given all this history, what was left to say when Disfear got round to releasing their debut LP ‘A Brutal Sight of War’ in 1993? Well, the answer is actually very little. But this doesn’t necessarily need to be read as a criticism. History is made up of great lurches forward followed by rebounds backward. This album doesn’t so much stand in defiance of the tides of history brought on by ‘Left Hand Path’ and ‘Like an Everflowing Stream’ so much as it does isolate the raw aggression at the heart of this music and place it front and centre, devoid of melody or development.

The album is shorter than most EPs, reaching just over quarter of an hour in length. Each track is under three minutes long, consisting of d-beats clocking in at approximately 180bpm, faster than Discharge, but slower than the pace most hardcore bands were reaching for by the 1990s. Riffs are the most basic interchanges between two or three power chords, occasionally shifting pitch to denote a “chorus”, with frequent single notes screeching like air raid sirens at moments of transition. Occasional solos do crop up for a few measures here and there, but for the most part the music is shockingly bare. Unlike modern Disfear, the guitar tone shuns the buzzsaw sound of their death metal counterparts, opting for a crisper, colder form of distortion.

Vocals are a strained bark of equal parts desperation and aggression. They hold an emotion and urgency lacking in death metal or even thrash vocals, betraying the music’s deeply resonant political core. Simple slogans are bellowed forth, chanted and repeated, burrowing their way into the listener’s mind as feelings rather than complete narrative manifestoes.

And that really seems to be the point of ‘A Brutal Sight of War’. The early 1990s were an extraordinary for punk. Metal, grunge, industrial, and dance music had all superseded its counter-cultural relevance. But all these genres had deeply ambitious variants, taking the music away from the immediacy of everyday life and into loftier, murkier territory conceptually. When this happens – as with the original punk explosion attempting a rebuttal to the esotericism of progressive rock – there comes a group of artists that seek to salvage the original and immediate energy of music. There may not be much to say about Disfear in musical terms, but as a statement on wresting punk back to its roots as accessible, aggressive, and stirring, there is much wisdom to be gleaned from the full throttle minimalism of an album like ‘A Brutal Sight of War’.

Across the Atlantic punk was undergoing a similar tug of war. From the extreme direction taken by the Misfits on ‘Earth A.D.’, through to the fledging thrash crossover movement of D.R.I., Cro-Mags, and Cryptic Slaughter. By the time the likes of Slayer and the early death metal scene began to monopolise the sonically extreme end of the spectrum, the relevance of punk as a vibrant art form was called into question. Enter Poison Idea. As a punk band that retained the extremity, speed, and blunt lyrics, their story is nothing new. They weren’t the first such punk band to supplement these elements with rock melodies, clean singing, and *whisper it*, songs over two minutes long.

But few such artists managed to retain the brash adrenaline of punk alongside these hints at musical nuance. Their most successful effort in this regard was undoubtably 19990’s ‘Feel the Darkness’. Just as the dissonant oddities of Die Kreuzen were being co-opted into bland grunge, Poison Idea threaded an exciting sonic needle that incorporated brash hardcore punk, Motorhead bombast, and bluesy rock ‘n’ roll that hints at something one could boogie to. The songs have tempo changes, the riffs transition in imaginative and unexpected ways, the vocals, despite their aggression, lurch from simple melodic refrains, to horse shouts, to spoken word narration as if to hammer home the importance of certain passages.

Drums also display a greater willingness to explore the kit. Even the most basic beat is cut to pieces with fills and crash cymbal tirades, seemingly eager to get up in the grill of Pig Champion’s riffing, driving them in engagingly angular directions. It’s these musical inflections contained within the undeniably aggressive and urgent spirit of “true” punk that gives this album legs. Poison Idea have given themselves many levers to pull on in order to constantly refresh their approach in unexpected directions.

This juxtaposition of what is at times relatively carefree music alongside heavy lyrical themes lends ‘Feel the Darkness’ a bittersweet undertone that supplements the raw aggression of its hardcore genes. It may be true that one could trace the origins of pop punk from the rampant melodicism of tracks like opener ‘Plastic Bomb’, but the balance between the competing forces of commericalism and underground spirit remains intact across this album’s runtime.

Despite the similarity of era and style, these two albums are frankly not a fair match up. The choice from a purely musical point of view is a no brainer, with Poison Idea easily winning the day. But one shouldn’t dismiss the rampant minimalism of Disfear too readily. Their work may be lacking in re-listenability, but there are lessons to be taken from what Disfear were trying to say at the time. All great art exists at a flashpoint between the old and the new. And that makes albums like ‘A Brutal Sight of War’ necessary. Especially in the context of 1993, when the new was threatening to destabilise the historic continuity of entire movements for the sake of bizarre experimental dead ends that came to define postmodernism’s first decade in the sun.   

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