When White Zombie crept into New York’s then-vaunted scum-rock scene, the group was perceived as playing a kitsch in-joke on downtown types by enveloping a standard Birthday Party-via-Blue Cheer sludge onslaught in the gaudiest arena-rock trappings you could buy at the 99-cent store. But despite the art-school background shared by singer Rob Zombie (actually Robert Cummings, aka Rob Straker, aka Rob Dirt) and bassist Sean Yseult (Reynolds), it soon became evident that White Zombie viewed their capering with the ghost of metal past not as burlesque but as communion.
A pair of self-released singles put the Zombies on the Lower East Side map, situating them somewhere between Raging Slab and the Swans — with an uncommon flair for the visual manifested in the frontman’s Big Daddy Roth-inspired cartooning and a bandwide affection for mangy threads that antedated “grunge” per se. When Psycho-Head Blowout was released, the foursome was just beginning to pay attention to its audio obligations: guitarist Tom Five started to pluck some sputtering MC5-esque leads from the unctuous sea of sonic muck, and drummer Ivan DePrume channeled some of his plentiful brute force into structured beats. By most standards, however, Psycho-Head Blowout is still a mess.
Soul-Crusher brings the focus in tighter, splaying each instrument out side-by-side-roadkill-style, one might say — heightening the more unorthodox traits of each player. A vague scent of the blues permeates Tom Five’s dissonant guitar scrawl and the muffled dance throb of Yseult’s bass provides some of the album’s most interesting pure sound, but it’s Straker’s guttural bellow that generates the most power. In addition, his bizarre, stream-of-consciousness lyrics (a sample: “Ze wheels o’ fire / A doubleman defier / A motor and I / Regenerate I am your final Pompeii /o’ etched in acid / Like a shack of hate”) are the work of a finely demented mind. His magnetism — simultaneously forbidding and ludicrous — lends songs like “Scum-Kill” and “Ratmouth” an ambience not unlike a thrill-ride at an itinerant carnival where the operators look a little too jumpy for comfort.
Most of the avant peripherals fell by the wayside during the months leading up to Make Them Die Slowly, White Zombie’s first unequivocal foray into metal. A guitarist swap brought in John Ricci (formerly with Chicago’s Rights of the Accused), whose head-down riffing gave the band a rudder, facilitating full-speed-ahead (okay, low-speed, but you get the point). This newfound linearity enhances the brawn of anarcho-Steppenwolf swaggerfests like “Demonspeed” and “Murderworld” (on which Straker makes the barmy assertion “This is murderworld, buddy / Not just another traffic jam…”), and allows for a sudden burst of anthemic pugnacity on “Disaster Blaster.” There are traces of the old art-damage — most perceptibly on the plodding “Godslayer,” which is well-steeped in Funhouse-era Stoogery — but producer Bill Laswell keeps the band on track. The subsequent “God of Thunder” 12-inch single — withdrawn due to excessive plundering of the Kiss katalog — contains a cover of that band’s rock-Valhalla hymn, as well as the new “Love Razor” and a Daniel Rey-produced remake of “Disaster Blaster.”
All it took for the band to fully realize its splatter-comic Mad Max vision was an infusion of corporate cash, which rendered the White Zombie organism so garish and overblown that it fittingly struck the fancy of those kindred two-dimensional spirits Beavis and Butt-head. The influence of incessant reruns granted the cartoon duo’s praise for the Zombies’ “Thunder Kiss ’65” video can’t be overemphasized: more than a year after its release, La Sexorcisto: Devil Music Volume One took apocalypto-teen America by storm. It’s not all that hard to understand the reasons: Rob Zombie’s nihilistic caricatures are so broadly drawn — as on “Welcome to Planet Motherfucker” — that they inspire high-fives rather than high anxiety. Crucially, the band gloms on to enough synthetic sound — mostly sequenced percussion — to fit the future-shock wordplay of “Spiderbaby (Yeah-Yeah-Yeah)” and “Grindhouse (A Go-Go)” with plenty of sci-fi ammo. If Al Jourgensen’s mind-alterer of choice were comic-book ink, he might be able to project a worldview this diverting.
The three years that led up to the release of Astro-Creep: 2000 (Songs of Love, Destruction and Other Synthetic Delusions of the Electric Head) were filled with endless touring that not only revealed White Zombie as a welcome throwback to the days of the rilly big show (heavy on pyrotechnics and Vegas-worthy light displays) but intensified its desire to advance the more-is-more cause on all fronts. To that end, the album (which derives slightly more bottom from the production of Sasquatch-rock expert Terry Date) boasts more in the way of disorienting samples and far-out, Robert Williams-inspired lyric phantasmagoria. “Electric Head” (a suite divided into “The Agony” and “The Ecstasy”) is straightforward enough in its assault, but when Yseult and the guitarist now referred to only as “J” precipitate the stun-gun onslaught of “Super-Charger Heaven” and “Grease Paint and Monkey Brains,” the effect is galvanizing even for post-pubescents. A few of the songs (“Blood, Milk and Sky,” “Blur the Technicolor”) are shackled to the surfeit of technological gew-gaws, but that high-tech glow soon fades, leaving an image of White Zombie as unreconstructed show people for the 21st century.
Supersexy Swingin’ Sounds consists of Astro-Creep: 2000 remixes by John Fryer, the Dust Brothers, P.M. Dawn and others.