Posted on July 26th, 2013 (8:42 am) by Ben Welton

If there is something truly different about Texas, then two men from literary history embody it better than all the rest: Jim Thompson and Robert E. Howard. Born in the same year (1906), “Big Jim” and “Two-Gun Bob” typify the Lone Star State’s virile and violent masculinity, and their stories and novels about serial killer deputies, drifters, con men, Puritan gunfighters, dockside pugilists, and barbarian warriors from prehistory are deeply etched into the American male psyche. While I am sure that some of you out there are learned enough to know that Thompson was actually born in the Oklahoma Territory, it still remains true that both Thompson and Howard, who often wrote about places and worlds outside of the Southwest, are inseparable from Texas, a part of America that has entered into global folklore.

These two Texas titans wield some influence over the world of music, specifically the hyper-masculine, over-the-top world of heavy metal. Howard’s shadow is easy to discern, with bands such as Manowar, Molly Hatchet, and Manilla Road routinely paying tribute to Howard’s most famous creations: Conan the Barbarian and Kull of Atlantis. Thompson’s influence is less easy to see, but it is no less present. His bleak noir novels embrace blood-hungry surrealism and a Greek tragedy-inspired sense of melancholy, thus making them perfect cultural reference points for all things obsidian. Also, the sheer violence and nihilism of Thompson is alluring for metal bands, especially those bands that reject the often Howard-influenced genre of power metal.

In Austin - a city that is at once an anomaly and uniquely Texan - these two native strands have recently converged underneath the pen and hands of one local son - Chris Ulsh. Besides being the drummer for Power Trip, the current kings of crossover, Ulsh is also the guitarist and vocalist for another tornado of Texas metal - Mammoth Grinder. Power Trip and Mammoth Grinder are but two parts of Ulsh’s triumvirate of terror (the other being the powerviolence trio Hatred Surge), but they should be singled out in importance for a certain unifying factor. That specific linkage is the theory of the old school: both bands take on supposedly outdated genres (thrash metal for Power Trip and death metal for Mammoth Grinder) and breathe new life into them without compromising their traditional integrity. Power Trip’s Manifest Decimation is not only one of the best metal records of the last five years, but its faithful rendering of metal’s halcyon days manages to sound both freshly brutal and satisfyingly familiar.

Mammoth Grinder’s third studio release - Underworlds - strikes a similar vein as Manifest Decimation. There is a noteworthy difference between the two releases, however. Thrash metal was publicly reviled during its day, but now, in the world of VH1 Classic and modern rock stations on XM and Sirius, thrash metal is an accepted, albeit an extreme part of what is considered “dude music.” Plenty of frat boys like Slayer, and someone saying that they like Metallica is akin to confessing that they enjoy the MLB or the NFL. Death metal is a different animal altogether, and because of this, Underworlds is even less likely than Manifest Decimation to be on the rotation at the TKE house.

For diehard metalheads, the appeal of Underworlds should lie in its older, simpler approach to death metal. Underworlds makes one feel like the boys in Mammoth Grinder have spent hours studying Albert Mudrian’s Choosing Death - the popular bible for death metal’s early years. In that book, Mudrian goes to great lengths to show how death metal evolved out of hardcore punk and its even more snotty offspring - powerviolence and grindcore. In this historical timeline, Mammoth Grinder would fall somewhere around 1988 or 1989 - the earliest years of death metal’s coalescing.

The reasons for this educated guess are based of the punk-tinged qualities of Underworlds. For instance, “Paragon Pusher” displays a straightforward, Discharge-like mentality. “Paragon Pusher” contains the same D-beat presence as any mid-‘80s release from England or Sweden - the bastions of powerviolence and early grindcore. Noticeably, Underworlds lacks the technicality of much of modern death metal. Ulsh does not have the indecipherable growl of Frank Mullen or Lord Worm, while Alex Hughes (bass), Brian Boeckman (drums) and Wade Allison (guitars) don’t overextend themselves with dexterous displays of musicianship.

In this regard, Underworlds feels more Swedish than Floridian, and tracks such as “Barricades” and “Breeding” are comparable to anything from Entombed's stellar early catalog. The one break in this trend is the last song, “Moral Crux,” which has a sludgy, more New Orleans-derived feel than the rest of the album. On “Moral Crux,” Mammoth Grinder find inspiration closer to their home soil. The same goes for the aesthetic presentation of the album (which is the second to feature a cloaked and faceless wizard) and its lyrical content. In regards to the album’s cover and the distinguishing trademark of Mammoth Grinder, the quartet cull forth the specter of Howard and his creations. This is an unsurprising move given that Allison is formerly a member of Eternal Champion, yet another Austin band (which also features Blake Ibanez of Power Trip) with a need to sing the praises of Howard’s Übermensch warriors. Again, what is actually surprising is the subtle hand of Thompson on Underworlds - a record that is primarily concerned with destruction and a nihilistic sense of suffering.

Theories aside, Underworlds is a crushing release that proves that there is something special about Texas. That state seems to breed a type of archaeological metal that does not fall into annoying nostalgia. It is a state that understands that brutality in music is usually mirrored by brutality in culture. There’s no better poster child than Texas; there’s no better example than Underworlds.

Track List:
1. Underworlds
2. Wraparound Eyes
3. Revenge
4. Paragon Pusher
5. Barricades
6. Cogs in the Machine
7. Roperide
8. Breeding
9. Born in a Bag
10. Moral Crux

Mammoth Grinder's second full-length, "Underworlds."
Purchase at: Amazon | eMusic

Our Rating

74 / 100
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