Welcoming Apocalypse – The Aesthetics of Grindcore

Commissioned by Capsule (2008)

By Nicholas Bullen

The process of genre development is driven by the urgent imperative to create and fix identity. Each new genre must develop a defined space for its own development and entrenchment in the surrounding cultural milieu, and aesthetic style is used to further consolidate the security of a nascent musical genre through the creation of a defined identity for the genre and its adherents. In doing so, it simultaneously embeds the genre into the surrounding cultural lexicon.

The requirement for the development of a mesh of aesthetic style is keenly obvious in the creation of sub-genre, particularly the creation of those sub-genres such as Grindcore which are strata of clearly defined and culturally entrenched genres. In the case of Grindcore, the increased need for validation is made manifest through a network of aesthetic choices based on notions of ‘extremity’.

Founded on intertwined notions of ‘extremity’ and transgression (complementary elements which inform both sonic content and aesthetics) – and predominantly informed by the aesthetic vision developed by the Punk Rock and Heavy Metal genres (the key inspirations in musical terms), Grindcore exists within a dense vortex of dystopian imagery which oscillates around a totemic representation of apocalypse, decay and death and infects its visual expression at every level from record cover art to marketing materials. Rich in immediacy and urgency, the leitmotifs of Grindcore produce an art replete with emotive resonance, an impression compounded by the correlation between the density of the aesthetic imagery (which extends to the use of colour palette, text and layout) and the viscous compaction of the physical sound of the music itself.

In this exploration of the outer thresholds of human experience, symbols of mortality (from the ossuary relics of skull and skeleton to the Grim Reaper) enact a callow fascination with the taboo object to create a form of Memento Mori centred on apocalyptic imagery of atomic warfare, starvation and the destruction of the city, and fetishistic references to psychotic carnage and unnatural revenants. Largely presented through hand drawn or collage-based artwork that references the immediate precursors of the sub-genre (from Punk Rock’s appropriation and re-presentation of the rupture created by Dada aesthetics, to the martial iconography of Heavy Metal and the line drawings of Brian ‘Pushead’ Schroeder), this vision expands to devour the emptiness of the frame (rejecting the cold and emotionless distance of ‘negative space’ or the single dominant image) through a colour palette of diffused monochrome or saturated primary colours.

These aesthetic motifs are rendered in a pure form in two of the key seminal pieces of Grindcore artwork – the sleeve art for Napalm Death’s ‘Scum’ and Carcass’ ‘Reek of Putrefaction’ albums, both of which were designed by Jeff Walker (bass player with Carcass) and both of which acted as definitive fixatives for the sub-genre in the later period of the 1980’s. The arching wings of the Grim Reaper in the hand-drawn ‘Scum’ artwork overshadow a world of human suffering and capitalist genocide, demonstrating the manner in which Grindcore was – from its outset – explicitly informed by a political sensibility which speaks the language of death. The artwork of ‘Reek of Putrefaction’ makes explicit this visual language of decay and death through a collage comprised of a seething morass of truncated images from a Medical Pathology textbook, fusing the politicised sensibility with the implicitly apolitical imagery of Heavy Metal which draws heavily upon the late Twentieth Century culture of Horror film, fiction, and artwork. The artwork utilised by modern Grindcore practitioners such as Pig Destroyer and Agoraphobic Nosebleed demonstrates the power and prevalence of this aesthetic.

The particular density of approach to sonic content and aesthetic imagery in Grindcore also colours the practitioner’s use of language. Language is subject to reductive processes (seemingly aspiring towards erasure) which minimise and compact, resulting in gnomic group names or lyrical content dense in thematic resonances: Brutal Truth, Nasum, ‘Genital Grinder’, ‘Human Garbage’…

In this milieu, the group logo becomes the primary signifier, an immediate visual shorthand for sonic content. Subject to an obsession with detail, the logo is typically overworked, absorbing formal aspects from the overlapping slashing lines of the ‘stick’ text used by Punk Rock groups – such as Dirty Rotten Imbeciles and Amebix – and the extended serif elements and overworked lines of Heavy Metal. The resultant form is a hyper-real calligraphy which expands in sinuous, decadent curls that blossom like a blasphemous Illuminated Manuscript (drawing on the aesthetics of precursors such as Venom, Possessed and Cryptic Slaughter) or explodes into a martial and angular iron fragmentation which echoes the sharp lines of the logos of groups such as Iron Maiden and Metallica.

In many cases, the aspiration of the Grindcore logo seems to be the condition of the image: text (and typography) operate like ideograms in pictographical languages where the shape and form of the text becomes a carrier of meaning in itself. Text functions in a manner analogous to the sigil (a magical symbol for the conveyance of power), exuding a sense of power by its visual presence and often modelling itself on a visual image (for example, the wings of a demon) or incorporating symbolic examples such as inverted crosses or the circled ‘A’ of the Anarchist (as demonstrated by Grindcore logos from napalm Death to Cretin and Magrudergrind).

The aesthetic pool continues to develop and refine itself, embracing a strain of collage influenced by Joel Peter Witkin throughout the 1990’s and the visual possibilities of advancing computer technologies in the present. However, the intrinsic elements of the Grindcore aesthetic have remained constant in the 20 years since the release of ‘Scum’ by Napalm Death demonstrating the continuing power of the aesthetic themes and convictions which underpinned the initial birth of the genre.