Monday, 23 June 2014

Skaven / Dystopia "S/t" split Lp 1996

About a year ago, I posted one true crust classic with the Misery/SDS split Lp, with one of my most epic review to this day. And because I am aware I am one of the leading voices of the internet (after all, it is no coincidence if the Queen of England herself, when asked what her favourite blogs were, replied: "Terminal Sound Nuisance, definitely. Top writing from a top geezer and quality punk-rock from a true connoisseur. Each time I read it, I want to abolish myself.") I think it is high time I deal with another true (or cvlt as some wankers would have it) 90's classic: the Skaven/Dystopia Lp.

As you know, I am one to follow the news and lately I got hold of the wonderful Skaven discography Lp that the mighty Skuld Releases just unleashed (it did take five years to come out though... Good thing I didn't hold my breath). If you have to buy just one record this month, that should be this one. The songs have been tastefully remastered, the artwork is sick, there are two posters included, honestly it couldn't have been done better. However relatively obscure Skaven are, they remain one of the most potent American crust bands ever and one could only wish they had sticked around a little longer, at least long enough to record a full Lp.

Skaven were from Oakland and formed in 1995. Apparently, they rose from the ashes of a punky black-metal band called Black Maggot, which I have sadly never heard (assuming they recorded anything at all), a significant fact since there is a distinct, almost foundational, black-metal feel, to Skaven's music and songwriting. Although I remain largely unconvinced by most current bands trying to blend black-metal and crust or hardcore (Order of the Vulture, Dazd and Summon the Crows being two good exceptions), Skaven managed to pull it in a terrific fashion, probably because they did it effortlessly, just because it made sense to them, as if the cross basically just happened. There is an occult atmosphere in Skaven's music that is enhanced by the mean, gnarly vocals. However, don't picture some wankers arsing around in a dark forest dressed like cheap actors from an 80's Italian barbarian movie. No, if anything, the band's sense of evil comes from a filthy sewer where crusty punks would wait recklessly for an apocalypse that never comes, getting really drunk and listening heavily to Deviated Instinct and Bathory in the process. Claustrophobic, uncontrollable and insane.

As I see it, Skaven are very much heirs of the late 80's/early 90's Californian crust scene, a wave that had disappeared by 1996 (with the worthy exception of... Dystopia). You can actually hear influences from bands belonging to the aforementioned scene like Glycine Max, A//Solution or Apocalypse in the music, as well as classic UK crust like Deviated Instinct or Mortal Terror, with early Misery coming to mind too, and black metal bands like Bathory, Possessed or Samael. Skaven's strong point however lies in their intent to create a proper soundscape, to literally build a sonic atmosphere of their own, and in that respect the fact that they were playing with two bass guitars certainly helped. Although undeniably heavy, the band didn't really rely on heaviness or speed in order to crush you. Rather, they used twisted song structures with multilayered bass and guitar parts that manage to take the listener by surprise while still making complete sense. The music is dark, really dark, but is not sorrowful. It reeks of madness, desperation but remains really organic, slimy, festering, swarming.

Skaven's art is almost as impressive and striking as their music and equally as dark. Drawings that reflect the fate of mankind and our pointless, destructive wandering upon the Earth. There is a specific obsession with death that also appears in the lyrics, both literally with the worm-infested, decaying flesh and figuratively with death being the sole outcome of our actions, whether it be through pollution, drug abuse or the death of one's will through the acceptance of one's enslavement. Not particularly cheery stuff, I'll give you that.

Dystopia, on the other side, are much better-known and remains one of the very best American bands of the 90's (that statement is not open to any discussion. Thank you for your cooperation). Dystopia fucking rule. Although they have almost achieved cult status today, the fact that the band emerged from previous bands is not widely known. In fact, Dystopia rose from the ashes of the late 80's/ early 90's Californian scene crust scene, with Matt playing in the early Mindrot line-up (back when they were a Prophecy of Doom/Bolt Thrower crusty kind of band), Todd making a whole lot of noise in the grinding crust outfit Confrontation and Dino drumming for Carcinogen (possibly the closest to Dystopia from the three aforementioned bands in terms of music) and although the term "crust" does not totally fit Dystopia (but then the band escaped any easy categorization), the lads definitely grew up in that context (apparently the drummer of Apocalypse even played with them at some point). By the time Dystopia started in 1992, the crust scene was already on its last gallon of special brew and it could be argued that the variety of influences that can be found in Dystopia's music might stem from a need to break free from formulaic music. And they certainly succeeded in doing so.

I won't try to pigeonhole Dystopia because it would be time-consuming and pointless. To me, they have an old-school crust backbone with a lot of doom-metal and death-metal over it. But more importantly, they are just incredibly groovy, heavy and intense. When you know they were just a three-piece, this makes it even more remarkable. Dystopia belongs to this category of bands that sound like they are playing for their lives, as if they were all going to die the next day, as if each second of their songs were fighting Death itself. The term "Burning spirit hardcore" should have been created for them.

While Skaven have these occult and fleshy aesthetics, Dystopia's are more anchored in the daily struggle to survive in the social jungles we call urban centres. Hopelessness, mysanthropy, suicide, self-hatred, sickness, cruelty, there is a wide panel of social ills in Dystopia and their very music, the way they write music, somehow perfectly embodies them. This is the demented soundtrack of survival in our modern societies. To give you an example, the song "Anger brought by disease" is about a man dying from disease who wants to kill his enemy (his former teacher, a nazi or his boss, take your pick) before dying. This is social anger in the flesh indeed.

This split is probably one of the very best crust records of the 90's, not because both bands play unadulterated crust but because it stands for a particular time in history as it is basically the evolution of the South-Cali crust scene. Skaven were, to put it bluntly, the best American crust band of the mid-90's, along with Misery, and Dystopia were a uniquely intense band that went beyond genres and yet managed to satisfy everyone (right?). This record was co-released by Life Is Abuse, still run by Matt from Dystopia, and Misanthropic Records, a label also connected to the band that released the Skaven Ep and records from Phobia and Grief among others. DIY or die trying. After the end of Skaven and Dystopia, some members of both bands eventually ended up in the powerful crusty doom-metal band Asunder, but ex-members could also be found in Noothgrush, Demonsteed, Ghoul and more recently Kicker.





  1. Skaven are from Oakland that's in northern California not southern California Black Maggot made a tape if remember correctly

  2. Great review. Absolutely. We we're from Oakland and after our U.S. tour together Matt and Dino moved up to our house known as the Compound. Something you'll find interesting is the year before I (Zeb,vocals )moved to Oakland I had a band in Minneapolis called Cirrhosis where I tried two basses first and recorded a Demo engineered by Jon Misery. Rock'n'Roll!

    1. Thanks for commenting. The idea of doing a history of early US crust is definitely growing.

    2. Hey Zeb, I met you at the 40 anniversary punk shoe(Avengers,Lewd, etc). I had the Apocalypse shirt. Wanna play some music with me. Just curious. Let me know and I'll tell my vision/influences further. Same general stuff crust, stench, dark hardcore, thrash, dbeat, raw punk and so on with a little bit of old goth/new wave tinge.