Agoraphobic Nosebleed – Altered States Of America

Author: BD Joyce

Agoraphobic Nosebleed – Altered States Of America
  • Artist: Agoraphobic Nosebleed
  • Album: Altered States Of America
  • Year of Release: 2003
  • Country: USA
  • Label: Relapse Records
  • Format: Jewelcase CD
  • Catalogue Number: RR 6533-2

Agoraphobic Nosebleed’s previous album Frozen Corpse Stuffed With Dope remains one of the most startling and high calibre grind albums of the 21st century, cleverly combining the visceral thrill and buzzsaw guitars of classic grind with elements of modern technical death metal, and electronic noise. If that album was still relatively conventional in its presentation, Altered States Of America sees the band not just jumping off the deep end, but completing an elaborate and flamboyant diving routine before hitting the water, quote possibly while wearing a clown suit. Altered States Of America sees ANb offering their own chemically-enhanced state of the union address, and it’s very much a sick parody of the American dream. It is ostensibly the band’s third full-length, although this description is something of an oxymoron, giving the 20 minute run-time. Not for the first time, Agoraphobic Nosebleed seem to be having fun with the classic tropes of grind recordings, while also making a performance art statement. A 20 minute album, at least in this genre, is not especially remarkable. This particular 20 minute album though, features 100 tracks of extremely short duration, all contained within a single 3 inch CD. Were it not for the sheer fevered intensity of the music that comprises the album, it would be easily to conclude that at this point, ANb are having a joke at the expense of anyone foolish enough to invest in such a ridiculous artefact. And of course, they clearly are taking the piss, at least in part. However, Altered States Of America is far from devoid of musical merit, and in many ways takes their particular brand of grind to some sort of logical conclusion – once a band has released something this heavy, this fast and unrelenting, verging so close at times to unstructured noise, in many ways it opens two possibilities – annihilation, or alternatively, total liberation.

In reality, while far from the conventional albums that it might be compared to, Altered States Of America is not exactly 100 discrete tracks. While it’s true that the album does contain a multitude of miniscule songs, almost as if the listener is looking at grindcore through the lens of a powerful microscope, there are also longer sections which function as separate movements of a single piece of music, or ambient interlude. The album covers many of the same touchpoints as previous record Frozen Corpse Stuffed With Dope – pornographic sex, extreme violence and enough drugs to fuel a South American civil war, but, as indicated by the title, the emphasis this time round is very much on the pharmaceutical dimension of that particular trifecta. If Woodstock and Altamont represented the end of the hippie dream in a haze of marijuana and bad acid, Altered States Of America is the American dream turned sour 40 years later. The water supply is contaminated with hallucinogens, and humanity is turning on itself against the backdrop of a lysergically-animated landscape, slowly circling the drain before the final descent into oblivion.

Prior to the first thematically linked suite of songs, Altered States Of America actually commences properly (after an annoyingly difficult to find track 00) with a solid slab of grind, following a more traditional compositional structure, a track which would not be out of place on their less outlandish album of 12 months previous. Running to very nearly an entire minute, ‘Spreading The Dis-Ease’ is very much the ‘Rime Of The Ancient Mariner’ or ‘2112’ of this particular record, and gleefully careers out of the traps, courtesy of a rolling, almost swinging groove riff, which recalls prime Nasum or even Terrorizer, albeit featuring a drummer sporting a pneumatic drill in place of a pair of sticks. This is followed by ‘Ark Of Ecoterrorism’, which continues the unexpectedly gentle descent into the acid-fuelled madness of the majority of the record, consisting entirely of an infectious mid-paced mosh section, which would undoubtedly spark an energetic pit if played live, for the 13 seconds that elapse before it concludes. Presumably, these tracks are the sound of Agoraphobic Nosebleed waiting for the drugs that they have imbibed to take effect, because from track 3 onwards, the remaining 97 tracks pass by in a nauseatingly psychedelic blur, as if the listener were force-fed mind-altering narcotics, before being strapped into a centrifuge and spun for the remainder of the album.

As a succession of micro-blasts hurtle by, ANb alternate between grind played at the kind of manic velocity which transforms it into formless noise, and shards of something that is recognisably heavy music, riffs and breakdowns occasionally emerging through the static to make a brief impression, before the listener is overwhelmed by the noise once more. The classic metal twin guitars of ‘Guided Tour’ raise a wry smile, as does the spidery thrash riff sported by ‘Ten Pounds Of Remains’, while ‘Honky Dong’ displays the mind-boggling dexterity of Dillinger Escape Plan, and ‘Removing Locator Tooth’ answers the admittedly not oft-asked question of what Nile would sound like, were they to channel their labyrinthine technical modalities into 6 seconds of white-hot grind.

The first set of connected songs (the track divisions are essentially relevant for administrative purposes only, and also, one assumes, for pushing the overall track count to a round century), concern the Tokyo subway Sarin attacks, perpetrated by adherents of the Aum Shinrinko cult. Under the provocative (and, it has to be said, reprehensible) heading ‘Free Shoko Asahara’, 14 tracks are occupied by a soundtrack of drones and power electronics, over which distorted vocals intone portentous lines such as ‘”Japan’s Aum doomsday cult / that masterminded / the fatal nerve gas attack / on Tokyo subways / considered spraying the drug LSD / from the sky”. Given ANb’s determination to shock and offend, the extent to which they truly endorse the cult’s chemical weapon attack which injured thousands of innocent commuters is debatable, but one assumes that they do at least align themselves philosophically with Timothy Leary and Allen Ginsberg, in their enthusiastic advocacy of the merits of strong psychedelic drugs. Regardless of whether or not the listener chooses to partake in such activities or not before experiencing this album, the churning noise and scattershot approach to grind that Altered States Of America represents is likely to render the listener unsettled, confused, and not a little exhilarated.

The second set of interconnecting tracks is the centrepiece of the album, a succession of tracks detailing the band’s own 12 days of Sodom. Unsurprisingly, this is lyrically an exercise in outrageous, and frequently abhorrent profanity, and musically the tracks are virtually indistinguishable – a drum fill, a couple of seconds of warped grind, and garbled vocals screaming frequently nonsensical tirades, the most amusing of which take aim at the rather pious Boston hardcore scene exemplified by the excellent, but easily mocked, Hydrahead Records. As the twelfth near-identical song ends, it is not difficult to wonder whether Agoraphobic Nosebleed have simply concluded that due to the fact that it exists primarily to evoke an instantaneous and visceral emotional reaction to primal noise, and to evoke that same reaction every single time, musical variety in grind is ultimately redundant. And if that is the case, then why not simply release an album that endlessly repeats the same 5 seconds of noise, ad infinitum? The joke here is very much on the listener, however much they believe they are laughing along with the band.

After abnormal service is briefly resumed with ‘Poland Springfield Acidbag’, the remaining 10 minutes of Altered States Of America oscillates between light-speed grind, and sheet-metal noisescapes. No song lasts for long enough to merit the description of a highlight exactly – even as the listener is forming an opinion on ‘For Just Ten Cents A Day…’, which is the sound of Slayer filtered through a building site, or the odd amalgam of drum ‘n’ bass and Cephalic Carnage-style schizophrenic death metal of ‘Neural Linguistic Programming’, or even the laughably unfathomable grind brutality of ‘Shotgun Funeral’, several more songs have been and gone, each filled with complex rhythmic ideas, overwhelming programmed drums, and monumentally heavy guitars. It’s a whirlwind of noise, and no amount of repeat plays can commit more than a few seconds of the album to memory. To do so would require a level of repetition which simply cannot be found on an album that is predominantly comprised of songs that are over more quickly than the average Olympic 100m final. Arguably though, this does give rise to one of the more interesting facets of the album – almost every time it is played, it is experienced differently, as the ear alights momentarily on something previously unheard or overlooked amid the unrelenting and unremitting maelstrom.

It is, perhaps, a relief when the anti-climactic closing track ‘Placing A Personal Memo On The Boss’s Desk’ completes an album that is less considered musical statement, and more a succession of hands entirely constructed from extended middle fingers. Although Agoraphobic Nosebleed apparently hate everyone, it is difficult not to conclude that they reserve their harshest loathing for their own listeners, such is the endurance test that they subject them to. And yet, Altered States Of America is grimly fascinating, a drug-addled freakshow that it is impossible to tear one’s eyes and ears from. It is not unusual for metal, particularly traditional heavy metal, to take as its lyrical and conceptual theme the heroic crusade of the courageous warrior, standing alone against impossible odds, armed only with a longsword, and the strength of his convictions. Musically, the triumphant heroism of the music is designed to match this image. Agoraphobic Nosebleed, on the other hand, are the sound of this warrior slowly realising that humanity is doomed, before making sure of it in a blaze of machine-gun fire, and finally turning the gun on themselves. This sound is sometimes staggeringly impressive, sometimes forgettable, and sometimes even painful and irritating, but perhaps it is the sound that we deserve.

Score: 71%

Agoraphobic Nosebleed – Frozen Corpse Stuffed With Dope

Author: BD Joyce

Agoraphobic Nosebleed – Frozen Corpse Stuffed With Dope
  • Artist: Agoraphobic Nosebleed
  • Album: Frozen Corpse Stuffed With Dope
  • Year of Release: 2002
  • Country: USA
  • Label: Relapse Records
  • Format: Jewelcase CD
  • Catalogue Number: RR 6530

Agoraphobic Nosebleed, if the name alone were not clue enough, have long been arch provocateurs of the grindcore scene, taking the basic template of the genre – warp-speed riffing, relentless blastbeats, and short, sharp songs lasting seconds rather than minutes – and deconstructing it, before feeding it piece by piece into a psychedelic blender, and lacing the resulting slurry with a liberal (and quite possibly libertarian) dose of offensive, irreverent humour. Grind is often a form of extreme music infused with the (generally left-wing) political ideology of its creators; bands such as Napalm Death, Brutal Truth and Insect Warfare have commonly used both their lyrics and public statements as a platform for their beliefs, advocating strongly anti-capitalist and pro-animal rights ideological positions. However, almost as a direct reaction to both these viewpoints themselves, and also perhaps the po-faced and sometimes overly earnest stance of much grind, there has long been a strain of the genre which has sought to embrace the inherent absurdity of sounds which are, due to their extremity, unintelligible and frankly unpalatable to all but a small proportion of music fans, translating this sonic absurdity to the lyrical content. Probably due to their none-more-offensive name and song titles, Anal Cunt are the most well-known and notorious proponents of this version of grind, and it is fairly easy to draw a straight line from that now unavoidably defunct band (two of the Cunts are dead) to Agoraphobic Nosebleed. Not least because the single consistent member of ANb, guitarist / drum programmer Scott Hull, spent a couple of years as the Anal Cunt guitarist, presumably because he shared both that particular band’s musical and thematic preferences. Of course, much of the evidence suggests that despite Anal Cunt arguably aiming to position their outrageous themes as some kind of post-modern artistic statement, deploying racism and homophobia in deliberate provocation of liberal sensibilities, not unlike punks embracing Nazi imagery in the 1970s, in actual fact they meant much of what they said, and were fundamentally just objectionable, abhorrent individuals. The same cloud of suspicion cannot help but hang over Agoraphobic Nosebleed, and not unlike their distant cousins, they actively welcome and even weaponise the antagonism, in a blaze of gross-out humour and hyper-sexualised lyrics and samples that litter their albums, including this, their second full-length.

Even in the hands of extreme metal bands, the album tends to be a device that is aimed very much at guiding the listener through a carefully planned exploration, traversing the peaks and troughs that can be created by a judicious use of dynamics, tempos and song arrangements. If Agoraphobic Nosebleed are taking the listener on a journey, however, it is a one-way joyride downwards, through a progressively more hideous hellscape, during which the vehicle reaches terminal velocity almost instantaneously, before finally immolating itself and all of its flayed passengers in a thermonuclear explosion that frankly comes as a demented relief from the demented soundtrack to the apocalypse that Frozen Corpse Stuffed With Dope represents. Like landmarks seen from the window of a speeding bullet train, which loom into view momentarily, before evaporating in a blur as the landscape continually reconfigures itself, the songs pass by so swiftly that it is almost impossible to grasp them in any kind of meaningful way, riffs and drums piling on top of one another in an unending, shapeshifting perpetual motion.

After a brief intro, second track ‘Bitch’s Handbag Full Of Money’ sets the tone for the rest of the album – guitars like razor blades work through 30 seconds of taut warp-speed grind riffing, while the programmed drums offer a passable impression of an indiscriminate assault by machine gun. Indeed, the replacement of the more conventional human skin-beater with a drum machine, is one of the key points of difference for ANb, in comparison to the average grind band. In fact, one can’t help but feel that, in keeping with their enfant terrible aesthetic, this is another way in which the band use their position within the grind scene as a platform to poke fun at the rest of the scene, so fond of boasting of the (undeniably impressive) superhuman prowess of drummers like Dave Witte of Discordance Axis, who are able to blast their way athletically through song after song of insanely complex noise. In place of the all too superhuman timekeeper, ANb instead opt for a truly inhuman mechanised backdrop to their grind and, due in no small part to the masterful programming abilities of Scott Hull, it is hugely successful. What Agoraphobic Nosebleed lose in the feel and visceral thrill generated by a four-limbed drummer operating at the limits of their capacity, they gain in the manic intensity of a the relentless pounding of a drummer whose energy never wanes. There are also songs where the electronic capabilities available to the band allow them to push the envelope in ways that conventional instrumentation do not permit – ‘Hungry Homeless Handjob’ utilises a cold, throbbing techno drum part which pushes the tone and velocity into gabber territory, well outside the standard parameters of grind, and the delightfully titled ‘Shit Slit’ comes close to the kind of pure white noise that it is virtually impossible to produce organically. It is in these moments that ANb transcend their sometimes inherently gimmicky nature and transform into a more substantial, and frankly more interesting proposition than they may appear to be at first glance.

In fact, the more attention that one pays to each individual slab of grind mayhem, flying by at something approaching the speed of light, the more apparent the complexity and ingenuity that underpins many of their best songs becomes. In many respects, the grind of ANb is less the hardcore punk taken to its logical conclusion of their forbears such as Extreme Noise Terror or Napalm Death, and in actual fact more the kind of technical death metal popularised by a slew of Relapse label mates in the late 1990s (Dying Fetus, Origin etc), albeit compressed into the sort of dense and concise explosions of fury that tend to characterise grind. The death metal leanings can be detected with ease in the impenetrable drum flurries of ‘Ceremonial Gas Mask’, the churning Immolation-style riffing of ‘Dead Battery’ drenched in lugubrious pinch harmonics, and the energetic, chromatic thrashing of ‘Repercussions In The Life Of An Opportunistic, Pseudo-Intellectual Jackass’, which features a vocal cameo from Pete Ponitkoff of Benümb, a band that ANb show frequent similarities to in their less schizophrenic moments.

There are, of course, a number of tracks on which the more technical elements of the band’s sound are dialled down in favour of pure, heads down grind madness, more in the vein of a less crusty, and if we’re being truthful, less good Nasum. ‘Kill Theme For American Apeshit’ is malevolent grind, a fuzzy, almost black metal, guitar sound adding a woozy, seasick quality to the disorientating interweaving guitar lines, all of which acts to set the stage for a ‘Siege Of Power’-style mosh section to decimate the second half of the track. Similarly, the crunchy chugging of ‘Crap Cannon’ the tremolo-picked urgency of ‘Protection From Enemies’ and molten wall-to-wall blasting powerchords of ‘Double Negative’ offer plenty of opportunities for bug-eyed speedfreaks to get their conventional grind kicks, ANb packing an incredible amount of almost steroidal energy into galactically heavy bursts of high-velocity rage.

But, as previously mentioned, it’s the left turns and more off-kilter experimental moments that really catch the ear on Frozen Corpse Stuffed With Dope, and elevate the final result above the legions of 20 minute blastfests and split 7 inches that comprise the average grind act’s discography. This is not to criticise such releases, very much the lifesblood of the grind scene globally – Agoraphobic Nosebleed themselves have a typically labyrinthine back catalogue full of the kind of output that poses a severe challenge to any self-respecting completist. However, the format of a full-length studio album on a prestigious extreme label such as Relapse demands something a little more sophisticated, and ANb’s ability to combine the generic traits of grind with facets of power-electronics and noisecore ensures that they deliver on this count. Standout tracks in this vein include the electronically-augmented hyperblast of ‘Bovine Caligula’, bouncy punk-metal soundclash of ‘Time vs. Necessity’ (which is oddly reminiscent of Atari Teenage Riot), and precision legato guitar runs adoring the Dillinger Escape Plan stylings of ‘Ambulance Burning’, Most startlingly of all, ‘Organ Donor’ offers an alternative take on early-80s post-punk, before abruptly changing tack and unfurling the kind of monstrous, monolithic riff that Botch once made their speciality. Indeed, this is probably the only time that the album proffers anything catchy enough to be described as a hook, with the honourable exception of a maniacal cover of Nuclear Assault’s classic ‘Hang The Pope’, which features that band’s Dan Lilker assisting ANb in pushing the already extreme velocity of the borderline grind of the original to the point at which it triumphantly becomes indistinguishable from the band’s own material.

As ‘Fuckmaker’ closes the album with yet another contrarian gesture – a couple of minutes of completely incongruous trip-hop after 37 tracks of breakneck grind, followed by a couple of minutes of silence before the album expires in a haze of rapid-fire blasting and a final unpleasant sample – it is difficult not to conclude that Agoraphobic Nosebleed have contributed a work of high calibre that, while not exactly genre-smashing, does develop and progress the genre in some exciting directions. It doesn’t have the coherence and elite level songs of From Enslavement To Obliteration, Extreme Conditions Demand Extreme Responses or World Downfall, thus missing out of top tier status, but it does deserve to be considered one of the better modern examples of grind, and has been surpassed by relatively few records within the genre in the nearly 20 years since its release.

Score: 82%