Pig Destroyer have been active in the grindcore scene for 20 years, steadily building a major presence as one of the biggest acts in the genre. This hype has absolutely been warranted throughout the years, as each release of theirs pushes the bounds of the genre beyond simple breakneck-fast extremities. Their unique songwriting chops has made them a force to be reckoned with, causing the release of each of their albums to feel like a major event, especially with the long waits between them. 2007’s Phantom Limb saw the band pushing their sound with lengthier songs and more intricate song structures, and 2012’s Book Burner took those sensibilities and compressed them into shorter song structures that, nonetheless, exuded complexity and intensity at every turn. Following that album was the longest break yet between albums (6 years), but the group has now returned with the much-anticipated Head Cage, probably their boldest and most experimental project yet.
Clocking in at 12 tracks and just over 30 minutes, things are kept as brief and to the point as they’ve ever been. Pig Destroyer’s penchant for quick and gnarly bangers is on display as always, with tracks like “Dark Train” and “Mt. Skull” acting as some quintessential cuts in their catalog. However, now the band has become more fully rounded out with John Jarvis having joined the band as their 1st ever bassist. His presence in the group is certainly felt on the record, as his bass lines add a significant amount of heft to the low end of the mix, bolstering by some incredibly production work. Everything just booms that much more from track to track, especially with JR Hayes’ vocals being as gravelly and hard-hitting as always.
While half of the album is familiar territory for the group, the other half of the record is where things get significantly more interesting. Their songs have become more elaborate and dense as time goes on, and that sensation is felt as early as the third track, the lead-off single “Army of Cops.” The riffs are crunchy and cutting like always, but the song’s tempo as a whole relies on a more steady catchy groove that, with the exception of some rapid drum fills in spots, is much slower than their usual musical territory. This gets driven home by the ending breakdown, with slow pounding drums and bass giving way to a chug-heavy outro. The song as a whole is driven home by some intense lyrics about humanity’s subjugation at the hands of the police, especially with a choice guest spot from frequent collaborator Richard Johnson:
“Why would God create
something so weak
wanted it to suffer?”
Things only get more unconventional from there. “Circle River” embodies a distinct mix of groove and even thrash elements at play, with chord progressions that are noticeably less dissonant than usual. There’s a massive attack on every note played, and the song even closes on a drifting groove emphasized by hazy guitar leads and haunting menacing synths. “The Torture Fields” opens with a slow steady groove whose riffs are sparse but every bit as menacing as ever with the band, sandwiching a grinding assault of music between this and a similar groove at the end.
The songwriting experimentation is pushed to its furthest on tracks like “Concrete Beast” where the rhythms are not only reliant on mid-tempo grooves, but the rhythmic structure is incredibly off-kilter in comparison to much of their catalog. Measures are often cut short or syncopate at irregular intervals, and it makes for a dense experience to listen to, only driven home further by the prominence of the bass in the mix, allowing it to groove along with the drums uninterrupted before the guitars enter into the song. It’s a pretty wild listen that gains some extra intensity with a vocal feature from Kat Katz of Agoraphobic Nosebleed, adding a welcome biting snarl to the proceedings. “The Last Song” is similarly offbeat, using a sort-of jazzy swing beat that’s just the drums and bass to open things up, segueing into the inclusion of guitars and unnerving synth lines that lead to an aggressive 2nd half that breaks for plenty of lead parts with no rhythm guitar underneath, powering through into the slow but powerful closer “House of Snakes.” A minute of ominous droning guitar leads gives way to another grooving passage of drums and bass, and when the guitars finally enter, there’s this incredibly unnerving vibe they carry with choppy slow-building chugs and plenty of chord/note bends in place. Halfway through its 7-minute run, the song goes into a driving beat full of meaty grooves and dissonant chord progressions, veering back into the odd groove and closing on an ending break more akin to Lamb of God or Sepultura than anything else.
The musical intensity on display throughout the entire run of Head Cage is matched only by the lyrical intensity at play amid JR’s cutthroat vocal style. Previously mentioned tracks like “Army of Cops” touch on heavy societal topics, but there’s also songs like “Concrete Beast” which cover the threat of urban development on the environment and human lives.
“This Shouldn’t exist
and yet, here it stands
the lives it’s cost
the energy it demands”
“Circle River” is a particularly strong track that takes critical aim at those who are too frightened to ever take a serious stand on any issues whatsoever, and “The Last Song: is a darkly poetic track about coping with the loss of a close loved one. Amidst the heavier subject matter, the group does occasionally find time to have their tongues planted firmly in cheek. The album intro uses a corny ‘50s musical sample warning about the intensity to follow, and the most humorous track on record is easily “The Adventures of Jason and JR” which narrates a gloriously over-the-top scenario of the titular members being ambushed by attacks from Dick Cheney and the FBI on their way to a concert, only to have some bizarre celebrity encounters along the way. It’s exactly the right amount of surreal levity needed amidst the musical and lyrical ass-kicking delivered by the rest of the record.
Head Cage is likely to be a polarizing record for most fans. Pig Destroyer’s experimental side is pushed farther than it’s ever been before on this release, and that might be too much for those expecting a pure grind experience. However, those who are willing to give it a chance will find that it’s an album that’s every bit as intense, ferocious, and musically dense as every big release of theirs before. Pig Destroyer were never ones to stylistically jog in place, and Head Cage proves that they can still remain on top of their game while pushing the boundaries of what modern grind can embody. Do not miss out on this one.
Final Verdict: buy it. 6 years of wait time, and the end result is highly worth the experience.
Head Cage is available from Relapse Records on CD, vinyl, digital download, and streaming services.
[Note: A copy of the album was provided by Relapse Records for the purpose of this review.]