When it comes to pure grind, Pig Destroyer have nothing to prove. Their sequence of releases from Prowler in the Yard through Terrifyer into Phantom Limb is up there with the greatest runs not just of the genre but of extreme metal and the extremist wing of punk as a whole. Each of those records are considered masterclasses of the genre, containing more riffs and absolutely neck-snapping songs than most bands have across their entire careers. That Pig Destroyer would also sneak a 30-minute experimental/progressive doom track in the way of “Natasha” as a DVD-A exclusive second disc on the initial pressings of Terrifyer hinted at the broader ambitions of the group already touched on by their non-conventional approach to the genre. So, slight disappointment of Book Burner aside, it was no wonder that EP Mass & Volume and LP Head Cage featured a reorientation of the group, one that seemed more interested in taking the experimental sprinkles formerly dashed across their work and focused on fully on “Natasha” and make those the main course that grind elements would then enliven. The fulfillment of the group into a full band over the span from Phantom Limb to Head Cage certainly helped things; the shape of the group was shifting, old ground had been conquered, and there seemed to be untapped riches in the vaults beneath their feet.
The Octagonal Stairway reads as a transitional document in this arc. It is notable, at least on paper, of being half-composed of standalone singles that had come out over the past few years, including the title track which once had been an Adult Swim single. Perhaps it is for this reason that it is classified as an EP instead of a full album despite only being a hair shorter than their previous full-length. Still, seeing all of these tracks in one place, especially fleshed out by the other experimental three tracks, certainly demonstrates a band that seems more or less done with grind as we know it. There are moments on The Octagonal Stairway that would make any grind fan (or grind band for that matter) proud, but the balance has definitively shifted toward the noise rock and experimental gestures that marked what before had been a substrate of the band’s sound.
The most satisfying element of the record is the prominence of noise/synth guy Blake Harrison, who brings a much needed sense of texture and sonic depth to what in other hands, even the band’s own earlier in their career, would have been a mere sonic beatdown. The group has always been a functional supergroup of the genre, featuring virtuosic playing and writing in each of its positions. The band’s functional leader Scott Hull is rightly regarded as perhaps the best guitarist in the genre, just as capable with fingersnapping twisting riffs that even prog vets would find challenging to play as hardcore thrashers and heavy-as-fuck doomy trudges. Vocalist J. R. Hayes is a monumental literary talent, having a substantially sharper pen than most in a genre that often finds itself comfortable with mere depictions of harsh violence and vague rebellious statements. Adam Jarvis is one of the most substantially versatile drummers grind has received, as adept at atmospheric almost Neurosis-inspired orchestrated drum parts as brutal as all hell blasts, knowing the right way to cross the clean and precise with the dirty and animalistic. New bass player Travis Stone was formerly the guitar player for the first lineup of Noisem, the grind wunderkinds who at the ripe age of 18 blew most of the other bands they played with right off the stage. But Blake has rarely before gotten as much time to flex his sonic capabilities as his accomplished peers, often seeming comfortable filling out the sonic space as a consummate teammate. The fact that he gets so much time to shine here is as validating as it is sonically necessary; to go the places the group clearly wants to go, they need him in a star position, and these tracks testing that element surely validate that he’s more than capable.
As a whole, it’s hard not to find The Octagonal Stairway more attention grabbing than Head Cage, the LP that precedes it. Sure, it largely comprises standalone singles made for places like Decibel and Adult Swim, but the way they blend together along with the especially captivating and deeply moody ambient/noise piece “Sound Walker” which closes out the record shows a Pig Destroyer that’s more emboldened to cross the divide that on Head Cage they had just brought themselves up to. Perhaps, admittedly, this is due to the amount of time the directional shift of Head Cage has had to settle. That record was a divisive one in the fanbase, if not so with critics, with some feeling disappointed that the previous intriguing spices of noise rock and experimentalism and dashes of prog that were sprinkled over the band’s bone-ruining grindcore was now taking center stage. The Octagonal Stairway feels like a validation of that lunge. I’ve known and loved this band for a long time; as a Virginian, they are local heroes, and as an extreme metal fan it is hard not to love that magical early run of the band. But if I’m to be honest, I haven’t been this primally excited about not only a Pig Destroyer release in the present but what it bode for the future since Phantom Limb well over a decade ago. It isn’t that the group was ever bad, but it seemed somewhat that their place on the frontier of the genre was being ceded to other groups. To have a Pig Destroyer that feels so refreshingly modern and unpredictable is a terribly exciting thing.
Langdon Hickman is listening to progressive rock and death metal. He currently resides in Virginia with his partner and their two pets.