Watchmaker / Phobia
Erased From the Memory of Man / Cruel
B+ / B-
hat we have here is certainly not a failure to communicate. Watchmaker inscribes an epigram to Erased from the Memory of Man: “The common denominator of the universe is not harmony—It’s chaos, hostility, and murder.” (quoted from Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man—a good choice, given that you can’t really quote the final scene of Aguirre). Phobia titles their album Cruel. Idea communicated.
But these are not just ideas, they’re albums. And impressive ones at that: the long-running Phobia offers a hearty workingman’s meal of crust and grind; it may be meat and potatoes, but it’s never too starchy, smashing out its 21 tracks in 26 brief but brutal minutes. Watchmaker, meanwhile, traffics in a more chaotic variant of sonic dementia, concentrating its unsettling sonic rage into ever more claustrophobic intensity, until it finally implodes into a horrible static hiss and dies, also in its 26th minute (this time with a mere 16 tracks).
Taken together, the albums represent a testimony to both the Willowtip roster (the label gets much attention for the technical death metal proffered by Neuraxis, Arsis, Dim Mak—but it has also consolidated some of grindcore’s finest) and the varieties of the grindcore experience. Phobia and Watchmaker are about as far apart as bands can get within the elastic boundaries of the genre (quoth Wikipedia, with understatement: “Grindcore has proven somewhat difficult to categorise”). The former plays straightforward grind, relying on traditional markers like blastbeats, sharp bursts of guitar riffage, political lyrics, and ties to hardcore roots. The latter tweaks the formula, integrating isolated guitar leads, smidgeons of doom, blistering layers of feedback, and a general disregard for the well-being of the listener. The result is a powerful burst of nihilism from Watchmaker, against which the thoroughly respectable Phobia can’t help but seem a bit subdued.
Band philosophies are reflected in production choices. Watchmaker utilizes a muddy, wall-of-crust sound, while Phobia (produced by Pig Destroyer’s Scott Hull) takes a more streamlined approached, with sharper clarity defining its musical components. Phobia drummer Danny Walker’s crisp downbeats thus sound like Uzi clips firing off; in comparison, when Watchmaker’s Michael Garrett pounds the kick-drum it’s more like rubber boots rushing up a lengthy staircase, really quickly. Probably to hatchet someone.
Vocals, too, illustrate the bands’ differences. Shane McLachlan barks and shrieks for Phobia, dishing out lyrics that can tend toward the hamfisted; declarations of “punk rules!” on “Loud Proud and Punk as Fuck” are already redundant, more so coming after the earlier track “Death to False Punks.” The sociopolitical bent that often informs grindcore risks coming off as knee-jerk radicalism here at times; “I want a boot party on Bush’s head,” McLachlan declares at one point. Great: stomp him and put Cheney in charge? Still, he is capable of dropping some terse nuggets, and “Yankee Swine” interrogates the motivations of soldiers along the lines of Xiu Xiu’s “Support Our Troops OH!” but in about one-thirtieth the length (coming in at ten seconds).
It’s hard to compare Brian Livoti’s lyrics over at the Watchmaker camp, since without a lyric sheet (in its place is Livoti’s own appropriately-nightmarish, Ralph Steadman-like artwork) all we have to go on are the song titles. But if indecipherable, Livoti’s unrestrained wailing still delivers a visceral punch; he seems to be giving birth to the apocalypse on “Conquering a Dead Planet,” while near the end of “Relentless Post Mortem Killing” the music drops out and he unleashes a scream that sounds eerily like the sound of vocal cords snapping. This unhinged approach is matched by Watchmaker’s guitar sound; if solos could wear facial expressions, the brief noise-meltdown that concludes “Mourning Breath” would look exactly like Gene Hackman’s friend sinking into the Florida depths in the final scene of the impeccable Night Moves, only Watchmaker submerges itself in altogether slimier, murkier waters.
To be fair to Phobia, in the band’s 16 years, it’s done its time in the murky depths; just listen to its 1999 album Destroying the Masses. Cruel does yeoman’s work in its studied adherence to grindcore tradition, and one can’t help but respect Phobia’s obvious commitment and dedication to the genre. But Cruel pales in comparison to the manic intensity of Erased From the Memory of Man. With this album, Watchmaker delivers a fully-realized nightmare, a terrifying, bleak sonic landscape from which there is no exit (it’s too compelling to simply turn off). If there’s such a thing as a transcendental dystopia, this is it.