When Pig Destroyer frontman J.R. Hayes snarls “They’re coiled on the chairs, they’re crawling down the stairs, they’re squirming everywhere” on “House of Snakes,” Head Cage’s monstrous closer, it genuinely sounds like he’s mentally unraveling. It’s frightening in a way that only Pig Destroyer can be. The seminal grindcore quintet is still capable of producing such visceral, emotionally gut-wrenching sounds 21 years after their formation; it's a testament to the band’s profound strengths.
It’s also a more measured album than anything Pig Destroyer has released in the past. Aside from “House of Snakes,” the unhinged, animalistic rage that is emblematic of Pig Destroyer’s older sound is mostly tempered. The songs are more nuanced and varied, the pacing slower, the tone less staggeringly vitriolic—that isn’t necessarily a good thing.
At its best, Head Cage is unarguably fantastic, but it’s also difficult to find much to say about the roughly one-third of the record that isn’t as on point. Head Cage is 32 minutes long, about 19 minutes of which is deserving of that hyperbolic praise. Yet, the rest of the record ranges from middling to just above decent.
To be blunt, there’s simply nothing of interest to note in “The Adventures of Jason and JR,” “Mt. Skull,” and “Trap Door Man.” These songs constitute Head Cage’s fastest, grind-focused material, which makes their utter lack of impact all the more perplexing. They’re fast and loud, sure—angry too—but they lack any semblance of the rage, aggression or fiery spark this kind of music needs to excel. They go through stunningly basic patterns and simply lack the weightiness and sheer intensity you’d expect from this kind of music.
There are no egregious failures, aside from the sludgy “The Torture Fields,” a dull slog that only somewhat pulls itself together thanks to a nice riff in its final 30 seconds. Still, too much of Head Cage plays things infuriatingly safe. Even after well over a dozen listens, it’s frustratingly difficult to discern large chunks of the prior tracks. “The Last Song” fares a bit better thanks to its spiraling guitar riffs but is otherwise also a far cry from Head Cage’s stronger tracks. The brevity of most of the record’s songs somewhat mitigates these issues, but the amount of middling content tends to add up worryingly fast. In almost any other case, this kind of criticism would be damning. Though Head Cage is not without several faults, the rest of its songs are of such high quality that it largely excuses the missteps.
“Concrete Beast,” Circle River,” and “Army of Cops” are among Pig Destroyer’s most restrained and accessible songs yet, but also happen to some of the band’s finest. They favor sensible song structure and even subtle melodies and catchy guitar rhythms over the band’s trademark manic ferocity, and the tradeoff works surprisingly well. Each track boasts infectious guitar lines, while bassist John Jarvis—this is the first Pig Destroyer full-length to feature bass—fleshes out each piece with chunky textures. Of course, each song also boasts numerous vocal highlights, whether they be from Hayes or guest vocalists Kat Katz (Agoraphobic Nosebleed) and Richard Johnson (Agoraphobic Nosebleed, Pig Destroyer, etc), though the gang chants on “Army of Cops” are deserving of particular praise.
As impeccable as those tracks are, Head Cage’s greatest achievement comes in “House of Snakes,” the record’s aforementioned colossus of an outro that wraps things up in dazzling style. The track’s sludgy, paranoid first half gradually picks up the pace and gradually transitions into the frantic, maddening atmosphere and bilious vocals that are reminiscent of Pig Destroyer’s strongest work. “House of Snakes” lets itself entirely loose around four minutes in, and its remaining three minutes are an auditory horror show in the best possible way.
With moments this memorable, it’s impossible not to give Head Cage an earnest recommendation, despite its rougher edges. Head Cage is probably not the record fans were expecting, but the new territory it charts is so resoundingly that one can’t help but be enthralled. Yes, there are undeniable faults, but Head Cage is nonetheless proof that 21 years later, Pig Destroyer is still one of metal’s most celebrated creative forces for a damn good reason, that’s more than anyone could’ve reasonably asked for.