, October 18th, 2016 18:16
Looking back at 1994 we, in the UK at least, were on the precipice of a very chintzy form of cultural populism, from fashion and design, to food and TV. Alongside New Labour rising new-born from the ashes of its socialist past, waiting to take power for a generation, we saw an art world dominated by the likes of YBAs – the likes of Hirst and Emin – while the music industry and press were on the cusp of “Britpop” and its deformed twin “Cool Britannia” becoming mainstream and standard vocabulary among the masses. Oasis’ Definitely Maybe was voted the best album of the year by the NME. In retrospect, we were completely unprepared for the wave of mediocrity that was about to consume us. A very toxic age of Aquarius indeed.
But there were spots and holdouts from the deadening populism where alternative scenes and territories of intensity were being forged. A prime example was Nottingham’s Earache Records. Known as the home to extreme music legends Napalm Death, Carcass, Morbid Angel, and Godflesh – along with a second front of acts such as OLD, Pitch Shifter and Scorn were during this time – the label was home to some of the most brutal, challenging, anti-commercialist music around.
But even among the brutal persistence of the acts Earache were releasing at this time, the most outlier of them all surely had to be Painkiller: as a trio they were shining avatars of their own patches of extremity. Mick Harris, on drums, had left grindcore pioneers Napalm Death and was venturing into the uncharted realms of dub, industrial and thrash with the aforementioned Scorn. John Zorn while considered one the doyens of avant garde jazz had been venturing beyond the genre through chamber music, film soundtracks, and most notably his forays into metal and hardcore with his project Naked City. Bill Laswell meanwhile, made up the last corner of the triumvirate, with his work on bass as well as being the hand on the production tiller. Three musicians, all of them able to play at the top of their game at the edges of their musical areas.
Painkiller’s first two efforts – 1991’s Guts of a Virgin, and 1992’s Buried Secrets - you could almost call orthodox by the genre standards of free jazz and grindcore. Rock freakout dynamics and production aesthetics are splattered with grindcore vocal screams, flanging bass and guitar, double kick drum flurries and skronking squalls from Zorn’s sax. The results were intense but still something you could call “rock”.
But when they released their third album, 1994’s Execution Ground (now reissued here in vinyl for the first time on Karl Records), they went beyond the ideas that had informed their previous two releases and blossomed into a form that had a terrible beauty. Even before you play it, Execution Ground is an ominous looking release: across two slabs of vinyl, the cover art – of a man hanging from a tree at a public gathering – acts as a warning of dread to those who want to listen. Gone are the short explosions of minute long tracks in the first two releases. Unhooking their music from trying to capture some form of a “live” essence, the group instead sought out the technics of the mixing desk to explore where they could really travel with their music. And the results are as exhilarating as they are daunting.
‘Parish of Tama (Ossuary Dub)’, the first exploration mission in the album, starts off in a similar fashion to previous efforts: an endless, spiralling cascade of noise sees the trio working out their inner demons on tape – Harris as perpetual drum rolls and thrashing cymbals, Laswell’s grungy distorted bass spreading noxious filth over the floor, and Zorn in particular bursting his lungs in storm like blasts that mutate into fluttering butterfly trills. But halfway through the track, the music abruptly stops and a dreamlike interlude of dark ambient clouds, ghost choral sounds and black metal cackles that you could only have heard at the time on the intro to Darkthrone’s A Blaze In The Northern Sky, brings us into a decidedly spooky and weather-beaten dub realm more than reminiscent of the work that Harris was making with Scorn.
The sonic space created by the trio is extraordinary; everything is pulled apart, with all the components exercising deep heavy breaths. The second track, ‘Morning Of Balachaturdasi’, holds onto the sparseness and the space, Harris keeping things together with expertly placed breaks and rolls while Laswell’s bass and production provide the requisite rumble and atmosphere. Zorn, meanwhile, is a model of restraint holding back on his playing, but still proving all the force of a (sometimes literal sounding) freight train.
It’s the second “Ambient” half of Execution Ground, though, where things really become untethered. Using shards and scraps from the industry of the first half of the album, Painkiller drift into geological time as they pursue a decidedly esoteric and subterreanean groove. The tracks ‘Parish Of Tama (Ambient)’ and especially ‘Pashupatinath (Ambient)’ - named after the sacred Hindu temple in Nepal – are filled with the sounds of Tibetan monks and bells chanting over the desolate wastes of a scorched earth. Flies and buzzards swirl overhead across the fractured sky while the ground cracks beneath your feet as metallic winds howl incessantly.
When listening to Execution ground, what seems so beguiling, especially in the second ambient half, is how — despite having all the tenets of modernism in its creation, with genre identifiers such as “jazz” and “dub” along with electronic production techniques – utterly primordial the end result is. It’s an album as ritual incantation of ancient sounds, utilised as a form of a proto-language. Standing in front of the steel and concrete markers of urban modernism (in my case, Reykjavik’s Harpa Concert Hall) with the transcending intensity of Execution Ground in your ears, there is a definite unheimlich moment as the edges of buildings shimmer and warp — as the roar of old time whooshes through you. Afterwards, you feel like you’ve been put through an emotional wringer, exhilarated but slightly bewildered thinking to yourself “what was that I just heard?”
In terms of creating a unified vision of where Painkiller’s powers could take them, Execution Ground stands alone among much of the “extreme” music being made at the time, a sui generis of sorts, where the word “genre” becomes obliterated of meaning and in its place we have a bridging of old and modern systems of intensities. Despite their illustrious musical paths before and after, Harris, Laswell, and Zorn have probably never been as focused, powerful, or totalising in their vision or efforts.