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During an interview I conducted for this paper in 2001, Pig Destroyer guitarist and Bethesda resident Scott Hull suggested that his band didn’t feel at home in its hometown. The local punk-metal act’s favorite area venue was in Baltimore, he said, not in the nation’s capital. At the time, the band had yet to release its first widely available full-length, 2001’s Prowler in the Yard. Yet Pig Destroyer’s early preference for Charm City spoke volumes about D.C.’s incuriosity toward, or unwillingness to embrace, a band that operates outside of punk and indie-rock norms. In this case, it wasn’t just any local act. It was a band that, even then, was among the best in the extreme-metal underground.
Not much has changed since then. According to Pig Destroyer’s label, Relapse, the band has played within D.C.’s city limits just three times since 2001—and never at the Black Cat or 9:30 Club. When asked if the band would play here to promote its latest full-length, Phantom Limb, the label representative responded that nothing is planned. Which is too bad, because Phantom Limb is Pig Destroyer’s most accessible release. It also arrives at a time when alt-metal—not to be confused with nü-metal—is getting attention from more mainstream audiences. Isis, a band that once shared a split seven-inch with Pig Destroyer, is a regular headliner here. And Mastodon, a band that recently left Relapse for Warner Bros., packed the 9:30 Club in February.
Pig Destroyer is coarser, by contrast—its earliest tracks were so fast and dense that they sometimes blurred the distinction between music and mayhem—but the band has plenty in common with its more successful peers. Like Isis and Mastodon, Hull and company avoid many of the genre’s worst clichés, such as grandiose vocals and songs that are mere pretexts for solos. Much of Pig Destroyer’s no-frills aesthetic is derived from grindcore, a genre that combines the virtuosity of thrash metal with the austerity of punk. Grindcore songs seldom last more than a couple of minutes and typically sound like garage rock played too fast. In order to achieve this effect, grindcore bands often sacrifice any sense of rhythmic depth—not to mention compositional nuance.
This is where Pig Destroyer sets itself apart. The band is fond of switching up riffs and rhythms, which means that it often sounds as if it’s playing heavy music that has nothing to do with grindcore. The band’s last record, 2004’s Terrifyer, came with a bonus disc featuring “Natasha,” a 38-minute dirge that sounds like the blues as performed by Black Sabbath. Similarly, Phantom Limb is steeped in the hard rock of the South; a colleague who caught a recent show in (where else?) Baltimore describes the new material as “grind boogie,” a funny tag that’s also not too far off. On Phantom Limb, the band (which also includes singer J.R. Hayes, drummer Brian Harvey, and keyboardist Blake Harrison) serves up numerous passages that carry the whiff of whiskey and fried chitterlings.
Calling it a newfound influence would overstate the case—Phantom Limb doesn’t feature a barrage of Skynyrd licks. But the band does have a newfound swagger. Much of the album is either midtempo—a pace at which a riff can really swing—or slow enough to convey a bit of funk. Perhaps the best example of this is the last track, “The Machete Twins.” Like so much of the Pig Destroyer songbook, the tune begins with a wallop of rhythm and noise. But what might seem like chaos soon gives way to order. After the first few seconds, the band settles into a groove that grows less extreme, and more Zeppelin-esque, with each new variation.
The song, too, is typical of the Pig Destroyer experience as a whole. Everything the band does is marked by its eagerness to shock as well as its refusal to be defined by the shocks. The cover of Phantom Limb, for instance, features a naked woman holding a severed limb—the kind of imagery that’ll get an album banned by a chain store—but the artwork is also quite psychedelic and attractive. In a similar way, Hayes offsets his grim subject matter with non-metallic shadings. On the album opener, “Rotten Yellow,” he describes a woman who is ill, perhaps dead. “Her own cells turned on her,” he sings. “Now her skin is yellow like the wildflowers in July.”
Even more impressive is the way in which Hayes uses that kind of novelistic detail in service of earthbound storytelling. His metal peers tend to choose confession or fantasy and make it clear which is which. But Hayes writes narratives that seem to fall between those poles. In “Girl in the Slayer Jacket,” a young suburbanite tells the tale of the first person he ever kissed, a smoke-in-the-woods stoner type who hangs herself from an overpass in McLean. “Her parents tried to sue Slayer,” Hayes sings. “They blamed her boyfriend and PCP.” The whole thing might seem like an excerpt from Hayes’ junior-high diary, were it not for the rest of Phantom Limb’s lyric sheet, which boasts more corpses than a season of CSI.
To fret that any one of those deaths is real—or might lead to one—is to miss the point. Hayes’ lyrics, at heart, are about loss and the things that remind us of loss. Imagery of carnage opens doors for a band such as this; it’s what the genre’s fans expect. But Pig Destroyer is more than just a genre act, and, as such, the music imbues all the dark stuff with extra meaning. When Hayes sings about the sudden dismemberment of a loved one, on “Deathtripper,” the disarray comes to represent the void that’s left behind. “Out of context,” he screams, his voice straining over the throb of percussion and percussive fretwork. It’s a moving moment on a record that, for local fans, at least, reflects how the band is nearby but just out of reach. In that sense, every one of Pig Destroyer’s records could be called Phantom Limb. This is just the latest one, and the best.