Pig Destroyer are a band that makes short, highly concentrated albums overflowing with manic energy, and they take their time in getting it right. A long six years have transpired since the release of their 2012 album Book Burner, their longest gap between albums yet (though the five leading up to that one is a close second). So much time, in fact, that it could very well lead to existential questions about the state of the band and what form it might take. Indeed, those who got in on the ground floor will likely marvel at the distance Pig Destroyer have traveled since the minute-long pipe bombs lining their debut album Prowler in the Yard, and early Reddit reactions to the singles from new album Head Cage weren’t always charitable. (Not that Reddit reactions are reliably charitable in any situation, really.) But there’s a reason for that, if one that says more about the listener than the band: Pig Destroyer isn’t making the same music that they did 17 years ago.
Nor should they. If the question regarding Pig Destroyer’s fifth album Head Cage is, “Are they still grindcore?”, the answer is pretty definitively no—for the most part. All the songs under two minutes apiece—”Dark Train,” “Terminal Itch,” “Mt. Skull” and “Trap Door”—are classic Pig Destroyer: furiously-paced explosions of noise, riffs and occasional groove. But for once these are the outliers, the rare moments of hyperspeed destruction amid more stylistic experimentation, more expansive songwriting and a level of accessibility unprecedented on a Pig Destroyer album. The first single, “Army of Cops,” is loaded with groove and a slow-mo breakdown toward the end that’s more in line with metalcore than any of their previous records. It’s not just a telling first single, but one that potentially draws a line in the sand: If you’re not willing to follow where this song leads, perhaps Head Cage isn’t the album for you.
Those who dare enter will discover a truly thrilling metal album, however, one that mostly pushes aside a style the band’s already mastered in favor of a more diverse, groove-heavy and thoroughly fun approach, aided in large part by the addition of bassist John Jarvis. “The Torture Fields,” for one, finds Pig Destroyer flexing by showing off the full scope of their sound in a tight three minutes, from a thrashy series of opening power chords from Scott Hull into a galloping grind, and eventually some rollicking death ‘n’ roll. The “‘n roll” part of that becomes a pretty significant part of the band’s approach here, from the badass strut of “Circle River” into the swampy groove and jerky time signatures of “Concrete Beast.” But Pig Destroyer are still at their best when blurring lines, as they do on “The Adventures of Jason and JR,” as much a hardcore song as it is a death metal song as it is their signature grind.
Pig Destroyer are already a fairly all-or-nothing prospect for listeners. One listen makes it clear what the journey entails, and those not willing to go the distance (however brief) can be forgiven for opting out. This is harsh, intense, unforgiving music. But Head Cage makes a point of showing the full breadth of Pig Destroyer’s sound, from their most straightforward exercises in beating a listener senseless to a lengthy dirge like “House of Snakes,” which is still abrasive and harrowing, but with the kinds of intricacies that playing at 300 BPMs don’t generally allow. Head Cage is only the second Pig Destroyer album in the past decade, which perhaps gives it the feeling of an outsized importance, but the fact that it obliterates expectations is a strength rather than a liability. They’ve grown as a band, and sometimes one minute just isn’t long enough to put that growth into practice.