Tuesday, 7 August 2012
Axegrinder - Demo and live tape 86-89
For once, it is not an actual record or a single recording that I am going to offer the world but a selection of lesser known recordings of a rather well-known band, Axegrinder. Someone pointed out to me that the 87 live in Wimbledon could no longer be found on the web and before this screaming injustice I have decided to act.
Judging from the amount of Axegrinder regalia one can witness at any crust-oriented reunion, one could either think that they are no mystery to anyone or that their art looks great on a studded vest. Now, I am sure most people reading this will already know Axegrinder and their fantastic Lp "Rise of the serpent men" (no, not the Reptilians). Quite probably, you would be familiar with Axegrinder's first demo "Grind the enemy". However, what went on in between these two marks is far more obscure and that's what I am really interested in today. Listening to 80's bands' discography nowadays, one is bound to realize that those bands moved really fast indeed. For instance, there are few similarities between the punky, almost chumawambesque at times, Deviated Instinct of 85 and the heavy metal-edged Deviated Instinct of 89. You will come to the same conclusion if you take early recordings of Antisect or Amebix and compare them to five year older ones. Maybe bands were more likely to experiment at that time (not always for the better, Discharge anyone?) or they wanted to innovate, I don't quite know but the fact is they seemed to evolve quickly. And Axegrinder were no exceptions as you will hear.
The file is divided into two parts. The first one consists of the cd "Still grinding enemies", a good-looking bootleg (I know they're evil but I would be the first to jump for joy if a proper reissue was to see the light) that has the "Grind the enemy" demo from 1986, a live in Wimbledon from July 1987 and a live in Bradford from 1989. While many bootlegs, especially cd's, have little information about the band, here you will find the lyrics of the demo songs, as well as some pictures and artwork. The other part of the file is a live recording from 1988 which was poetically called "The squat tape". These tracks were meant to be a live Ep but things did not materialize (although it is never too late to do well, right lads?). The review will therefore be chronological as it reflects the evolution of Axegrinder in a more relevant fashion.
Let's start with "Grind the enemy". A funny coincidence maybe but it always puts a smile on my face when I think about the three major demos of metallic punk: "Ripper crust", "Terminal filth stenchcore" and "Grind the enemy". Not only were they all recorded in 1986 but they have "crust", "stenchcore" and "grind" in them. This is geek paradise. Anyway, if the Axegrinder Lp is Amebix, their demo is Antisect indeed. The band must have seen Antisect play quite a few times because you can hear that the "Out from the void" era is definitely the main source of influence here. The sound is rough and ready as expected but the songs are too good to let this be a hinderance. The guitar sound is dirty and has a earthy feel to it. If it were an image I would picture it as a ball of dirt. That's a compliment by the way. The songs are all mid-tempo apart from "Thealphobia", a fast number that reminds me of Hellshock. The vocals are certainly one of Axrginder's strong points: raucous shouts managing to be deep and angry-sounding. Don't expect too much musicianship here and in fact I believe the songs wouldn't work as well if they didn't have this simple, honest, spontaneous rendering. Sure, you have probably heard better drummers, but I wouldn't trade the almost awkward, mechanical rhythms for the best double-bass drum metalhead in the world. Lyrics here are very much esconsed in the anarchopunk tradition. "Grind the enemy" is (yet another) "Arise!" rewriting but its barbarian, pagan metaphor gives it an anthemic quality (no wonder it's been the most covered Axerginder track so far); "Thealphobia" is a "Fear of god" type of song; "Master race" is an anti-fascist song about the death camps; "One law" is a take on "Out from the void" where "Your laws, your rules" has replaced "Your standard, your law"; "Damnation of the living" is an apocalyptic song and finally "Special brew" is about... well, drinking odd-smelling beverages. The demo is nicely structured with a spoken word as an introduction, an synth and guitar instrumental, "Armistice, that is both cheap and yet very moving in the middle and then "Special brew" as a conclusion since I suppose they were all off to a drinking marathon after spending a couple of hours in the studio.
The main question that arises now is: what happened between Antisecty "Grind the enemy" and Amebixian "Serpent men"? Well, as a clue, the band did record a song for a Peaceville compilation, "A vile peace", that started to reflect this transition. For some reason, this song, "Where evil dwells", seems to be unanimously hated by the members of Axegrinder, for they claim they were trying to be Slayer but miserably failed, giftless punks they were. To be honest, I don't really care about Slayer and I am hardly the thrash-metal expert, but "Where evil dwells" sounds nothing Slayer to my ears. In fact, I think the song is great despite an odd moment when drummer and guitarist have trouble keeping with each other. And, more importantly for us, it appears on the 87 live in Wimbledon included in "Still grinding enemies". On this live recording, you will also find a version of "Damnation of the living" from "Grind the enemy" (oddly enough, the only song of the demo that the band still played), "Black days ahead", "The butcher of Jerusalem", "In death she awaits" and a new intro (Axegrinder appeared to love intros and to change them frequently, just like Antisect really). Sonically, there is a distinct evolution from the demo, and while it is not overwhelmingly different (the shadow of Antisect is still lurking), it still indicates a shift. First, there are more obvious Amebix influences, a quiet arpeggio to start a song, some heavy and epic mid-tempo parts. Second, I can't help but think that the band may have been on a light thrash-metal diet at this point, especially on some song structures and guitar riffs. It is to be noticed that Axegrinder always tended to play faster live, so one might venture that those songs, had they been recorded in a studio, would have been a tad slower. I unfortunately don't know the lyrics of the songs apart from "Damnation of the living" (see above) and "Where evil dwells", an anti-religious song. Judging by the live comments between songs, I think it is safe to say an anti-religious theme pervades the set. The sound here is really good for a live, you can hear everything and this is as crisp as you are likely to get when it comes to old live recordings.
Now, let's talk about "The squat tape", a very interesting live set that epitomizes the transitional state of Axegrinder at that time. Recorded in 88, a mere 6 months after the previous live recording, it contains songs that will eventually appear on the Lp, namely "Never ending winter" (and yet a new intro!), "War machine", "Hellstorm", "Life chain" and "Final war", as well as a remnant from their 87 live recording, "Black days ahead". Both lives were actually recorded in Wimbledon and it may have been in the same venue, though this is a mere guess. However, whereas the 87 one had a rather clear sound, this one lies on the raw side of things and has a thick, grassy sound. In fact, the overall sonic atmosphere is not unlike early Hellbastard or even Hellhammer with their artificial sloppiness. The main interest of this live set is that, while "Never ending winter" and "Life chain" sound pretty much the same than the Lp versions, "War machine" and "Final war" are very different. Indeed, in the middle of the song, the band included a fast, d-beat part follower by a quiet instrumental part. Add this to the riffing, and you may very well have the ultimate Amebix hommage ("Fallen from grace" comes to mind). I think I like this version as much as the final one. "The final war" too was apparently rewritten before the Lp was recorded. The version we have here is again in a total Amebix songwriting worship mood, this time with an emphasis on the energetic mid-tempo epics (think "Arise!", "Drink and be merry"). In fact, most of the song is hardly recognizable as it is much faster than the final version, though they did keep the quiet part in the middle with that great bass line and guitar arpeggio. This live recording will delight Axegrinder lovers who happen not to be aware of its existence and prove that Effigy were heavily into this one.
The final live recording was taken from a live in Bradford from 1989 (it is on youtube as well but the user who uploaded it dated the live on 1990, which is impossible since the band broke up in late 1989) and Axegrinder had by then totally given up any pre-"Serpent men" songs and had even written new songs that were not included on the Lp, which made me wonder at their songwriting pace. For a self-proclaimed bunch of lazy sods (see "Trapped in a scene"'s chapter about Axegrinder), they did write a lot of great songs in a mere 3 years of existence. As hinted by the previous lives, the pace of the songs is faster compared to the studio versions, more dynamic but maybe losing a bit their sense of impending doom on this particular live set (the gig was a very metal affair with Deviated Instinct but also Paradise Lost and Tallion). You will find here old acquaintances such as "The final war", "Life chain" and "War machine" (the usual suspects really) as well as two new songs, "Return to Arcadia" and "Requiem for" (I am actually unsure of the the exact name, the singer does utter it and that's what I understood, though it could also be "Requiem four". Does anyone know? The geezer who did the bootleg certainly did as he just wrote a couple of question marks in place of the song title!). These two songs sound like a natural evolution to the Lp, with added double-bass drum and a couple of heavy-metal influenced rhythms, not unlike what Amebix were doing at the very end I suppose. "Return to Arcadia" is superior I think with its gloomy, eerie intro. It might be unfair to judge these two last songs just on their live rendering, but to me they could indicate that the band was starting to run out of inspiration, passion and power, as they don't really hold to the older ones. They are still good enough to be a suiting epitaph for that great band.
Thanks to Mariana who gave me the idea for this post.