Thursday, April 20, 2017

Recklessness and refinement: In praise of Dismember

I've been doing that thing again, that immersion thing that has spawned so many posts on this blog. It's become the way music happens to me, a framework for how I (ideally) engage with this infinite, and infinitely pleasurable, sea of sonic information we look out on every day.

For me, it's pretty simple: You get ahold of a large discography by a given band or artist, and you just run it down. Backwards, forwards, randomly. Take as long as you want. For me, the less "relevant" the band/artist is to the current "conversation," the better. Because of my job, I live daily within the stream of the news firehose; what a pleasure it is — maybe something like the quiet life of an academic, which seems so far removed from what I do, so appealing, in some ways, but also maybe somewhat foreign to my nature — to just get away from all that. It's like taking a weekend trip to the woods. I think what I crave more than anything as a listener-for-pleasure is just peace and quiet.

Often, somewhat ironically, I guess, via loud and aggressive sounds. Metal works so well for the above "run it down" practice. And death metal works particularly well, because you run across these gloriously lengthy, rich discographies, often largely unswayed by trends. Hence the obsessions with Obituary, Bolt Thrower, Immolation, Incantation and the rest. And now, Dismember.

I've developed such affection for this band during the past few weeks that I feel like I've known them my whole life, so to speak, but unlike with Obituary, Morbid Angel, Cannibal Corpse and a few others, Dismember are a relatively new discovery for me. I first heard their classic 1991 debut, Like an Everflowing Stream, a few years back. I loved it but didn't go deeper, and it appears that many have similarly short-changed this truly phenomenal band. It's a trend that often frustrates me in the discourse that surrounds metal — i.e., the forsaking of works, usually later ones, that fall outside the acknowledged canon. You see so many bands where 10, 20, 30 years of work gets reduced to a single iconic record that came out during the glory years of said band's subgenre. First-four-albums Metallica worship (and, conversely, instant dismissal of their more recent output) would be the most visible example here, but this kind of thinking extends vastly outward. You don't run into many folks who want to sit around and talk about why A Skeletal Domain, in its own way, rules just as much as The Bleeding, or why Back From the Dead is actually a more enjoyable record in many ways than Cause of Death. (At work, I've become known as Late Album Hank, a mocking tribute to my affection for such supposedly past-their-prime records.)

But the question for me is, if a band you love keeps making records and doesn't totally jump the shark à la Morbid on Illud Divinum Insanus (being the Morbid die-hard that I am, I have even found a few things to love in that deeply flawed, probably justly vilified album), why wouldn't you want to relish every last one?

I digress. What I mean to say, really, is that Dismember's eight-album run, from Everflowing Stream through 2008's self-titled — and, to date, final — LP is a frankly shocking achievement of consistency and quality. Let's compare their body of work to that of Bolt Thrower, the subject of my last immersion-listening program. Like most metal bands, "extreme" or otherwise, BT took a few albums to really fine-tune and get down to the business that would ultimately prove to be their calling card. Again, I know the metal community at large wants to brand an album like War Master an untouchable classic, but to me, it's just a warm-up for the truly mature Bolt Thrower that emerges on The IVth Crusade, or even …For Victory, and from that point on, we only get a precious three albums before the band's breakup.

Dismember, on the other hand, emerged with an essentially perfect statement. Not just a first album, but a first song on that first album, that sums up everything they do well. If you're a more casual listener than me, this might be all the Dismember you need, and if so, well get ready to fucking rock:

I'm only about a quarter of the way into Daniel Ekeroth's essential Swedish Death Metal tome, so I don't have all the deep background on that country's storied scene that I'd like to in order to truly reckon with Dismember's place in the lineage. But one fact that was pretty much obvious to me before I dove in to this catalog was that Entombed tend to overshadow all of Swedish death metal, and the common notion is that everyone else's records are a sort of consolation prize when compared to theirs.

All respect to Entombed. They're an outstanding, justly legendary band. But their discography is not the monolithic monster that Dismember's is. I've been working my way through their records recently too, in a less feverish and systematic way, and it's a bit of a rockier path. You have these two early masterpieces, Left Hand Path and Clandestine, which, as fully realized as they are, still sound formative to me, and then you have this whole other thing on Wolverine Blues, a phenomenally heavy, enjoyable record that sends the band in a very different direction that, honestly, I greatly prefer. (In the end, as much as I love underground and "extreme" music, I'm often after the more polished, pro-sounding statement from a given band, hence my love of major-label post-hardcore.) I'm still working my way through, but from there, things get weird: Labels change, key members start dropping out, etc. I will have to report back to you, but I already felt my interest waning ever so slightly when checking out the fourth, relatively obscure Entombed record, 1997's DCLXVI: To Ride, Shoot Straight and Speak the Truth, the last one to date to include all the key players from Left Hand Path.

Anyway, all I mean to say is that Dismember tend to get this sort of second-place treatment (or worse) when the topic of Swedish death metal is discussed. (And I ought to clarify here that I'm talking about the so-called Stockholm / Sunlight Studio sound, not the Gothenburg "melodic death metal" one, as exemplified by At the Gates et al.) But if you really lay out the evidence, regardless of who came first (and we're talking about a matter of roughly a year here between the releases of Left Hand Path and Everflowing Stream), Dismember are the band that really lived and breathed what I hear as the essence of this music for way longer. Their consistency, both in terms of aesthetic and quality level, is honestly insane.

Compare "Override of the Overture" above to this, from the self-titled album, which came out 17 years later:

Some things have changed, of course. Drummer Fred Estby, one of the three true core members of Dismember who where there from the Everflowing Stream period on (the others being guitarist David Blomqvist and frontman Matti Kärki), left before this final album. His indefatigable, punishing-yet-groove-drenched, reckless-yet-relaxed style is so absolutely essential to the band's classic sound that I was at first inclined to "asterisk" Dismember slightly. But after spending some good time with it, I realized it was just as essential as all the others. Yes, Dismember belong to the No Bad Albums Club, a distinction I'm not yet prepared to bestow on Entombed.

"The Hills Have Eyes" may not have every Dismember hallmark, may not sum up their strengths as insanely well as "Override of the Overture." But what gets me is how intact the spirit of what they do remains here. Dismember's core principle is this kind of glorious turbulence, a primal and punky heave, wherein you feel constantly threshed and swept along by the sharpness and momentum of the riffs. The music just moves, and moves you, in such a thrilling way. I've rarely encountered metal that's so ruthlessly devoted to the art of making you bang your fucking head. Hearing this music over and over, I'm more and more bummed I never got to see this band live. (I'm praying that, as Estby said in a 2016 interview, they might get back together in the future for more shows.) I can only imagine the monster rush that this stuff would provide in person.

And of course there's that absolutely disgusting guitar tone, the classic Stockholm hallmark — the Swedish Chainsaw — again largely associated with Entombed, or more specifically Nihilist, that band's prior incarnation, and even more specifically, that band's late guitarist Leif "Leffe" Cuzner, who didn't graduate to Entombed along with his comrades. Listening to so much Dismember, I have to ask: Did any band revel in the crunch and filth that the Boss HM-2 pedal spewed forth to a greater degree than Dismember?

That sensation of thin, serrated nastiness. That unrepentantly gross, brittle, hacking texture that has become world-famous to the point that it practically signifies an entire genre. Has it ever been so extensively and skillfully and, I would argue, profoundly applied as in the work of Dismember? This band made a nasty sound and a breakneck, punk-indebted feel into something like a religion, driving further and further into the center of that holy combination — wherein each stop-time clench and righteously unspooling riff seems to send your teeth rattling around in your skull and your eyes rolling back in your head — and never wavering from the attack mission.

And yet there's also this element of grand refinement. Something Bolt Thrower brings in as well, and that obviously Carcass incorporated as well as anybody ever has. That classic British sound of elegy and victory and valor and, well, honestly, fucking Iron Maiden. I've gotten wind of a sort of controversial aspect of Dismember's Massive Killing Capacity album, and even the band itself seems iffy on it. ("On Indecent and Massive Killing Capacity we tried different approaches to making the music, but it didn't really work out," Kärki said in 2000.) But I frankly adore this side of the band — I think albums like MKC do an incredible job of marrying that awesomely raw quality you hear on a track like "The Hills Have Eyes" with the grandeur of classic, pre-"extreme" metal. (Check out the gorgeous and entirely convincing melodic instrumental "Nenia," Dismember's own "Orion.")

A lot of that has to do with Kärki. Like John Tardy or Karl Willetts or Martin Van Drunen or any of these truly great death-metal vocalists, his is a shamanic presence, one that takes a rough instrument and makes it feel so true and focused and essential and spiritually potent. Even on a track like "Collection by Blood," where he sounds a little out of his element in terms of the intensely melodic quality of the music around him, Kärki brings this sense of total engagement and authority. The act of bellowing and growling over loud metal music is a fundamentally weird one — though I guess when you get down to it, maybe it's less weird than refined singing, which requires a willful refinement of the natural sound an uncivilized human animal makes when it opens its mouth — but a frontman like Kärki just seems so immersed and so at home in the practice. His is the bellow, the ever-Hulking-out voice of arrrrrggggghh that powered every single Dismember full-length. (Until I really spent time with Dismember, I never quite understood how indebted fellow Swedes Sorcery were to them, and specifically to the combo of Blomkvist's merciless riffs and Kärki's booming roar.)

The recklessness and the refinement, the snarls and the soaring melody. The wrath and sickness of hardcore and the pride and drama of the NWOBHM bands. Over eight incredible albums, Dismember somehow managed to build these bridges and keep all the foundations sturdy, combining the rawness of drunk teenagers spilling vomit into the street after, or during, Friday night rehearsal (a spirit clearly gleaned from the members' Autopsy obsession; I love Kärki's characterization of that band's Chris Reifert as the "Midas of death metal"; and on a similar note Blomkvist's matter-of-fact this-ain't-rocket-science viewpoint: "We try not to be in the studio too long [laughs]. I mean, we play death metal.") with an epic, theatrical sweep that suggests an ancient amphitheater as much as a sweaty club.

I feel so goddamned enriched and energized by this catalog. If any of the above resonates and you haven't taken the full plunge, by all means, get to it. No Bad Albums!

Here are a bunch of other awesome Dismember tracks (sadly sans several gems from 2006's The God That Never Was, the band's final album to date with Fred Estby, which isn't on Spotify):

No comments: