Erik D. Harshman
I should start off by saying that I have been a rabid Pro-Pain fan since 1997, when I picked up my first (and still my favorite) Pro-Pain album (Contents Under Pressure) from Vintage Vinyl in St. Louis. Nearly 20 years later I still buy their albums as soon as they come out (or as soon as I find out about their release, more on that later) and study them intricately. I’ve traveled hundreds of miles to see them (I traveled from Santa Fe to Albuquerque in 1999 to see them with Pissing Razors; from St. Louis to Chicago to see them in 2005 with Crowbar and Entombed and from St. Louis to Kansas City to see them in 2009 with Sworn Enemy). They introduced me to another one of my favorite bands (Pissing Razors, with whom they did two world tours). And they have consistently not only put out addictively groovy metal albums, but they have acted as the vox populi for a societal class that is angry and oppressed and a nation whose greatest suffering has yet to come.
But Pro-Pain is a hard band to get a handle on. Gary Meskil (lead singer, bassist and lyricist) has always claimed that they were a “hardcore” band. I don’t think that’s entirely accurate. I see them more as a groove/thrash band. They have guitar solos, breakdowns, hooks and choruses. Only some of those things are trademarks of traditional hardcore. In the liner notes of their cover album (Run For Cover), on which they do covers of Slayer, Sepultura and Motorhead, Meskil writes (I’m paraphrasing here), “It might surprise some of you that Pro-Pain was in part influenced by lots of thrash bands”… Uh… Well… No, it doesn’t. Now, I hate quibbling about something as inconsequential as genre, but I believe Pro-Pain belongs more in line with Jungle Rot, Misery Index, Dying Fetus, Pantera and Six Feet Under than they do in the ranks of Madball, Ignite and Agnostic Front. Also frustrating is the fact that Pro-Pain has jumped from record label to record label (they’ve been on Mayhem, Spitfire, Candlelight, Nuclear Blast and about three other labels), which makes U.S. touring mostly nonexistent and acquiring their albums more difficult than it should be. Alas, all this plus constant line-up changes (though Meskil, like Dave Mustaine or Lemmy, remains the heart and soul of the band) has plagued Pro-Pain with a tumultuous history in metal.
Now, I own all of Pro-Pain’s albums and their two best, in my estimation, are: Contents Under Pressure (for groove and most of the lyrical content…) and Prophets of Doom (for the groove, the aggression, the darkness, speed, lyrical content and all around energy of the album). Other albums have come close to impressing as much as the above records (Fistful of Hate and Age of Tyranny) among them, while other albums I only care for a handful of songs (Shreds of Dignity, Final Revolution, Round Six, their 1998 self-titled album, Truth Hurts, Absolute Power, No End In Sight and Foul Taste of Freedom), however those handful of songs are really, really powerful. Pro-Pain has only released a few albums (Act of God and Straight to the Dome) that I don’t care for at all.
And while I stand behind the statements I made in the above paragraph, I cannot articulate enough how profound listening to Contents Under Pressure is: the groove, the poetic lyrical content of some of the songs (specifically the title track, “State of Mind”, “Box City”, “Against the Grain”, “Mercy Killings” and “Odd Man Out”). And to be a twentysomething in 2005 and to put Prophets of Doom into your CD player (right after the re-election of George W. Bush) was a revelation: Meskil was the voice of angst for a whole generation who felt their futures sabotaged in favor of the spoils gained by the capitalistic, geriatric, conservative elite that (essentially) wanted to break the dams, then escape to higher ground while the rest of us drowned. If anyone was pissed off (and I’m sure most of us were) after the 2004 elections, Prophets was what you blared in your car as you drove (angrily) to work.
Pro-Pain’s work, in short, is the voice of each generation’s troubles, angst, concerns and anxieties. Despite Meskil being in his fifties, his sensibilities and knowledge transcends generation, age and class (his blue collar roots only serve him… Like a heavy metal Bukowski). You can have Bob Dylan… We’ll take Meskil.
This new album (Voice of Rebellion), I think, falls more into the category of an album with “only having a handful of songs I like”. However, as I said above, those songs are profound and catchy as hell. I should also say that I feel a bit under-prepared to fully review the album as, unlike with most of their other albums, I do not have a CD booklet (or digital booklet) with the album’s song lyrics on it to quote, to study, to analyze. With that said, I will comment only on the music itself and what lyrics I can discern from Meskil’s signature (and, if you ask me, charismatic and confident) barking, growling and grunting.
The standout tracks on this album, for me, are: “Voice of Rebellion”, “Cognitive Dissonance” and “Hellride”.
The title track is a no holds barred prime opener. It harkens back (for me) to their album openers for Age of Tyranny (“New Reality”), Absolute Power (“Unrestrained”), Fistful of Hate (“Can You Feel It?”), Prophets of Doom (“Neocon”) and Final Revolution (“Deathwish”). It is a war cry and a perfect antagonistic opening number to an album destined to piss people off (especially if you’re among the right-leaning). The chorus alone will have you tapping your foot and the lyrics (and its vocal arrangement) will etch itself into your brain.
“Just consider this a war-
ning shot, motherfucker!”
This is Meskil at his strongest (though, in all fairness, he’s been at his strongest (with varying results) since the early-90’s) lyrically and musically. The way in which the lyrics are arranged to the crunching riffs, the thundering bass and the pummeling drums are the stuff other bands envy and wish, in their decades-long careers, they could muster with the effortless mastery that Meskil exhibits.
Much like “Neocon”, “Voice” talks about regrettable pieces of America’s history repeating itself for the benefit of a select few (let’s call them the 1%) and the detriment of everyone else. Whereas his other attempts to warn this demographic of their morally reprehensible behavior were angry, this song is threatening… And all the better for it!
“Cognitive Dissonance”, for me, really picks up during the thrashy chorus, when the song’s vocals are matched perfectly with the riffs that are thrown at the listener like lashing rain during a storm. The lyrical content, as far as I can tell, is regarding the war-torn (and hungry) state of America. Though, with Pro-Pain, “war” is never clear— it can be literal or symbolic… And sometimes both.
Finally, the standout track on the album is “Hellride”. Not only is the song one continuous, expertly designed breakdown, but the lyrics are some of Meskil’s most poetic. It essentially tells the story of an average, downtrodden American who’s beleaguered by financial and societal worries (heaped on him by politicians and the upper-classes). The song decimates the listener’s false “hope”, that’s been sweet-talked to them throughout the eight years of the Obama administration (Meskil, rightfully, is wary of all politicians on either side of the two-party system), and assures them that,
“Some say the worst is over.
But the hellride… has just begun!”
The day I downloaded (legally, from Amazon) this album, I rushed to a local metal night I attend (Metal Underground at the Crack Fox) and gave a copy of the album to my friend, Ralph, who was DJing that night. Ralph is a fellow Pro-Pain enthusiast and I asked him to put on “Hellride”. After a while, Ralph laughed and said,
“No one here is listening to what I’m spinning… None of them care! I’m just going to put on whatever the hell I want!”
He put on “Hellride” and I swear that just about every head at the bar was nodding to the beat. I think Ralph’s former statement was true (there were lots of rock-a-billy hipsters at the bar), but it is simply a testament to Pro-Pain’s ability to write the grooviest rhythms: even that crowd was unable to resist.
I won’t say that the rest of the album is forgettable, because it is not. But the fact is that I tended to phase out during some of the lesser-defined songs on the album.
“No Fly Zone” is a good song title, and could have potentially been another hit, but the chorus simply repeats the title phrase and the song is simply too expository for the average Pro-Pain song, in my humble opinion.
“Righteous Annihilation” begins well, with thrashing riffs like crashing ocean waves during an oncoming storm, but, again, the chorus is simply the title repeated. I suppose this bothers me most because it represents a wasted opportunity for Meskil to showcase his trademark poeticism. The man writes lyrics like no one else in metal today. For him just to repeat a phrase does not do the song, his band or the material justice.
“Souls on Fire” shirks off the curse that saddles the above songs and actually invokes Vulgar Display of Power-era Pantera, with its vocal arrangements that bend and sink with its clacking blast beats.
“Take It To the Grave” is a short (clocking in at 1:45) attempt at Pro-Pain showing their punk roots. The song did nothing for me, really, and was over before any real impression was made.
“Age of Disgust” is a song that greatly confuses me. Meskil likes to throw stones at people with misguided religious, morally puritanical ideals and people who let religion dictate their political decisions. With this said, he seems to have a (even vague) theological and spiritual set of beliefs that are markedly positive. Having not read the lyrics to this song, I have no idea what this song is about. As it were, the music was not memorable enough for me to comment on its design.
“Bella Morte” is another theologically ambiguous song that, like the track before it, has nothing to musically define it. It even, sadly, blends into some of the other songs surrounding it on the album.
“Blade of the Cursed” is a decent enough track, with, again, mysterious lyrics (where the only definite topics are Meskil’s raging against social injustice and class oppression) with music that, again, seem to evoke early-90’s Pantera in its vocal arrangement and structure.
“Crushed To Dust” has a unique musical construction that creates the feel (and picture of) someone falling down a ladder, hitting each rung with their chin on the way down. Symbolic? Sure. And a tightly assembled little thrash song as well.
“Enraged”, sadly, does nothing to delineate itself from the other tracks on the album and, in fact, its similarity and lack of creativity in its riffs and musical construction hinder it right up until the end… when the song gives way to a moderately engaging breakdown that defines the song only enough so that it is discernable from its counterparts.
And while “DNR” has a joyous 80’s thrash vibe to it, the chorus, again, is sadly the phrase whose acronym is the title of the song. It is no surprise when the song adds, at the end, the word “…me” after its final chorus repetition.
“Fuck This Life” is perhaps the most dismal song on the album. Indeed, while the album is bleak and full of pessimism regarding America’s social, financial and cultural future, it is hard to digest such a song (which seems to be a surrender of sorts) when the album began so strong and furious with the war cry that was “Voice of Rebellion”. Something of a letdown. However, this is nothing new. Meskil ended Age of Tyranny with “Live Free (Or Die Trying)”. Though even that song contained more hope and promise than this negative composition.
It also bears mentioning that a lot of this album’s song titles are either reminiscent of or word-for-word the title of other band’s songs. Now, I realize that this happens more often than we realize and that, in metal especially, it is hard to come up with original song titles (both Megadeth and Alice Cooper have songs called “Go To Hell”), but here it just seems strange: “DNR” is the title of a Testament song (a band Meskil has been very vocal about loving) and “Crushed To Dust” reminds one of Cannibal Corpse’s “Pounded Into Dust”. This is neither here nor there, simply an observation.
And while this album (much like Final Revolution that came before it) only has a handful of songs that I truly love, I can only imagine it means that Pro-Pain is rebuilding and will once again return to the strength we saw on Prophets of Doom and Age of Tyranny. Sure, in my opinion, they faltered with Straight To The Dome and this is their rebuilding. But one thing is certain: despite his age Gary Meskil shows no signs of slowing down, conforming or ebbing his anger at the injustice he sees around him… The rest of the populous (and the young turks of metal) should take note and follow his example, as these are the virtues and principals on which metal was built.
Rating: 3/5 stars (C-/C)
Recommended If You Like: Biohazard, Sworn Enemy, Prong, Jungle Rot, Body Count