Film Review – Slave to the Grind
Slave to the Grind
Toronto-based filmmaker Doug Robert Brown set out to make the most comprehensive film he could about the extreme heavy metal sub-genre known as grindcore. Given that grindcore, the speedy, more aggressive cousin of death metal and hardcore punk, has always been the red-headed stepchild of the hard rock underground, there was still plenty of untilled ground for Brown to plant his flag with the making of his documentary love-letter Slave to the Grind. The goal of the picture is to establish the genre’s origins and to identify the essential bands and artists that contributed to its worldwide reach, while the second half of the doc tries to umbrella all the scattered grindcore scenes and eras under the genre’s unifying themes of noise, absurdity, and subversive edge.
It’s difficult to describe grindcore to someone who’s never listened to it, and it’s even more difficult to explain its appeal to the non-metal individual who gets most of their music from classic rock radio or from Spotify’s front page playlists. Slave to the Grind adequately lays the foundations in Birmingham England with the relatively successful, multi-decade cult band Napalm Death, as well as in Flint Michigan with the group Repulsion. Both from auto-industry towns, these groups happened upon a similar style of heavy metal that combined the speed and raw aggression of hardcore punk bands like Deep Wound and Discharge with the grimy dissonance and the growling guttural vocals of the burgeoning death metal style. However, unlike the previous or concurrent crossover punk/thrash hybrids that were exploding in the mid-80s, grindcore didn’t care to pay off their listeners with long, technical solos, shout-along anthemic lyrics, or head-bobbing grooves and breakdowns to rally the pit. Instead, these bands, along with California’s Terrorizer, Liverpool’s Carcass, and Napalm Death’s sister-band Extreme Noise Terror, wrote songs that were under a minute long and sonically claustrophobic in their tight construction of machine-gun fast blast-beat drumming, alongside a blare of distorted bass and guitars.
Brown’s documentary is similarly formatted with a foundation of interviews and archival footage utilized in other recognizable rock-docs, but deconstructed into a fractured flurry of many shuffled narrative bits that rotate around until its conclusion. By the film’s end, several stories accumulate and overarching themes about being a proud outsider and working hard for your art with minimal reward are touched on, but the seemingly intentional lack of structure exhausts the audience quickly as they’re jumping from topic to topic. The most cohesive story we get outside of shorter band profiles and the snip-bits of live performances we see throughout is a more thorough portrait of the Massachusetts shock-grind band Anal Cunt. Even though there’re many aspects of this band that are atypical of the genre, Brown chooses to use their story as an anchor to delineate the larger segments of the documentary. The group starts as a tasteless joke to annoy people in their local scene and then becomes a somewhat known quantity within the world of underground metal. Their volatile stage shows featured lead-singer Seth Putnam’s provocative, un-PC rants that would sometimes lead to violence from the audience as well as from the supporting bands they toured with. Though this profile is broken up between larger chunks of unrelated material, this story generates the most narrative traction and injects a much-needed emotional arc into the rest of the project. The rest of the film is devoted to portraying the gind scene as a diverse group of underdogs who are unified by their devotion to their art, despite having the narrowest market for their brand of hyperactive racket. Perhaps more attention to the working-class metal ethics of these tireless road-dogs would have better emphasized a unifying theme.
Brown also touches on the splintered micro-genres that have occupied more specific corners of the grindcore community. Following the body-horror themes of early Carcass, “goregrind” opts out of the punk-style political lyricism in favor of death metal’s detailed descriptions of murder and evisceration, while groups more akin to the juvenile and explicit Anal Cunt stake claim under the “pornogrind” banner. “Mincecore” bands like Agathocles put social justice and politics front and center, while the artsy Montreal noisecore groups featured in the documentary are deconstructing all musical conventions and pushing harder for the absurd. Curiously, grindcore’s hardcore cousin powerviolence is only brought up once in passing reference. Musically, most of these sub-sub-genres of are nearly indistinguishable to the uninitiated, but this is a doc made by a fan strictly for fans, so these diversions are brief and not always comfortably integrated within the film’s architecture.
Slave to the Grind is a shaggy piece of storytelling, and as a historical document it cries for a tighter edit that would clean up the plot construction, but this director is not interested in holding anyone’s hand through the experience and the final result is clearly an expression of his fascination. The influence of fluffy tour docs that combine performance clips with backstage interviews, along with the bird’s-eye objectivity of Penelope Spheeris’ anthropological Decline of Western Civilization series actively fight each other throughout the picture, and perhaps this narrative tension is somewhat appropriate for a portrait of a music genre as violent and impenetrable as grindcore.