Classic grindcore has multitudes of rarities and disappearances left in the dust of the early 90’s death metal explosion and hardcore punk’s insidious, moshable collapse but few are as elusive as the original Sludge Records releases from New Orleans, Louisiana death-grinders Mule Skinner. Though I am a huge fan of the crossover between hardcore punk, death metal and grindcore that formed the best of fringe extreme metal in the late 80’s and early 90’s these guy’s early releases have always eluded me. Formed in 1990, by the time Mule Skinner was fighting fit on their ‘Stripped of Flesh’ (1991) demo the planet had enough time to digest the promising thrust of hyper-sped North American hardcore destruction from Atrocity, Righteous Pigs, Macabre and Terrorizer and even in their earliest incarnations Mule Skinner were generally up to speed. Still soggy, chunked-out, Blood-like and faster-than-thou a few beers later with their ‘Servitude’ (1993) 7″ EP the band had made little ‘progress’ but managed to capture the spirit of US deathgrind in a time where most formative bands had resorted to the pure death metal cash cow. What they’d hit upon with their official debut twenty five years ago is a fire still just as brutally raging today on their second full-length ‘Airstrike’.
If ‘Servitude’ was a ball of mushy, bloody flesh struck with a hammer a thousand times then the band’s debut ‘Abuse’ (1996) was a van full of drunk hardcore kids ramming mailboxes at full speed while blasting Terrorizer and Righteous Pigs. Old school even by 1996 standards it was a straight forward blast of grindcore that weaseled in just a small kick of death metal when it was time to slow down and even today it provides more of a thrill than most attempting the style. Since Flesh Parade drummer Todd Capiton had jumped on for ‘Abuse’ Mule Skinner went dark around the time Relapse Records picked up Flesh Parade; Even if just by proxy, anyone who still gets a kick out of ‘Kill Whitey’ will find Capiton‘s drumming is a just as much of a thrill on ‘Abuse’. Both bands would basically disappear until the 2010’s and Mule Skinner clawed their way back into existence around 2013.
Depending who you’re talking to many would argue Tungsten might be the most unsung heroes of New Orleans sludge but if focusing primarily on extreme metal hybrids Mule Skinner surely belonged right up there with the rise of Soilent Green back in the day. When they reappeared with the ‘Crushing Breakdown’ (2014) EP the sludge-grind focus felt very familiar in a post-‘Sewn Mouth Secrets’ world but didn’t necessarily indicate they would stray back onto the path of brutality they’d forged in the 90’s. You’re not getting any more of the sludge heard on “Revenge & Salvation” with ‘Airstrike’, it is all pummeling old school grindcore and violent grooves fit to pair with a record like ‘A Deleted Symphony for the Beaten Down’ if done by the Terrorizer of today.
The ‘riff and groove’ dynamic would be enough to carry a guitar record like this in the low-standard, experimentally diluted grindcore landscape of 2018 but Mule Skinner go above and beyond with drum work that demands tightly wound performances from all. The tension of grindcore that relies so much on the rapid fire unleashing of hardcore riffs and death metal blasts is a lost art that ‘Airstrike’ resuscitates with admirable authenticity. With Terrorizer‘s ‘Caustic Attack’ now in clear hindsight any fan might do well to give ‘Airstrike’ a spin and see which you think revived that old spirit with as much energy or with that old hardcore spirit informing the work. But hey, it isn’t a competition for who can be the most authentic old school deathgrind band in an age that has long left behind the straightforward, organic spectrum of the artform.
What value remains for me within the grindcore spectrum comes from the tautness of interplay between musicians and how they break up all of that tension. Without resorting to pure death metal or sludge metal yet touching upon both for those moments, Mule Skinner create a raw and uncompromising listening experience that is undeniably effective. You’ll still get a heavy waft of Soilent Green on tracks like “Bone & Debris” and “Backbone” but the majority of the record with the same neck-thrashing speed and precision they brought in the 90’s. It’d be easy to set ‘Airstrike’ next to the best of Brutal Truth or Extreme Noise Terror as it compares well and has the right balance of death metal and hardcore punk implemented. It is an easy to recommend experience to anyone who constantly chases the ghost of ‘World Downfall’ as I do. For preview you should go straight to “Suicide Vest”, “Battle Worshiper”, and “Faith in Blood” and swing around to “Bone & Debris” if you’re wary of the sludge they’d explored on the previous EP.
Attacked by ruthless forces. 3.75/5.0
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