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Thesaurus Metal

Of the great forgotten early-nineties metal bands, I’d like to put in a word for Demolition Hammer. DH released two full-length albums, Tortured Existence (1990) and Epidemic of Violence (1992). (There was a third, Time Bomb, but for a variety of reasons it isn’t considered a bona fide DH album.) The band’s well-regarded drummer, Vincent “Vinny Daze” Civitano, died of globefish poisoning (!) in 1996, dashing my hopes of a reunion tour, show, or comeback album, at least featuring the classic lineup. (No reason, of course, they can’t grab some unemployed drummer of that era and this area … what’s Glenn Evans doing these days?) By the way, the above information, and some of what’s below, comes from the fabulous web resource Encyclopedia Metallum. Did you know, for example, that there are 16 bands just called “Apostasy”? The spirit of Diderot lives on, and not just in the Encyclopedia, but in Demolition Hammer as well.

DH was a thrash metal band that had the misfortune to arrive just as the scene was on the wane—that is, as Metallica were mutating into rock superstars, and grunge and “nu” or “alt” metal were submerging those thrash bands that, by straining toward greater melodicism, seemed poised to follow them. That DH is sometimes classified as death metal—this though they lack the cookie-monster vocals, detuning, and blast beats which would become hallmarks of the death-metal sound—is partly a testament to the sheer pummeling brutality of their music. Some reviews actually anoint Violence “the heaviest thrash album of all time.” If so, then it is a subgeneric apotheosis that arrived too late to garner the recognition it deserved.

But Demolition Hammer might also be associated with death metal because of their lyrics. Slayer set an early bar here; although they were hardly the only metal band to go out of their way to write the most thoroughly disgusting, offensive lyrics they could muster, seemingly for the sheer thumb-your-nose-at-the-PMRC glee of it, they were probably the most consistently and successfully offensive. Younger metal bands and some crossing-over hardcore bands were eager to take Slayer’s penchant for the grotesque and run with it. In particular, it is a sub-sub-subgeneric offshoot of death metal dubbed goregrind (from its parent sub-subgenre grindcore) to which DH’s lyrics bear more than a passing resemblance. Goregrind bands revel in the anatomy of the wounded, infected, and decaying body. The autopsy is a lyrical subgenre in itself; disease is another common subject, as are cannibalism, exhumation, egregious medical malpractice (with an emphasis on “egregious”), and human experimentation. Album covers tend to feature cartoonish Grand Guignol artwork, like storyboards for some ideal Italian zombie film. My recollection (for I, a child of thrash, have only a passing acquaintance with goregrind) is that at least some of the members of these bands were vegetarians … which I guess most of us would be, if we thought about the vicissitudes of the flesh so relentlessly, and with such relish for putrefaction.

Don’t let the album artwork for Epidemic of Violence—a partial reproduction of the marvelous “Lovecraft’s Nightmare,” which you may or may not remember piecemeally gracing the covers of those ‘70s Del Rey Lovecraft collections, rather than the typical eviscerated corpse of their lyrical brethren—fool you. Atmosphere is not the first thing on these men’s minds. Excess is. Musical excess, yes, but linguistic excess as well. Among my friends, one of the reasons DH is remembered so fondly is for their dauntingly capacious vocabulary (for, yes, one must enact Demolition Hammer in order to speak of them). We still laugh at the idea of the lyricist sitting around with a pen in one hand and a thesaurus in the other. Most of DH’s song titles are composed exclusively of three- and four-syllable words: “Pyroclastic Annihilation,” “Aborticide,” “Carnivorous Obsession” … and even some of the two-syllablers, like “Gelid Remains,” are quite evocative. It is thanks to Demolition Hammer that I know what “anthropophagy” is. I still don’t know what “pyroclastic” means—I haven’t yet bothered to look it up. The list hardly stops there. I have no idea what “cyber-protestants” are. Should I? Is there such a thing as a “microscopic iconoclast”? (Must the icons, too, be tiny?) “Perfuse,” in the gerund or no, is not a verb I am familiar with. Nor is “manducate.” And then there’s requittal, decontorcicate, evulsion, incendiary hyle, syolite, subrelluric force, desquamated cells, recessitating metabolism …

I am confidious, saith Mrs Slip-slop, that you get the picture.

As you can see, the language tends to the scientific or faux-scientific, very much in keeping with the anatomy-lesson-cum-orgy lyrics of goregrind. Like goregrind, many songs treat the disease and dissolution of the body in graphic detail, and are occasionally organized into procedural narratives. In fact, after a few songs you can get to feeling like you are trapped in a gothic medical amphitheater, walls caked with filth, being lectured to by a deranged pathologist … when all at once you realize that yours is the body on the table! (I know! You probably feel this way all the time.) One reviewer in the Encyclopedia actually comments that DH’s lyrics “sound like they were penned by a medical student”—oh please let them not be my doctor—and another praises the band for their “college-level vocabulary.” And how can the heart of a teacher not smile when DH are congratulated for doing their research? That said, there are those details that make me wonder what kind of research DH actually did. I mean, the “Burning protein stench/ From a screaming steel bonesaw”? Sure, I got to play in the cadaver room with a medical-student roommate of mine, but these guys sound like latter-day Herbert Wests, kicked out of med school for … for …

What seems to distinguish Demolition Hammer’s lyrics from goregrind’s is that they apply the genre’s penchant for scientific polysyllables more broadly than the dissection table and the graveyard, to prehistoric monsters, prehistoric men, forces of nature (volcanoes, glaciers), industrial pollution, and so on. On the one hand, the grotesque ethos of goregrind transforms things not of the body (e.g. the volcano’s “orifice”); on the other, in those songs that treat a goregrindish theme, the focus tends to be wider than the body. From “Infectious Hospital Waste,” a song which strikes a chord with we Jerseyites who remember Sandy Hook’s sad harvest: “Virus, absorbed by a school of fish/ Wields a cuisine of demise.”

Wields a cuisine of demise? That’s surely one of the most brilliant, most “metal” lines ever penned. And how could they have known they were writing Vinny Daze’s epitaph? If I ever happen upon the man’s grave, by God, I’ll chisel it on his headstone. (N.B. You might think that’s the first time a metal band would have used the word “cuisine,” but you’d be mistaken. Here is Exodus back in 1984: “Now you’re hell’s cuisine.” Oh, for the day the Encyclopedia enables me to run a concordance!) I should add that fish seem to have inspired this band throughout their short career. The “Omnivore,” for example, is accused of “piscatory savagery,” and described as “gormanding with ferocity,” a close second to “cuisine of demise.”

But then these albums are veritable crowns studded with such gems wrought of excess. Or, if you prefer, cornucopias stuffed with mulched flesh. I love the image of “cryonicists” maintaining their “metallic sarcophagi” (“Gelid Remains”). I am jealous of the compound “pyrocataclysm” which climaxes “Pyroclastic Annihilation.” I much admire elements of the ice-age saga “Cataclysm,” where the glaciers create a “mosaic of inertness.” The crushing last line: “tundra trudge.” I may not know what an “ulcerated carbuncle” is, but just as much as I know I don’t want to get one, I just love how it sounds (“Crippling Velocity”). For sheer gross-out value—which, lest we forget, has its legitimate place in the hierarchy under “terror” and “horror”—one can’t outdo the “barbaric cannibals reveling in flesh” as they “englut raw viscera” (“Carnivorous Obsession”). But the award must go to the song “Epidemic of Violence” just for using the word “defenestration.” I waited a long time to hear the word “defenestration” in a song. My wait ended with the advent of Demolition Hammer.

The chief pitfall of this approach is that the lyrics can sometimes sound cropped from the encyclopedia, rather than arranged into grotesquely novel combinations—when you hear the encyclopedia rather than feeling its weird gravity: in “Cataclysm,” the “expansive power of pack ice”; in “Omnivore,” “massive tissue loss,” “immense bite radius,” and so on. (Watch Jaws much, fellas?)

It would be unforgivable if I didn’t thank the Encyclopedia Metallum for linking to any and all available lyrics. Since all my Demolition Hammer was taped off friends, I have never had access to the words, and so had to make do with what I could decipher. For the last twenty years, that is, I have had to sing “something-something-something without a degree/ Forty-four caliber brain surgery” (“.44 Caliber Brain Surgery”). (The actual lyric: “Practicing without a degree”; in another place, “All I ask is one final plea,” et al.) Then again, sometimes knowing the words is actually counterproductive. If the point is to get as many scientific-sounding polysyllables into a song as possible, then to a certain extent, the less the listener knows, the better. Together with the grating vocals and pummeling music, and surrounded as they are with clearer images of disease and death, unknown, misheard, and corrupted words can take on a Val Lewtonesque suggestiveness: excess is itself exceeded. Which brings me back to “pyroclastic”: what with the “seas of boiling mud” and “magma bombs,” “pyroclastic” is a whole hell of a lot worse before I look it up than after. As much of the above suggests, these productive misunderstandings need not be the listener’s. “Omnivore,” in Demolition Hammer’s universe, is not a qualitative term, but a quantitative one: “eats everything” means not “plants and animals” but “everything in sight” (particularly everything meaty … like you). It makes me wish they had written a song called “Homo Sapien.”

In rock songs, particularly in metal, guitar solos are often—too schematically, I think—treated as moments of climax or catharsis. But while DH’s guitar playing is generally competent and occasionally inspired, it is always trumped by a combination of the frenzied excess of language and the creepy vocals. Instead of waiting for the solo, I find myself waiting for a particular lyric, often during whatever passes for the bridge, or right toward the end of the song, and always after the solo, as if the solo were just a platform for the vocalist to declaim upon (savagely, of course). In “Carnivorous Obsession,” for example, it is the line, “A boiling human broth.” No one says “boiling human broth” like Demolition Hammer does. And yet, even as I write this, it occurs to me that the climactic, post-solo, vocals-driven, bridge back into the verse/chorus happens in a lot of metal songs—Slayer does it in “Silent Scream,” Judas Priest in “Fever” and “Devil’s Child,” to name a few examples that spring to mind—and if I thought about it a while longer, I’d probably find it happening all over rock and pop.

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My original intention for this post was to waffle on a while longer about Demolition Hammer, about the rhythm and tone of their word choice and the interesting meters of their lyrics. But I eventually realized that I was in over my head; the topic really requires its own post. So instead, I’ll let the stream of consciousness dictate my conclusion.

The drummer in my high school band and I took German together all through high school. Besides learning German, which we did pretty well, our other primary occupation in the class was playing connect-four (on paper) and hangman. One day Arjun (for that was his name) drew the stick-gallows and a series of blanks—several words … a phrase … a sentence, with a question mark at the end. I took one look at it, and then looked at him, and said: “Disapprobation, but what have I done?” It’s a little disconcerting to me to think how readily Slayer’s lyrics could percolate up through my consciousness, and still do. The full lyric, from “Criminally Insane”: “Disapprobation, but what have I done? / I have yet only just begun/ To TAKE YOUR FUCKING LIVES!”

I’m pretty sure I know what “disapprobation” means. I can guess. But it’s really a conveniently academic-psychological-sounding five-syllable word to get us to “take your fucking lives,” which is the meat of the lyric. Not that “disapprobation” doesn’t add something. But I could pretty easily sing “blah-blah-blah-blah-blah TAKE YOUR FUCKING LIVES!” and get away with it. In fact, I’m sure vocalist Tommy Araya has gotten away with it loads of times, and am sure he will in the future, as he crests an early drug-and-alcohol-induced dementia. It reminds me of a speech Bob Dole gave back when he was running for president. This was somewhere in the midwest. He muddled a whole string of words, but still managed to come out with a blazing “THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA!” at the end, for which he was grandly applauded, although no one knew what “The United States of America” was the object of. As for the association between “THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA!” and “TAKE YOUR FUCKING LIVES!”—between, that is, the politics and rhetoric of nationalism and criminal insanity—I will leave it for the analysts and the more politically-minded among you to ponder.

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