I’ve met a lot of people who claim they “don’t like” or have “never gotten into” grindcore. I suspect the reason is simple: these people have never listened to Insect Warfare. More than any other album in grindcore, the Texas group’s 2007 debut World Extermination epitomizes exactly what the style is about: spastic music that careens sloppily from one idea to the next, moving from blasting to grooving to chugging all while some guy alternately grunts like a pig and screams like he just stepped on a Lego piece in the dark. Ever since I first heard Extermination years ago, I’ve been on a largely futile quest to find a grindcore record that captures the same aural insanity, only to be disappointed by overly polished tripe like Rotten Sound1 or silly shit like a band fronted by a fucking coffee maker.
Along with Wormrot’s Abuse, Death Toll 80k’s 2011 debut Harsh Realities was one of the few works I found that actually matched Insect Warfare‘s Extermination. Sure it had the insanity, but more than that it had the RIFFS — riffs that thrashed, riffs that grooved, riffs that crawled up my ass and exploded and then sent my remains to Mom in a shittily taped box along with a picture of goatse and a copy of the latest straight-to-DVD John Cena movie. Point being, Realities was a great album, so you can imagine my excitement when I saw this Finnish quartet was finally returning after six years with sophomore full-length Step Down.
And, fortunately, the madness has far from subsided. Upon pushing play on opener “Panopticon,” it’s only seconds before squelching feedback and ringing chords give way to Death Toll’s typical deathgrind assault, exposing listeners to exactly what the rest of these 17 tracks have in store: drums that stampede like a herd of wildebeests, riffs that are frantically introduced and tossed aside moments later, and thick nailbomb guitars that hit like a shot of pepper spray to the face. Adding to the craziness is vocalist Oula Kerkelä, whose deep grunts are so unintelligible it almost sounds like a parody. Embellished with occasional phlegmy screams, Kerkelä mainly sticks to the same “Blargh! Blargh! Blurgghhhh!” vocal pattern for the entire album, which grows a tad repetitive but feels strangely fitting. It’s almost as if he’s become so enraged by the injustice that he’s completely unable to articulate, which makes sense when paired with song titles like “Abolish Fur Farms.”
Fortunately, Death Toll still manage to work some nuggets of memorability amidst the mania. Early highlights “Trampled” and aforementioned “Abolish” erupt into swift grooves which recall modern Napalm Death, while late standouts “Hydra” and “Silent Approval” deliver devastating chugs which evoke images of an angry mob brandishing baseball bats and “fuck-the-Man!” grimaces. Those looking for a riffier Mumakil or a more brutal Wormrot are sure to enjoy, and just like the latter Death Toll understand the importance of brevity in a style this wild. At less than 16 minutes in length, you can listen to the entirety of Down the next time you take a particularly long shit and you’ll still probably be finished before you wipe.
But just as lightning doesn’t strike the same place twice, neither does great grindcore apparently. Whereas Realities was one of the only albums I’ve ever heard that nearly made my nose bleed from headbanging so hard, Down feels strangely deprived of riffs. In place of the thrashy and Bolt Thrower-esque moments that made Realities such a win, Down instead bloats itself with harsh buzzy chords and nondescript bashing which feels extreme but lacks memorability. The production is also loud and claustrophobic, though that’s hardly a negative considering this is a grindcore album and all.
Make no mistake, Down isn’t a bad album, just a good one released by a band whose previous work was monumental. Death Toll still offer plenty of raw energy with a clear disdain for social injustice (even if the incomprehensible vocals make their exact message impossible to discern). Meanwhile, moments like the call-and-response scream/grunt section at the end of “Repeating Failures” are extreme to the point of hilarity, but there’s still enough quality ideas to please fans of Assück, Phobia, and their ilk. In short, this is a wholly enjoyable record, even if it is a bit of a… step down.2