My fascination with the New Orleans, Louisiana metal scene stretches back many years, playing a key role in my transition into darker, more extreme waters. A friend of mine introduced me to a myriad of more extreme bands, but it was the impact of first listening to the swampy, death-obsessed tales of disturbing imagery, deeply engaging melodies, and genre busting innovation from the legendary Acid Bath that blew me away. Through my obsession with Acid Bath, I developed a taste for other trailblazing NOLA bands, from Soilent Green, Eyehategod, Down and Crowbar, to lesser known acts, like underrated grind maestros Flesh Parade and Mule Skinner. The latter act released a gem of a lone LP in 1996 called Abuse that I snagged a CD copy of many moons ago. Abuse became a treasured item in my collection, a little known album, boasting energetic riffing and a furious blend of punky grind with elements of death and hardcore. After a lengthy recording hiatus, broken up by the release of the 2014 Crushing Breakdown EP, Mule Skinner has emerged with their second LP and first in about 22 years with the pummeling Airstrike.
Thankfully, the passage of time hasn’t dented the band’s rage or hunger, judging by the taut, aggro collection of tunes comprising Airstrike‘s tight and perfectly concise 33 minute run-time. Mule Skinner sound positively rejuvenated, retaining the bulk of their original line-up, except for a change in vocalist, with Ryan Ashmore coming on board prior to their Crushing Breakdown release. The band’s sound remains linked to their past, but in a more modernized form, creating a strong bond between death metal and grind, as well as incorporating a solid dose of sludgy NOLA groove and hardcore punk attitude. The ensuing blitz is extremely infectious and surprisingly dynamic musically. Even when the throttle is jammed down for full speed impact, Mule Skinner‘s skillful rhythmic variations, vibrant riffing, and subtle tempo shifts makes for a frequently engaging experience, free of filler.
With variety in spades, the plentiful speedy sections, old school grind roots, and blast mode attack, sounds all the more potent in contrast with Mule Skinner‘s penchant for belligerent, streetwise grooves and sludgy death marches. Guitarist Michael Howes stands out with his spiky, infectious riffing, mish-mashing grind, punk, sludge and death metal influences into a Molotov cocktail of catchy, stabbing riffage and occasional flirtations with fleeting melody. “Suicide Vest,” “Airstrike,” and “Faith in Blood” rip, grind and shred with reckless abandon, fast and violent salvos with zippy riffs and killer change-ups. Meanwhile, tracks like “Bred to Destroy” and the stellar “Firing Squads” showcase Mule Skinner‘s groovy death-sludge elements and nods to later-era Soilent Green. Regardless of tempo, the energy levels and aggression remains at high intensity until the swaggering, Southern-flavored grind/sludge/death hybrid of “Fuse” closes out the album.
Certain tracks stand out more than others, but Airstrike is consistently strong, and its punchy duration demands repeat listens. Comprised of band members with a wealth of experience in the extreme metal underground, it’s no surprise Mule Skinner play with such tightness and precision, whether whizzing the listener through a grind blender or crushing them into dust during the no less punishing slower moments and bruising groove sections. Drummer Todd Capiton and bassist Tony Salisbury, both of Flesh Parade, produce fine performances, with the audible basslines fattening-up and dirtying the band’s sound pleasingly. Although Mule Skinner kick it old school, Airstrike boasts an in-your-face and modern sonic imprint, via the album’s stout production job. While it is a loud recording with stock standard compression, it’s not greatly detrimental to the overall experience, which captures the sharp and aggressive musicianship with clarity, clout, and just the right amount of ugliness.
Mule Skinner have always flown under the radar and their triumphant re-emergence in 2018 is no exception, with limited marketing and promotional push having the potential to short change the top notch death-grind the band deliver here. Abuse is a criminally underrated ’90s gem and Airstrike marks a long gestating but high quality sequel that should be closely checked by aficionados of death, grind, and top notch extreme metal in general.