A Bold, Fresh Piece of Humanity?

Though “deathcore” has gotten itself a bad name in the last year or two, I’ve always thought of Misery Index as the pinnacle of it. Their first few releases– Retaliate and Dissent, especially– have a loose, hardcore swagger to them, but are still plenty rooted in grind and death metal. Though not as admirable as Dying Fetus (of which members of Misery Index were once a part), I find those two albums are some of the metal records I listen to the most (when determined, I’m a runner, and I defy you to find a better collection of songs to move your blood than Retaliate). Whereas hardcore has come to mean “breakdowns” to anythingcore bands, Misery Index are both aged and well-versed enough to grasp the full spectrum of the genre and slyly combine it with other “extreme metal” elements to remind us that, well, if the guys in Slayer didn’t like hardcore, metal would have never gotten fast. Though hardcore and metal exist, usually confidently, on two different sides, the line between the two is thin, and they do a lot more overlapping than we think. Early Misery Index is one of the bands that overlap the best.

With that in mind, I was hesitant to check out Traitors, their latest. I was anxious at first, only due to the album’s cover art (which is saying a lot, in that I haven’t been impressed by a band’s cover art in years. The last decade has been awful in terms of album artwork). Upon hearing a few tracks in advance, I was unimpressed: the music sounded rigid and slick, with a lot more death metal riffing than I’m used to from them. But on a more visceral level, nothing popped out at me. I was disappointed, then moved on to the seeming plethora of other great death metal that came out this year (Hate Eternal? Dead Covenant? Arsis? Origin? Neuraxis? Yes please! And Jesus Christ, there was more!) Not to say that Misery Index sold out– an album like Traitors, no matter what your feeling on it are, was certainly not made with financial gain in mind– but it felt like the band was past its prime, downshifting from impressive to adequate.

Though with the end of the year at hand, I couldn’t help but notice how many year end lists (well, in the metal-sphere, anyway) had Traitors on it. The album was fairly well received, but I didn’t think it was considered “great.” I eschewed Discordia— their last album– as seemingly everyone else had, and thought of this as just an extension of that aforementioned adequacy-not-greatness. But the praise for it seemed strangely unanimous. So, having not yet checked it out, I decided to give it a chance.

And the results are– wait for it– mixed! Though better than I had originally thought, my initial impressions were correct: the album is too clean-sounding and stiff to recapture my interest in full. That being said, Traitors is no work of half-assery; it’s a brass knuckled punch to the jaw. It suffers mostly from what I call Chinese Democracy Syndrome: were it released by a band I’d never heard of, I’d think more of the album. But because it’s Misery Index, I expect more. Is that fair? Absolutely not. But is it how we collectively think? Absolutely. To start as a band of great quality means the pressure of great expectations. And if you are a truly great band, those expectations should be met. Of course, the middling nature of Discordia and the not-as-good-as-it-should-be status of Traitors doesn’t necessarily reflect on the band overall; after all, Bob Dylan wasn’t so hot in the 80s and most of the 90s, but has had a late-career renaissance most bands and artists don’t experience. Or more toward Misery Index’s sound: Celtic Frost.

That being said, the core of Misery Index is, for the most part, still intact. The guitars are  meaty as hell, but fast and unrelenting. Vocalist/bassist Jason Netherton still has the sandpaper bark that’s graced every MI full length, EP, and split. The band’s uncanny knack of knowing when to shift gears between genres is still unmatched, while paying attention to cohesion and not slipping into the choppy depths of the kitchen sink-core craze (Heavy Heavy Low Low, The Number Twelve Looks Like You, etc. bloody etc.) of the early part of this decade. The less-then-exceptional parts (the outro riff on “Ghosts of Catatonia” wasting its brilliant build up, the too-straight up hardcore of “The Arbiter”, the fact that “Thrown into the Sun” is by a wide margin the worst song Misery Index have ever put to tape) are overshadowed by the record’s best moments (the top notch intro “We Never Come in Peace”; the album closer “Black Sites” dipping into melodic death metal only enough to stick to your ribs as opposed to playing to your sweet tooth; plus many, many other opportune points of plain ol’ solid extreme metal). Expecting too much from Traitors is a shame, in that despite its imperfections, the band still seems to be on top of their game.

Of course, the band are missing the grime and groove that made them so likable to begin with. The blame rests solely with two culprits: producer Kurt Ballou and drummer Adam Jarvis. Ballou’s had a fucking STRONG string of production credits in the last few years: Animosity’s Animal, Torche’s Meanderthal, Disfear’s Live the Storm… hell, he even made the last Elysia record bearable. But Traitors is too antiseptic. The guitars, while having Kurt’s signature crunch, are rigidly married to the beat as opposed to just swinging along with it. Jarvis is an able death metal drummer, but Misery Index aren’t really a death metal band. The brilliance of original Misery Index drummers Kevin Talley and Matt Byers (and in defense of Jarvis, they’re tough acts to follow) was that their styles were noncommittal, bobbing and weaving between grindcore blasts, mid-paced death metal, and deep hardcore grooves. By sticking to just one style of drumming (plus not having the same sense of groove as the aforementioned former sticksmen), Jarvis takes some of the excitement from the band. There really aren’t any sloppy segues, but there aren’t any enlightening shifts, either.

But there’s something delightfully angry about Traitors that seems to hit the spot after the last ridiculous year in our country’s history. With Rage Against the Machine and Fugazi missing in action, and other important or notable bands not attacking Bush and America’s obese consumption addiction with the lobster-faced anger of Misery Index (possibly because, with Bush’s unequivocal political sadism and the nation’s laziness slow rotting away our physical land at home and our standing abroad , the target was too easy and slow moving, which isn’t necessarily a bad decision), it’s nice to hear a band this ANGRY about the bullshit to which we’ve grown accustomed. By no means is Traitors perfect, and it won’t age as well as their early work. But in the climate in which it came out (in the shadow of America’s most politically toxic era and deathcore looking to do for death metal to what Dick Cheney did for executive privilege), it’s a sobering slap to the face. Like a sneeze or a shot of espresso, it’ll jerk you back into consciousness, despite its blemishes. Wake up.

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