It’s been six years since Pig Destroyer released Book Burner. Add the additional five years between that one and 2007’s Phantom Limb, and we’re now 11 years removed from what remains as the band’s creative peak.
Which brings us to now…
I’ve seen some enthusiastic pre-release chatter about Head Cage. I’ve seen it hailed as one of the best albums of 2018, and read that it “runs laps around the year’s other heavy releases.” Regrettably, I do not share this enthusiasm, nor do I see any circles in the dust that hasn’t gathered yet over the dozens of other, better albums from the past eight months. To be fully fair, Head Cage is not a disaster, not an out-and-out failure, but it’s far from superlative, and it’s handily the weakest Pig Destroyer album by a wide margin.
Not quite as drastic as the Kat Katz-led Arc EP that saw Agoraphobic Nosebleed making a sudden sidestep into sludge, a significant portion of Head Cage is nonetheless a noticeable departure from the lightning-riff grinding of Prowler and Terrifyer. This change is the logical continuation of the paring back that began on Phantom and took over on Book Burner. Teaser track “Army Of Cops” rides twin knuckle-dragging ‘core grooves for three minutes, starting in thrash mode before dropping into the kind of chunky wallop that would’ve made a truly great breakdown were it bookended by the ferocity of Pig Destroyer circa 2004. “Army” is the kind of song that a hundred modern ‘core-laden thrash bands have made names on, so it’s not fundamentally flawed in conception—it’s just simply that Pig Destroyer should be better than any of those bands, and this is missing the mark at best, and missing the spark at worst.
Balancing ANb co-frontperson Richard Johnson’s guest appearance on “Army Of Cops,” Katz appears on “Concrete Beast,” but even she can’t salvage that sludgy non-starter with its stuttering NOLA-by-numbers riffing. It’s another three-minute exercise in a song that goes virtually nowhere from a band known for songs that covered great distances in short spans. Add to it the sound sample intro “Tunnel Under The Tracks,” to “Army Of Cops,” and to the seven minutes of noise-sludge trudge in closer “House Of Snakes,” and nearly half of Head Cage’s thirty minutes falls flat in four fell swoops.
The addition of a bassist in John Jarvis (also of ANb and Fulgora) is mostly a non-factor. Sure, it rounds out the overall tone of the record and allows Hull some breathing room, but that’s only used to any good effect on the intro to “The Last Song,” and neither of those improvements matter when the material is substandard. Once the most intense of all the band’s intensities, JR Hayes’ performance here feels tired and lackluster, as though even he can’t muster much enthusiasm for these songs. Only on the relatively scorching “Mt. Doom” does he show the spark that lit Terrifyer and Prowler, and perhaps it’s because that track and true opener “Dark Train” are among the closest points that Head Cage comes to Pig Destroyer’s earlier glories.
Like Book Burner before it, Head Cage is still the work of a band filled with undeniable talent, but one that’s no longer playing to their strengths. Terrifyer certainly had groovy moments and thrashy moments, but they were balanced out by the grinding, and on Head Cage, the balance is off. Too many failed attempts at recreating a “Gravedancer” and too little following-that-up with a “Lost Cause,” and more damning than either, there’s simply too little fire beneath it all. It’s redolent of the mid-’90s when almost every thrash band shifted to a groovier sound and in the process almost uniformly created what history holds as their least interesting albums. In terms of the relative quality of its creators’ canon, Head Cage is more I Hear Black than Re-Load – and for that, at least, we can be thankful – but it’s still above only the uninteresting experiment of the Mass & Volume EP at the bottom of the Pig Destroyer pile.