Finally, a band for fatalists. The San Francisco quartet’s lyrics read like a countdown to Armageddon, while their Test Dept.-like primal rhythms (especially in later releases) head toward a spirit world holding a hint of salvation. The mirror Grotus holds up to Western society acknowledges an epidemic of cultural ills. Though the band’s delivery is generally subtler, the subject matter runs along politically, socially and environmentally correct lines similar to those inscribed by Consolidated, Meat Beat Manifesto and even Skinny Puppy, In Grotus’ portrait, a nation of robots addicted to drugs, television and sugar run the risk of overdosing on the barrage of information pumped into them.
The band — John Carson (bass, samples), Lars Fox (vocals, samples, percussion) and Adam Tanner (guitar, bass, samples); drummer Bruce Boyd joined in ’91 — contributes to that onslaught of images by using video projections during live shows. Brown employs as many spoken samples as a Negativland album: a recurring fundamentalist-style “I’m a god and you’re a god” speech on “Malthusela,” which equates the obsession with looking young and staying healthy to a sick religion. Another sampled piece, “City of the Dead,” aptly prefaces “Las Vegas Power Grid,” an extreme example of people shutting off reality that weaves in samples of people explaining the basics of gambling games. In “Full Metal Grotus (we need so much),” America is a society of excesses; the song details a genetically engineered lifestyle, a theme that pops up on later releases. Meanwhile, the music on Brown could be a score for a Blade Runner sequel. Grotus’ blend of techno-industrial constructions and a gothic eeriness evokes a metallic chill on a par with Foetus or Nine Inch Nails.
Luddite has more varied musical constructions than Brown, which makes the band’s message even more potent. The title track is an immediate grabber, with pounding rhythms, a heavy metal crunch and Napalm Death-style vocals. Other cuts have more seductive grooves, but the message doesn’t vary. “What in the World” observes “We talk like we’re in a movie/Best entertainment value for the buck/Just push rewind and put in the next tape.” “Shelf Life,” another complaint against genetically altered food, even repeats a line from Brown’s “Valhalla’s Celtic Robbie,” a protest against animal testing. A remake of the first album’s “Brown” omits the original’s spoken samples, but the music is much more cohesive, with dance rhythms as a sign of Grotus’ tightening focus.
Slow Motion Apocalypse mixes the alluring music of Luddite and a judicious bit of the sampling activity of Brown. Over what sounds like a brassy ’70s TV theme, “Good Evening,” about the bombardment of television news headlines, jumps from serious references about AIDS and neo-Nazis to ridiculous snippets (“a piece of Madonna’s underwear”). “Up Rose the Mountain” is a reminder of life’s tenuousness; “Sleepwalking” again throws daggers at how most people waste the time they do have. More prominent here than in the past are Hindu references and chants, as well as a Middle Eastern flavor that conjures images of an armor-plated belly dancer. That impulse comes to the fore on “Shivayanama,” where Fox’s heavy vocals are enveloped by an overpowering bass. Both “Sleepwalking” and “Kali Yuga” also tap into that lilting Eastern influence. (The CD contains an unlisted version of “Brown.”)
Opiate of the Masses consists of five tracks mixed-and-matched from pieces of “Shivayanama,” “Sleepwalking” and “Kali Yuga.” Although much of the EP tends toward tranciness (“Rasa Bliss Mix” and “Afterglow Tantra” use soothing chants and spacey electronics), “Visnu Fulfillment” is a high-energy techno-dance number colored with low-level primal scream sounds.
Grotus continues on the techno/tribal trail with the even more polished Handjob EP. (“T’Ain’t Nobody’s Bizness If I Do” even fits spoken samples to smooth funk.) Although just as determined in topical intent, the lyrics don’t leave as heavy an imprint in the context of this less-crunching music. “A Bad Itch” considers the ease with which racist attitudes infiltrate society, while “Ebola Reston,” presented in three mixes, warns that the disease should not be seen as an exclusively Third World problem. The original “Ebola” mix is like a techno version of Sisters of Mercy; the others, by Jack Dangers of Meat Beat Manifesto and Sasha Konietzko of KMFDM, are upbeat house tracks, providing a strange sonic contrast to the heavy-handed lyrics.
The full-length Mass supplants the stop-gap preview that was Handjob, repeating all three of its songs (though restricting “Ebola Reston” to a single incident) and adding critical portraits of a mass murderer (“Collect ‘Em All”), a cable-TV addict (“Wild Bill”) and a slacker (“Hand to Mouth,” done as a sloppy Beck-like blues) that remain widely accessible and smartly appealing no matter how hard they rock.