The defining characteristics of grindcore are:
- Emancipation from the structural rigidity of traditional metal. Where metal retains its compositional character, grindcore cares little for such considerations, and in fact pursues a ‘destructional’ agenda that seeks to boil music down to its most primal elements without entirely losing the appellate of “music”. This is a fine line that is far too often overstepped by grindcore bands but the best grind remains that which retains a semblance of memorability.
- Very liberal use of blastbeats that loosens the interlocking between riffs and drums. Punk beats serve as occasional respite from the aural terrorism.
- The use of leitmotifs that usually act as bookends and thematic hooks for the listener to identify individual songs which, otherwise, frequently dissolve into a blur of white noise difficult to be told apart.
- Between these leitmotifs lie extremely fast-transitioning power chords and alternately-picked sections. Individual components hold little logical interplay in the greater context of a song but it can be argued that the point of grindcore is to undermine the conventional idea of a song.
Listening to a band like Blasphemy, considered the archetypal war metal band by clones, right after hearing Napalm Death‘s Scum or Carcass‘ Reek Of Putrefaction, or something even more stripped-down and noise-based like Fear Of God (Switzerland), one can’t help but notice the adherence to the above list of checkpoints. Blasphemy have always called themselves Black Metal and they add the occasionally gratuitous, chaotic guitar solo to distance themselves from the minimalist grindcore ethic, but these are merely surface distinguishers. Hardcore breakdowns abound on Fallen Angel Of Doom, while chord progressions generally mimic the recursive aspects of punk music, albeit with greater emphasis on constant tremolo-picking.
The biggest difference between grindcore and war metal is in ideology; where grindcore is overbearingly and self-righteously leftist, the bands that call themselves war metal are politically incorrect to a fault, advocating nothing short of perpetual war and chaos. One would like to think that this is a metaphor, implying continuous strife, both inner and outer, as an irreplaceable requisite for man’s self-enlightenment. But whether this is the correct interpretation or just a cool pose to adopt would perhaps be better answered by the bands themselves or the masses of hoodie-wearing, sunglasses-flaunting fans so devoid of critical discrimination.
The structuralist school of thought suggests that the elements within a system are endowed with their meaning based on the hierarchical interrelationships within, or their synchronicity with each other. In other words, an element loses its meaning in the absence of a counter or an opposite. “Good” only means something in the presence of “bad”; take away the existence of the “bad” and the word “good” loses the positive connotations that are associated with it. While this line of thinking may indicate that there is nothing in the world with intrinsic worth of itself, and that this binary opposition ignores the gradient necessary to the evolution of concepts and ideas, it is a useful tool when applied to thinking about music, metal in this case.
In terms of metal, which is composed and hence obeys fundamental structural laws, i.e. it isn’t open to reckless improvisation or ambiguity over interpretation of its constituents or as a whole, the individual riff, as cool as it may sound, means nothing if it doesn’t occupy a meaningful niche in the larger, structural sense. For dialogue to occur between the different parts of a metal song, there has to be logical crosstalk between adjacent riffs and a connecting thread that shares the same genetic material through its running length. Contrasting different aspects of a song against each other is paramount so that each individual aspect stands out in relief against the larger backdrop.
Where grindcore and war metal part ways from real metal is in the way they subordinate the song to the moment. By disrupting the musical, narrative fabric that metal has upheld over time, grindcore and a lot of war metal position themselves in the postmodernist camp that shuns traditional values. This is to be expected of grindcore but the real irony is that of war metal and the dichotomy that follows between its thought and action. War metal would like to be thought of as true metal but an inevitable existential crisis ruins its claims to such legitimacy.