Bump N’ Grind: Celebrating the Holidays with Elk and Owls
Look, I get it. The holidays are a drag. You have to spend time with family members you’ve unfollowed on Facebook because you can’t stand to read one more political post. You have to spend some of your own hard-earned money on useless toys for your sister’s children rather than some of your favorite beer that you really need to take the edge off after work while you sit on the couch watching Stranger Things, eating leftover Chinese takeout and sullenly hoping that a plane engine drops through your roof. You have to hear Christmas music at work all day and even need to make a run to Saver’s to find some wretched sweater for that awful tacky sweater party at your office. It’s all such a drag, man! Well fret not, amigos, because I have some grind to blast your holiday blues away! So grab some eggnog, pull on some warm wool socks, and grind it out with the owls and elk while you barrel down the street in your antler-bedecked Mazda Tribute, smacking stars off the tops of the neighborhood Christmas trees with a candy-cane striped hockey stick.
Your first present this Grindmas Eve is the wickedly irreverent and decidedly British grind/powerviolence extravaganza The Great British Grind Off by Raised By Owls. This 24-track, tea-and-amphetamine fueled slobberknocker is a hedonistic, tongue-in-cheek celebration of all things British and all things grind. The derisive, deeply satirical humor that has been executed so perfectly by luminaries like Graf Orlock and Agoraphobic Nosebleed is on full display here, yet it’s given a distinctly British flavor that lends it a snootier, slightly more highbrow air. Political figures, British dining habits, television programs, and national news fixtures are all ruthlessly lampooned with abandon on tracks like “Boris Johnson, Vampire of London” and “David Cameron’s Favourite Band Is Pig Destroyer.” If you happen to be from the colonies, though, fret not; there are still plenty of bones tossed to us common rabble. I’m particularly fond of “The Art of Queuing,” a spastic 30-second burner that eviscerates the Briton’s inane habit of queuing pointlessly with a bulldozing riff straight through the middle. It’s all deeply charming and cynical in a way that perfectly compliments the music at hand.
None of that would matter, though, if the music sucked. I’m happy to report, then, that this is top shelf grind and powerviolence from the punk tradition. Shorter tracks like “An American Werewolf in Bognor Regis” and “Scary Spice Has a Gangrenous Arm” feature killer pinch-harmonic leads, loads of distortion, and more crusty d-beats and blast beats than you can possibly endure. The aforementioned references to Graf Orlock and Agoraphobic Nosebleed aren’t just lip service, either. Raised By Owls are masters of layering dense guitar riffs over relentless blasts and multiple vocal tracks to barrage you with killer cut after killer cut; each song features an endless cavalcade of sharp, punky riffs that have both heft and edge and are sure to have you spinkicking in whatever queue you find yourself in today.
Where the band really excels, however, is taking that wry British irreverence and applying it to the music itself. Although the album has a number of straightforward barn-burners, tracks like “Chuckle Vision Is Just Drug Slang” with its Ramming Speed-esque gang vocals and palm-muted open riffs and “Have You Seen This Weather We’re Having” with its 90s-prog death metal clean passage and doomy riffs really highlight this band’s prowess and break up the potential monotony of an often monolithic genre. Some of the weird little ventures, like the perversely distorted “Harry Potter And The Curse Of The Student Loan,” end up being some of the most engaging and interesting cuts on the album because of all the unique riffs and elements incorporated.
Perhaps best of all is the fact that this album is absolutely free. Not “Name Your Price,” but 100% gratis. Few career grind bands have written albums as fun and engaging and varied as The Great British Grind Off. That this is only a debut album is an absolute testament to the amount of skill possessed by these lads. Show them some love on Facebook.
Your second gift this Grindmas Eve takes us so far from the beaten path that I’m not sure grind is even the right word for this. When I first stumbled upon Valley of Need by BloodElk, it was billed as “blackened grind.” The blackened description is certainly debatable, and despite the punk riffs and skank beats, the album can only really be described as nominally grind at best. What it is, however, is a bit more difficult to pinpoint. BloodElk is a one-man bass-and-drum extreme metal act from Asheville. Each release in the band’s oeuvre is a meditation on nature featuring only bass guitar rffs/leads and programmed drums. Although this format isn’t entirely without precedent within metal (both Vod and Radiation Blackbody have been featured here on the Toilet), a purely rhythmic approach is atypical in the realm of grind and/or black metal. If nothing else, the novelty of the music is worth mentioning.
Thankfully, Valley of Need is more than just a one-off novelty. The songs, though lacking some of the depth a full-fledged band can offer, are well-written and engaging. BloodElk veers from blast beats to swinging punk with perfect fluidity in a way that feels as organic and natural as the subject matter. While a bludgeoning, percussive rhythmic approach is the norm, some tracks, like “Whitefall,” feature plaintive doom riffs that reverberate like hoof-falls in an open canyon, summoning visions of the grand doom style of Turbid North and the swampy sludge of Mastodon. It is a testament to BloodElk’s capabilities then that he can incorporate elements similar to Blood Mountain or Orogeny into a nominally “blackened grind” album without them ever feeling out of place. The little soundscape accoutrements and slight tape hisses and reverb only add to the overarching aesthetic of natural harshness.
The binding theme is really what completes the package for me, though. According to the album’s Bandcamp page:
This album is an attempt to create raw blackened metal with a bass guitar acting as a foundation. It tells the story of an elk surviving through spring into the winter where it is hunted and killed by a starving pack of wolves. There is some sort of metaphor for Maslow’s hierarchy of needs somewhere in here I guess.
For those of you unaware, Maslaw’s Hierarchy of Needs is a psychology theory that details that humans move through different levels of self-awareness and living as their baser, more primitive needs are met. The pyramid’s original conception was tipped with full self-actualization, though Maslow himself would revisit the pyramid later in life and add the even greater need of self-transcendence, essentially claiming that the greatest form of actualization is actually sacrificing the self to altruism and spirituality.
How this all applies to BloodElk’s admittedly sparse lyrical tale of an elk struggling for survival isn’t readily apparent aside from the somewhat on-the-nose metaphor that the self can’t be actualized while struggling for survival. Perhaps this is a commentary on humanity on a global scale actually failing to climb the period because we’re still locked into a global struggle for resources and security, chaining us to the lower levels of actualization because we can’t seem to feed all the hungry and stop killing each other. This metaphor seems apropos, albeit heavy-handed in the current political climate of the United States with so many feeling unsafe and unloved. Perhaps the metaphor is a defense of veganism claiming that we as humans should be stewards of the natural world and afford all life opportunities for self-actualization. Maybe we’re the elk, and our only means of ever gaining self-esteem is to stand our ground against the wolves threatening us. This particular interpretation seems to fit nicely with the lyrics to “Blood and Battle.”
Hunted. Cornered. Waylaid. Bared Fangs. I must stand my ground, with weapons I am crowned. I can’t kill them all, but some of them shall fall. Adrenaline shall flow, as I pierce my foes. They move to surround, hooves do pound. Antlers down, stand my ground.
Whatever the actual allegory at work is, I’m glad BloodElk opted for a different lyrical path than the stock fare of evil, debauchery, war, etc. so commonplace in metal and grind. It’s refreshing to see commentary about the human condition that extends a bit beneath the standard, even if that theme is wreathed in symbolism.
All of that said, Valley of Need is far from perfect. The vocals are admittedly poor. Although they do at times sound like an elk call, they more often fall a flat as weak rasps. There are even some odd little recording artifacts left in the final mix, but I find these more endearing than distracting, so your mileage may vary. Many may dislike the drum programming, though I’d argue that the writing is given enough variation, including interesting fills and rhythmic changes, to never sound out of place. The album is also quite short, clocking in at a meager fifteen minutes. If you can get past these shortcomings, though, what you’ll find is a thoughtful experiment that deviates pretty far from the commonplace. It certainly won’t appeal to most, but fans of atypical metal should at least give it a fair shake. The “Name Your Price” download certainly doesn’t hurt.
Well, are you feeling more jolly than before? Good. Just keep swilling that nog and banging your head. Merry Grindmas.