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Dystopia are a difficult band to pigeonhole. Sure, you could try to label them as a crossover between crust punk and sludge metal, but that would merely be scratching the surface. They are one of those bands that wholly posses their own sound. Their self titled album is the final chapter in their abysmal, misanthropic existence. “An endless downward spiral of misery and pain” is part of a lyric on “Leaning With Intent to Fall”. These words seem to be an appropriate way to describe Dystopia. The band has always focused on negative – the inevitable corruption that plagues politics, drug abuse, domestic abuse, violence and suicide are just some of the unpleasant aspects of modern life that Dystopia dwell on. Their final release is as negative as ever; a deep-rooted hatred of society runs through their music. The band is able to channel that negative energy into something truly creative.
I actually was into Dystopia before I got into metal at all, for me they served as a gateway into the genre. When I first heard Dystopia (I was 14 at the time) I was really into punk, especially crust punk. When I mentioned my tastes, someone recommended Dystopia. I looked them up on the internet and I was immediately intrigued. For one, graffiti isn't something one would usually relate to crust punk. Dystopia had bleak images, as did most of crust punk, but they were doing something much more interesting and creative with those disturbing images. Upon first listen they were a bit more harsh than I was used to, but I quickly became acclimatized to their abrasive sound. This rough sound piqued my interest as to what metal had to offer. As I became more and more obsessed with the band, I learned that the looming release of the final record was to be soon. The band had already broken up and this album was recorded between 2004 and 2005, but was delayed until 2008 because of artwork concerns and whatnot. I soon picked up the album at a record shop in Toronto on clear vinyl, which to this day remains one of the most prized items in my vinyl collection.
This release's sound wavers a bit from Dystopia's previous material. For one, this album is better produced. While the production is not quite as abrasive as some of the band's earlier work, it is still quite a filthy affair. The guitars remain dirty and distorted, and the spirit of the music is as raw as it ever was. While the music is poignantly murky, no instrument is obscured or lost in the mix. The drums are especially well thought out, being high in the mix and produced with more clarity than the rest of the instrumentation. Strong songwriting is an integral component of this music, and like the drums, it does not get lost in the filthy mass that is Dystopia's sound.
On Dystopia's past releases, both conventional and unorthodox songwriting was applied in fairly equal proportions. While songs like “Hands That Mold” and “They Live” feature pretty conventional songwriting (not to say that the instrumentation isn't experimental) songs like “Sanctity” and “Sleep” spit in the face of convention. The success of “Sanctity” is due largely to it's samples and it's intriguing bassline. On their final effort, the band relies largely on more conventional songwriting. This is no problem, as every song is carefully thought out and made with skillful craft. Dystopia are a band who experiment a lot and this album is no exception. However, that experimentation would be fairly pointless without this strong songwriting.
Instrumentally, this is largely riff driven. While Dystopia have a penchant for repeating a riff for an extended period of time, they choose their riffs extremely carefully. The riffing is always memorable and hard-hitting. The repetition of the riffs is very effective, as it makes sudden riff changes, which often come with tempo changes, something very forceful and enthralling. For example, on “Illusion of Love”, the change between the fast riffing at the very beginning and the slow sludgy riffing that follows is an extremely effective way of making a dynamic shift that keeps the listener interesting. The fact that it comes after a fast grindcore section makes the sludge riffing all the more crushing. This album's riffs are almost exclusively rooted in sludge. These slow, churning monoliths of riffs are the meat of the record, proving to be an unbreakable backbone.
The reason Dystopia works so well is that every element of their sound is interesting. Their rhythm section is no exception to this rule. As previously mentioned, their drums are much less abrasive compared to other releases – here they possess an almost organic quality. The drumming is generally somewhat minimalistic, which works well with the way they are mixed. Since the drums are high up in the mix, a constant bombastic fury might drown out the rest of the mix and prove to be a colossal headache. Fast aggressive drumming is included on this released, but it is reserved for the grindcore sections as well as the occasional fill. The fills are a large part of why Dino's drumming is so successful here. While the drumming is usually somewhat restrained, the fills are always well done and imaginative. They make sure the drumming never fades into the background.
Dystopia have always used the bass as much more than a background instrument. In the past, Dystopia has used loud, fucked up basslines that were heavily distorted. Unfortunately that aspect of their sound is not too prevalent on this release. However, the bass is still put to good use; it does not resign to constantly following the guitar haphazardly. The bass is best put to use in the more atmospheric sections. As the often harrowing atmospheres linger, the bass provides interesting textures, furthering the sense of dark atmosphere while creating tangible (albeit often subtle) melodies to follow. This can be best seen in the intro to “My Meds Aren't Working”.
Much of the Dystopia's charisma lies in the chemistry between the two vocalists. Mauz's vocals are the deeper of the pair. This is by far the best they have ever been. Here his vocals feel more cavernous and ominous than ever. When he screams “See the world through sunken eyes” (a lyric that relates to drug addiction) on “Leaning With Intent to Fall”, you can hear the contempt for humanity in his voice. If Dystopia stayed together and released another album, it would not be a stretch of the imagination to assume that his vocals on that album would be a full blown death growl. Dino's voice is much higher pitched than Mauz's. His voice is filthy and raspy (although not in a way that relates to black metal), which perfectly fit in with the band's crust punk influences. On previous releases, his voice would sometimes end with a whimper, while however silly as that might sound, it was highly effective at portraying the pain prevalent in Dystopia's music. On this release the whimpers are completely omitted from the music, which while effective in the past, works out for the best here. The whimpers wouldn't work very well with this songwriting.
The album starts off with “Now and Forever”, a song that explores time and it's effects on politics and war. It's unlikely that Dystopia could find a better way to start this album. The slow build up that makes up the first three minutes of the song is one of the best releases of tension in metal since, well, ever. Samples run through this section of the song for it's entire endurance. The instrumental component of the song begins with only a buzzing dark ambiance. Eventually a bass line joins in, which, after some time, is joined by very slow and simple riffing which gradually grows louder and louder. When the devastatingly crushing sludge kicks in, the build up makes it infinitely more powerful than it could of been (that said, if completely removed from the song, it would still be really powerful). The atmospheric introduction to “My Meds Aren't Working”, which completely lack samples, is also very effective at building up tension, which this time is released in the form of a more mid-paced (yet still hard-hitting) riff.
Dystopia's use of samples has always been very effective. The sample's used on previous tracks such as “Sanctity” and “Love/Hate” were truly disturbing, and went a long way to portray certain negative aspects of modern society. The samples used on this album are (for the most part) fantastic. The samples that make up the first section of “Now and Forever” relate to time and it's impact on power and society, just like the lyrics. They are deeply political, very interesting and highly critical of society. The samples are layered, with one voice in the foreground. This effect adds atmosphere and depth. The samples end with “Humans have learned to split the atom. Instead of killing ten or twenty people with a board or club, one person can now kill a million by the pushing a button.” After that, one voice says “Do you find that frightening?” and the other says “Is that real change?”. The samples at the beginning of “Leaning With Intent to Fall”, taken from a documentary called Union Square, sounds like what you might expect in an episode of Intervention. It details a heroin addict's descent into his own personal hell.
While the samples are a great addition to this album, they also lead to it's one and only real flaw. “The Growing Minority” is an interlude which is based around samples. The samples detail mental illness and the government's response to mental illness. While the track leaves a strong impression upon first listen, it lacks replay value. It is hard to deny that the track is disturbing and even hard to listen to at times. The main problem with it is the lady who starts the samples off by saying “I have to put a lot of effort into keeping sane”. Her voice is quite annoying and is not something I want to hear for nearly two minutes every time I spin this record. Although the track is initially interesting and definitely proves a point, it is ultimately replaceable.
Wether or not you agree with Dystopia's politics and worldview, which is by no means subtle or moderate, it is impossible to deny that the band wholeheartedly believe in what they are singing. The lyrics are filled with misery and hostility directed at society. The band sings of hard times, which is a common lyrical theme in both sludge and crust punk. The band aims it's fury at people in power – business men, politicians and warmongers are all targets of Dystopia's rage. “Leaning With Intent to Fall” paints a harrowing tale of crippling drug addiction and it's effect on a person's friends and family. “Number One Hypocrite” points out many problems with American society. “Illusion of Love”, originally performed by Dino's previous band Carcinogen (their demo Kure is definitely worth checking out), points out the hypocritical nature of many Christian establishments. The first easily discernible lyric in the song is “Jesus, fuck your love”, proving Dystopia isn't exactly subtle in their lyrical approach. This album easily features some of the band's best lyrics:
“See the world through sunken eyes
Infected soul, Infected brain
Feel your flesh turn stone cold
An endless downward spiral of misery and pain is what remains
You used to do that shit for fun...
A steady march of slow death
With no intention of turning back
Feel the pleasure, you taste the pain
Getting high just to get sick again
You don't seem to be having much fun...”
Dystopia's image is just as much a part of their allure as their music. Their aesthetic is deeply rooted in crust punk, but it goes beyond that. Dystopia is a band that always put a tremendous amount of effort into their packaging. While bleak imagery has always been a staple of crust punk, Dystopia's packaging is more than that. While bleak, there is much more than recycled pictures of the aftermath of war. Their designs are aesthetically unique, thought provoking, in-depth and more than anything, interesting. One thing that always intrigued me about the band is their use of graffiti. Their logo points towards neither crust punk or sludge metal. In the booklet they have a two page spread where graffiti is juxtaposed on top of a photograph of wreckage and barbed wire. The graffiti is composed of such subject matter as skeletons and organs from the human body. The inner parts of the vinyl disc features graffiti on both sides. The A side features a different graffiti logo with a fish-eyed view of skyscrapers. The B side features circular abstract graffiti, which I must say looks pretty damn cool once the record is spinning. Their use of graffiti aesthetically distances themselves from a generic crust punk look.
The booklet is a true achievement. On the vinyl version I have, the booklet that comes with the record is about two times the size of a normal CD booklet. The cover of the booklet is their usual logo with a couple cages filled to the brim with people. There is a reoccurring font in the booklet (which also makes an appearance on the back cover of the album) that really goes well with Dystopia's image. It is somewhat similar to a typical black metal font, perhaps a bit more legible. Bleakness is a recurring theme in the artwork (as well as the music). Even the two satire pages for “Number One Hypocrite” have dark undertones in the imagery.
The pages in the booklet often relate to the songs. The pages for “Control All Delete”, a song that explores internet's effects on society and the erosion of privacy, is very clever. The artwork for the page that contains the lyrics is a computer screen. The lyrics appear on different pages that have popped up over the desktop. The page for “The Growing Minority” has a newspaper clipping titled “More mentally ill in jail than hospitals”. The page for “My Meds Aren't Working” particularly stands out. The artwork is a suicide note placed on a desk which also has some personal items on it – weed, a vandalized ID, car keys and medication. The lyrics are on the suicide note, and they read like the thoughts of a suicidal individual:
“My body still clings to life
Only my spirit is gone inside
I pray for death every night
But I Keep waking up alive
I cut myself for infliction
And I still spit at my reflection
I hate everything I am
I have my friends to thank for that”
The lyrics end with “I'm sorry if you know my name, I'll probably fuck up your life”, which is how an actual suicide not might end. While disturbing, this image perfectly embodies the lyrics of the song.
No discussion of the album would be complete without mention of the artwork. To be honest, this is probably my favourite album cover of all time. An enthralling collage of juxtaposed images, mostly people, this is truly an innovative triumph of graphic design. It features a diverse group of people from all walks of life on the top, many of them cheering. In the middle, there are three people joyously celebrating, who are juxtaposed in front of the Eye of Providence, taken from the dollar bill. Their logo is dead centre. The bottom half is just fucking wonderful, it features George W. Bush (or King George the Second, as bands in the crust punk scene often call him) with a bloody chain saw juxtaposed in front of rebels holding guns above their head. There are missiles on both sides of this scene. Words can't describe how brilliant the gritty vigour of this cover is. While being ripe with social commentary, it can stand alone as a wonderfully engaging piece of art.
The major complaint listeners have about this album is that it's too short. Many people have said that while the music is great, there simply just isn't enough of it. The thing is, Dystopia aren't really an album band. Technically, this is their debut album. Anyone who knows the band certainly wouldn't consider this Dystopia's first full length, though. The way that the band has previously functioned was releasing compilations that served as albums. 1994's Human = Garbage featured songs from an Ep of the same name (which is Dystopia's best work) and various splits. 1999's The Aftermath featured songs from two Eps (one being of the same name) as well as songs from splits. Releasing a long album is just not how Dystopia works.
This only features seven songs, one of which being a brief instrumental. Some copies have an untitled bonus track, which is made up almost exclusively of samples, but for some time features subtle sludgy riffs and almost tribal drumming. I actually wish more bands release albums like this. There are countless bands who could have turned good albums into great albums if they shaved off ten minutes of filler. It seems that bands feel obliged to have at least 40 minutes worth of material on their full lengths, even if that means including filler. Here Dystopia not only prove that short full lengths can be successful, but show that sometimes a shorter length should be desirable.
It really is a shame that Dystopia broke up, but at least they went out with one hell of an album. This album is successful on multiple fronts; the songwriting is amazing, the flow is great, the production is well thought out and the artwork is just as jaw dropping as the music. Dystopia has managed to finish not only with their legacy intact, but with their legacy strengthened. The band is a huge inspiration to both the sludge and the crust scenes, and they no doubt deserve the respect they get. With their final release they cement their place as not only one of the most interesting bands in sludge and crust, but one of the most interesting bands in extreme metal as a whole.
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