Unspeakable Axe’s Mystery CD Grab Bag Extravaganza!
Should I have said “extrabaganza”? No, that would have been stupid.
A little while ago, those following Unspeakable Axe Records on Bandcamp received an electronic missive regarding an addition to the label’s online store: a six-CD mystery grab bag. I do not buy much physical media anymore—I sold my entire vinyl collection in 2016-2017 to make some extra money, my CDs are relegated to increasingly infrequent car trips, and my cassettes are getting dustier and dustier at the bottom of the closet. During COVID, with visits to local record shops verboten and all shows put on hiatus, nearly all my purchasing power has been aimed at digital releases. Sure, I’ve bought some pieces of vinyl and various cassettes as gifts for friends, but CDs? Not a single one since 2019! Writing that out makes it seem unfathomable. I’ve obsessed over CDs ever since my mom bought my dad a CD player for his birthday in 1993 or 1994. I still remember the feelings of awe and wonder when my mom revealed the single-disc boombox to us before wrapping it; I’m not sure I was any more impressed when, two years or so later, we got our first home computer. Computers are just expensive jukeboxes with word processors, anyways.
All that to say, I leapt at the opportunity to plunge a sticky claw into the tune-strewn arcade game of Unspeakable Axe’s discography. Unlike the local bar’s claw game, where a whole damn dollar is unlikely to net you a sweet mini-basketball or stuffed animal soon to be slobbered over by a smelly beagle maw, Unspeakable Axe’s mystery game was sure to hit at a winning rate. This is Unspeakable Axe we’re talking about! Athens, GA’s finest record label! Search for “Unspeakable Axe” on Toilet ov Hell or click its tag in an article: interviews, Tech-Death Thursdays, Monday Presses, Toilet Tuesdays, Riff-Raffs, Brackets, End of Year Lists, stoked premieres, glowing reviews… Unspeakable Axe releases show up everywhere and in everything except the dreaded Flush. With such a strong catalogue and at a premium price point—$5.50 per album!—this mystery grab bag was barely a gamble. Take my tokens and my quarters, please!
More importantly than a sweet deal from a cool label, however, pressing “Buy Now” on the grab bag did three things: (1) it recalled having no idea what an album would sound like till you bought it and threw it in your Discman; (2) it promised the thrill of unearthing that unexpected gem that somehow found its way into the bargain bin; and (3) it struck an intoxicating contrast between the cumbersome but lovable joys of buying physical media and the slick, smooth, data-fried experience of digital downloads. Not for nothing, it also brought to mind the superfluous joy and slight embarrassment of double-purchasing one album, often because you simply forgot you already owned it. Thus, I remembered all at once the anguish of spending $20 on Soak’s insipid and uninspired Interscope Records debut at the first CD store to shutter in the Glynn Place Mall in Brunswick, GA, back in 1997; the glee of finding three Knut albums at a CD Warehouse in Lawrenceville, GA, while on a trip between Athens and Atlanta sometime during college; and the slap-your-forehead forgetfulness of coming home from Low Yo Yo Records with what turned out to be my second copy of Melvins‘s Lysol. How was I supposed to know what Melvins albums I already owned? It’s not like I keep them chronologically organized in their own private CD case or anything.
I also thought about what the hell I was going to do with the 6 CDs, figuring I would inevitably send them to a friend. As of this post, though, their 6 jewel cases, somewhat neatly stacked in the center console, are still accompanying me on my one weekly drive on Thursday afternoons, rotating in and out as I cruise through Atlanta’s endlessly sprawling neighbourhoods. Who knows. Maybe this is how I fall in love all over again.
The question remains, of course: what six CDs did I get?
Laceration – Remnants (2019)
Lacerate your eardrums with “Exhausted in Form”
Remnants collects Laceration’s Consuming Reality EP (2009, tracks 7-10), Realms of the Unconscious demo (2010, tracks 1-3), and their side of a split with Tinnitus (2013, tracks 4-6) into one convenient compilation, showcasing the band’s impressive 4-year run before a 5-year hiatus culminated in the 2018 release of Imitation. That EP was the only Laceration with which I was previously familiar.
These clamorous Californians are not interested so much in reinventing the death/thrash wheel as they are setting it into perpetual motion on an axle greased with the rabid spittle of their forebears. Fans of Demolition Hammer’s Epidemic of Violence or Death’s Leprosy will delight in Laceration’s rapid-fire riffs and all-gas-no-brakes pace. Those looking for that rougher ’80s sound should head straight to the final 4 tracks, where “Arise Within” shines through the grime as one of the album’s shortest, rowdiest tracks. Don’t skip “Exhausted in Form” or “Hobo with a Shotgun” on your way there, though! What a fun start to the party.
Draghkar – At the Crossroads of Infinity (2020)
Drag your car across the crossroads of infinity to the sound of “An Erosion of the Eternal Soul”
Spoiler! This is the one album I already owned, though I, of course, only owned it digitally.
Toileteers far and wide will recognize Unspeakable Axe mainstays Draghkar as both Toilet ov Hell contributor Brandon Corsair’s genre-melding death metal band and the winners of a hotly contested band logo contest. While At the Crossroads of Infinity sees Corsair winged with a brand new lineup consisting of death metal veterans from acts such as Vastum, Acephalix, and Drawn and Quartered, the hallmarks of the band’s sound found on 2018’s The Endless Howling Abyss are still present: prominent, galloping bass licks; catchy guitar harmonies, tasteful leads, and an approach to old school death metal that does not forget the genre’s affinities with heavy metal and black metal.
As such, Draghkar acts as a natural bridge from the ’80s to the ’90s. You can hear hints of The Chasm, early Sentenced, Mercyful Fate, and Morbid Angel throughout At the Crossroads of Infinity. Lengthier, thoughtful passages of mournful melodic metal are punctuated with plenty of hefty, heavy riffing. Draghkar prefers a slower, more methodical approach to the cosmic questions of the infinite, lending space and time to the listener to go mad contemplating the oblivion of mortality. It’s an odd thing to say about an album that opens with the sharpened, speedy assault of “The First Death,” but, by the time you get to the final chilling moments of the album’s titular closer, you realize you have been afforded ample room to explore the neuroses and anxieties that daily eat away at you. You’re not left blistered so much as you are daunted by the breadth of Draghkar’s swirling abyss.
Unrest – Grindcore (2015)
Destroy some pigs to “Drown”
This is why you order mystery grab bags! A forgotten jewel from the extraordinarily distant year 2015. Founded by guitarist/vocalist Steve Jansson (Trenchrot, Crypt Sermon) and joined by bassist Brooks Wilson (Crypt Sermon, Trenchrot) and drummer Chris Grigg (Glorious Depravity, Woe), Unrest is a grindcore trio who plays grindcore that sounds like grindcore, looks like grindcore, and, oh yeah, smells like grindcore, too.
Do you like Terrorizer? How about Napalm Death? More of a Brutal Truth fan? Oh, Nasum’s your favourite? You’re in luck! Grindcore is grindcore, and those grindcore bands’ calloused fingerprints are all over this grindcore record. There’s even a hint of hardcore on Grindcore, in tracks such as “Quit,” “Faith is a Hearse,” “Anything to Shock,” “Identity in the Internet Age,” and, particularly, the last half of “False Brotherhood,” which is a perfectly named hardcore song. So maybe Grindcore isn’t all grindcore; rather, it’s grind- that brought its buddy -core to the house destruction party.
Unrest’s Grindcore is as crushable as a 6-pack of Miller Lite pounders, and that’s before the ridiculous Pig Destroyer-esque ending to closer “Drown” leaves you ground down to your very rotten core.
Aggravator – Aggravator (2019)
Aggravate the neighbours with “Desensitized Devotion”
If the riff at 1:15 of “Desensitized Devotion” doesn’t send all the furniture in your bedroom flying out the window, you and I want very different things out of our thrash. While I do generally tend towards crossover or the modern hardcore-infused thrash sound, I’ll always have a soft spot for ’80s thrash that knows how to take even the briefest of pauses from careening wildly through dead man’s curve riffs to properly bang heads against concrete slabs. Aggravator rarely slow down, but when they do, they do so with aplomb.
A short and sweet EP at just 6 songs, Aggravator does not need belabouring. You will hear moshy Teutonic thrash a la Kreator swizzled together with South of Heaven or Seasons in the Abyss-era Slayer, packaged nicely to fit alongside fellow Unspeakable Axe labelmates Laceration, Ripper, and Sadistic Ritual. Treat this as a nice warm-up for the band’s forthcoming EP Unseen Repulsions.
Hemotoxin – Biological Enslavement (2016)
A track to get your blood boiling: “Forgotten Faces”
Am I allowed to just plagiarize Spear’s review of Hemotoxin’s 2020 Restructure the Molded Mind? I don’t know anything about 9th-chord melodies, but I do know that if you liked Restructure, you will certainly enjoy reaching further back into Hemotoxin’s discography to jam their second LP Biological Enslavement.
Working backwards from Spear’s write-up, we might hear how Hemotoxin’s multi-faceted approach to proggy technical death metal is a bit looser on Biological Enslavement. At times, the different elements bump rather than mesh. I’m thinking particularly of the first 30 seconds of “Minus Human” that are meant to introduce the Death/Cynic-influenced track but feel rather unmoored from the rest of the song. This is hardly an issue, as the track is still thoroughly enjoyable, but I think it highlights Spear’s point. You can, as well, feel like you’re listening to a band who can play multiple styles at impressive levels still figuring out which styles are most central. From the opening, nearly slamming intensity of “Decadence” to the glossy, melodic early heavy metal/thrash of “Transparent Eyes,” you’ve traveled between solar systems that are certainly within the same universe but perhaps asymmetrically aligned.
That’s not to say that the album is a mishmash of ill-constructed ideas. Not at all. It mostly all works, particularly on “Forgotten Faces.” Effortlessly smooth arpeggiated solos glide over melodic, bouncy riffs that counterbalance a far heavier, more brutal technicality. Smack in the middle of the album, “Forgotten Faces” has the gravitational mass to pull all the elements of Biological Enslavement into itself and arrange them into a shining example of this style of tech death.
Omnivore – Omnivore (2014)
Take a bite of the tasty morsel that is “Omnivore”
If there’s been any method to this article’s organization, it has been to place Omnivore’s lone full-length in the final slot. Similar to Unrest’s Grindcore, Omnivore is an album I did not know existed prior to receiving it in the mystery grab bag. It is precisely the type of album that I would never have heard without it being selected for me by Eric Musall, label owner and metal connoisseur. Its previous fate? To languish at the bottom of Unspeakable Axe’s page as the label grows and continues to release more and more stellar music. Let’s see if we can revivify and reanimate it!
Taking their cues from Sepultura as well as the aforementioned Slayer, Kreator, and Demolition Hammer, Omnivore distill their influences into a perfect homage to the ’80s. In some sense, everything I wrote about Aggravator is true about Omnivore, just truer. The solos are squealier, the mosh parts hit the pit with that much more aggression, and the lyrics are more explicitly socio-political. In that sense, we might add Havok to the mix, as Omnivore makes very clear their view on the state of the world. The album’s intro, “Dead,” “I Hope the War Comes,” and “Nothing More than Dust” are all highlights, ripping you out of the hell of 40 years of neoliberalism and throwing you into the decade that saw it firmly take hold across the Global North.
Ultimately, I have little more to say about Omnivore other than I have not listened to this much thrash in quite some time, and I am doing so entirely owing to rolling the dice at the cost of a new hardback book. I’m not necessarily sure of or overly concerned with Omnivore’s staying power. It has been, for me, the quintessential music-purchasing experience: I didn’t know it existed, it ended up in my hands anyway, and I loved it. Isn’t that why we listen to music in the first place? To be, for even a moment, moved outside of our quotidian patterns in order to feel or experience life a little more sharply? Thanks to Omnivore, Unspeakable Axe, and all the bands whose CDs I received in this grab bag, I’ve been interrupted, disrupted, and discomposed. Sometimes, it is quite the privilege to be so.
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