Sharp Darts: Back to the Grind | Music Column | Chicago Reader

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Sharp Darts: Back to the Grind

Reviving grindcore, Harpoon gives it an electronic tweak.

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Harpoon has got to have the best T-shirt of any band in the city right now. It's black, with a high-contrast white baby seal on the front under the band name, spelled out in Old English lettering. It works on two levels: it uses a traditional metal/crust design template to subvert the form by crossing it with something out of Cute Overload, but also the juxtaposition of that cute, defenseless seal pup and that sinister-looking word suggest a scene of immense violence waiting to happen just offscreen.

It's easy for a band like Harpoon to have a sense of humor about itself. Harpoon's recipe for grindcore—blended with atouch of thrash and spiced up with a little powerviolence—is so punishing that dressing it up with any tough-guy posturing would just be overkill. That's not uncommon in grind (see, for instance, Anal Cunt), which is one of metal's stranger cousins. It takes metal and hardcore tropes and pushes them to absurd extremes, so the guitar riffing is repetitive and fast enough to become slightly hypnotic, the drums are such a flurry of blast beats that it can be hard to pin down an actual rhythm, and the words—not that you can usually make out what the singer is shrieking—often read like stuff that gets cops called to high school English classes. (There's even a sub-subgenre called splatter grind for the real sick stuff.)

As a social scene, well, the amount of absurdity in play and the masochism inherent in just standing in front of one of these bands tends to attract people with a perverse sense of humor, who can accept a self-described "comedy grind" outfit like 7000 Dying Rats—in which Harpoon vocalist Tony Vast-Binder and bassist DJ Barraca have both done time—as legit.

Harpoon's music is no joke, though. Their new album, Double Gnarly/Triple Suicide (which dropped February 10 on the local Interloper Records, corun by Barraca), is an expertly made piece of audio violence that can stand up next to grind classics like Carcass's Heartwork in terms of both brutality and quality. Like most good grind outfits the group excels at brief blasts of noise (all but three songs are under two minutes long, and "Walter Reuther" clocks in at 25 seconds), but the minute and a half of layered feedback that opens the opener, "Company Man" (an epic at 5:35), is a trippy piece of drone as good as any doom metal going.

The fact that the beats come from a cheapo Boss Dr. Rhythm drum machine is only amusing up until the point—probably within the first 20 seconds or so of a song—where one of the many warp-speed fills programmed by guitarist Dean Costello pounds you into submission.

The decision to go with the drum machine was less an aesthetic one, says Costello, and more of "an easiness thing." "Because drummers are crazy," says Vast-Binder. "All of them." Costello didn't have any programming experience before he started playing with Vast-Binder two years ago, but since then he's learned to craft impressively complex beats, taking up to ten hours or so to plot out a song, and the drum machine has become an integral part of Harpoon's sound.

The Harpoon guys cite other great moments in drum machine history—the first Jesus Lizard EP and Big Black as well as early Godflesh, Ministry's heavy early-90s period—as influences, though they deny any deeper ties to industrial music. And in Costello's hands, the box does make that same transformation from fount of dance beats to unforgiving, power-mad taskmaster. After hearing a flurry of drums sounding like Aphex Twin trying to approximate a Dave Lombardo fill, I have to say Costello's skills as a drum programmer put even his terrifying abilities on the guitar to shame.

Locally the outfit has allied itself with the group Plague Bringer, which has similar instrumentation and a simpatico sense of humor. (Their riff on the poster for Neil Diamond's The Jazz Singer might be my second favorite Chicago band T-shirt.) Vast-Binder calls it a "brotherhood."

"We are an army of two bands," he says. "We bonded over the fact that when a lot of people see a drum machine they're always like, 'You guys are pretty good but you should get a drummer.' And it's like, 'No, that's kinda the point.'"

Harpoon's also aligned with locals like Hewhocorrupts and (Lone) Wolf & Cub, who approach metal with the attitude of DIY punks. "We like club shows," Vast-Binder says, "but the best shows are in spaces, be it somebody's basement, in the front of a store, whatever."

Costello and Vast-Binder both say they hoped at the band's inception that using a drum machine would alleviate some of the difficulties presented when you put a real drummer in a space that's not set up for live drum performances. Getting that to work took some tweaking. "The hope was that we were going to go in there and melt faces," Vast-Binder says. "We didn't even warm faces."

Now Harpoon stands to benefit from what seems to be a grindcore renaissance among younger metal fans. But although they could also legitimately claim descent from mid-80s thrash, they say they don't want anything to do with that style's current revival, which they describe as fashion-driven and inartistic.

"I think grind's getting a second wind," Barraca says. "The thrash thing is... I was on tour last year [with Lair of the Minotaur] and there were a lot of thrash bands. It's unoriginal. It's all these young kids looking at old Thrasher magazines and dressing the part, buying the gear. This new wave of grind, there's a lot of creativity and people pushing boundaries. The thrash stuff is just a throwback. In the grind scene, people don't all dress the same, they all have different influences. People are really open to creativity."

"And the people that you find playing grind stuff," Vast-Binder adds, "they aren't the kind of orthodox metalheads who are like, 'It doesn't sound like fuckin' Hell Awaits so it's not fuckin' metal.'"v

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