New albums from Virginian grindcore legends Pig Destroyer are increasingly few and far between, so each new release is a genuine momentous occasion. This time around, in the six years since Book Burner (which was itself five years removed from Phantom Limb), the stakes grew higher for the band in maintaining their spot on grindcore’s pedestal; or the first time ever, the band have invited a bassist into the fold in John Jarvis, further expanding their lineup after additions of drummer Adam Jarvis replaced Brian Harvey prior to Book Burner and sampler/electronics guy Blake Harrison on Phantom Limb. Such a change in dynamic, both sonically and interpersonally, is bound to have an effect on the output, and when taking into account six years of artistic development and fan anticipation, the group’s latest effort Head Cage was bound to be heavily scrutinized.
At the arrival of the final product, indeed, Head Cage presents a logical next step from the more grooving and riff-oriented Pig Destroyer sound that has been developed through the years since Phantom Limb and further explored on Book Burner. In hindsight, the EP of hardcore punk covers was especially telling and foreshadowed Head Cage‘s occasional flirtations with hardcore. The record’s lead single “Army of Cops” was divisive in itself as it slowed the tempo and had few blastbeats to speak of. Some even dared to call the track “metalcore.” The track would adequately foreshadow some of what was to come of Head Cage, and fans grasping at hope of a grindy Prowler In The Yard throwback after Book Burner are going to be left disappointed.
Regardless, anyone who paid attention to the trajectory of Pig Destroyer over the years shouldn’t be surprised by Head Cage. The Scott Hull riff machine continues to revel in “big” moments of inspired deathgrind riffing, punctuated by the aging yet rabid JR Hayes’ remarkable vocal and lyrical presence, brief forays into noise and horror samples, and a newly thickened rhythm section. After Blake Harrison and Dylan Walker (Full of Hell) join forces for a terrifying opener “The Tunnel Under The Tracks,” the band rips into the one-minute banger “Dark Train” with fierce guitar and frantic blasts in traditional Pig Destroyer fashion. It’s truly exhilarating grind, and provides some contrast and context for “Army of Cops” to follow, where headbanging grooves and some room to breathe create a more dynamic flow. The following track “Circle Train” is one highlight on the record which leans a bit into their hardcore influences, accented with some use of gang vocals, which appear sparingly across the record.
The band also take opportunities to elaborate on their sludge influences. The seven minute finale “House of Serpents” at times feels like Leviathan-era Mastodon. “Concrete Beast” sports some pretty jagged sludge rhythms, with Agoraphobic Nosebleed‘s Kat Katz accentuating the piece with a prominent guest vocal spot. The addition of bass guitar certainly allows for a more opportunities for this style, particularly in the bass-lead intro to “The Last Song.” Between the increased references to hardcore and sludge, there’s no surprise that the grind ratio has decreased, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t any grind to be found on Head Cage. The album is littered with what you’d expect out of Pig Destroyer, with blasts of grind in shorter tracks such as “Terminal Itch” and “Mt. Skull.”
Head Cage is ultimately somewhat predictable, but that doesn’t make it particularly bad. It is a culmination of everything Pig Destroyer have been hinting at and working towards for years. Some longtime fans and grind purists will surely be disappointed after waiting six years for 30 minutes of diluted grind. However, fans that came along post-Phantom Limb are sure to find much worthy of celebration. Head Cage may not be a stand-out grindcore record, per say, but fans of thick riffs and snarling ferocity are stoked.