Though they’re far from a household name, those in the know have long elevated guitarist Caspar Brötzmann’s avant-rock power trio Massaker to legendary status, with Julian Cope calling them “the trio to end all power trios.” Another fan, Southern Lord owner and one-half of Sunn O))), Greg Anderson, is now trying to gain the group the recognition they deserve. Southern Lord is reissuing all five Massaker albums in 2019 and 2020, starting with their 1988 debut The Tribe and its follow-up, 1989’s Black Axis, both of which were released on January 18. Once Southern Lord completes the series, they will release a special limited edition box set containing all the albums along with a plethora of liner notes and exclusive artwork.
The first time one encounters this music, it would be easy to hear it as an avant-rock take on the relentless menace of early Godflesh, but further investigation reveals that both acts debuted in 1988, likely ignorant of each other. So one must trace the sonic lineage back further, finding in the process that these two groups each provide alternative visions of the Swans‘ early No Wave attack. Where Godflesh provided a physically palpable, mechanized attack, Caspar Brötzmann Massaker are heady, psychedelic and intuitive, while keeping the assault intact.
The Tribe is certainly indebted to Swans, yet with less emphasis on the vocals and a greater focus on the instrumental interplay between the trio. A small mantra is intoned on the eponymous album opener, but it is low in the mix. The pounding drum and bass take center stage for a while before ceding room to Brötzmann’s incendiary guitar explosions. Tracks like “Blechton” and “Massaker” sound like Jimi Hendrix and Sonny Sharrock took over guitar duties for the Jesus Lizard and told David Yow to keep it down. “The Call” captures a certain sense of transcendence, an out-of-body skronk jam, and the album closes with a pair of tracks, “Paul” and “Bonker’s Dance,” which each reference a more abstracted take on postpunk.
The second album, 1989’s Black Axis, shows the band developing their own sound further. “Die Tiere” transforms Hendrix’s string-scraping in “Are You Experienced” into a dark, martial dirge likely inspired by industrial acts like Test Dept. and Einstürzende Neubauten. (Years later, Brötzmann would work with Neubauten’s F.M. Einheit on a duo album, and with the short-lived group Nohome.) Yet when the militaristic drumming combines with Brötzmann’s guitar skree, the effect becomes hypnotic and primal. This surging, trance-inducing intensity is a constant throughout the album.
“Hunter Song” alternates between an entrancing two-note guitar figure and pure guitar eruptions, while “Mute” possesses an ebb and flow between agile drumming and more guitar hypnosis. The album ends with the epic fifteen-minute title track. Much of the first half of this piece consists of guitar drone. When the rest of the band joins in, they conjure a menacing, subdued vibe. The group doesn’t reach full liftoff until the final two and half minutes, but it is well worth the wait.
A lot of credit is due to Southern Lord for undertaking this project. In this age where metal is being cross-pollinated with a variety of influences from across the musical spectrum, a label of their status can certainly can do no wrong by injecting Brötzmann’s awe-inspiring guitar work into the mix. One can imagine Massaker’s influence slowly worming its way into the next generation of axe-slingers, and the powerful impact it will have on their music. These albums are stunning and original, providing a vital look into the past while pointing a still too-little-traveled way forward.
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