In 2014, we should consider it a minor miracle when a grindcore or death/black metal band can manage to strike us as provocative; it's all too rare. Cretin manages just that on their new sophomore album Stranger. On songs such as "Ghost of Teeth and Hair", bassist and principal lyricist Matthew Widener (County Medical Examiners, Liberteer, Citizen, Exhumed) elevates metal's prurient fixations with body horror to unprecedented heights of genuine tragedy.
"Teeth and Hair", a story about a childlike, developmentally arrested character born with remnants of a chimera in its brain, might be the first heartbreaking grindcore song. Goaded by the presence of this lost twin, the song's protagonist (whose gender Widener intentionally doesn't specify) resolves to return the twin's remains to their rightful "home": back inside the skull from which they were once surgically removed. The climax involves a kitchen knife, glue, and blood. It doesn't end well, but Widener illustrates the scene with a poignant touch that renders the song gruesome, horrifying, and strangely beautiful.
Following along on first listen, the song can actually induce a feeling of lightheadedness to match the main character's descent from consciousness described in its final verse, as frontwoman Marissa Martinez-Hoadley howls the lines "Now we sleep... whole again... now we... sleep... now... we...", suggesting a resolution in death. Widener, an anarchist and former Marine, holds an MFA in creative writing and studied under Booker Prize-winning author James Kelman. Widener structured most of the album's prosaic lyrics as "flash fiction" with the intention that they be read from the CD booklet like a book.
On Stranger's predecessor, the band's unrelentingly hideous 2006 full-length debut Freakery, Widener and Martinez-Hoadley left nothing to the imagination. To say that Freakery delves into rape and sexual assault would be like saying that the movie Deliverance is about cultural differences between rural and urban populations in the American South. Freakery revels in highly fetishized depictions of incest, child abuse, abduction, sexual assault, coprophilia, extreme bondage, and even eroticized amputation.
Some context helps: By the time Cretin formed in Santa Cruz in 1992—on the day that Martinez-Hoadley and Widener started their sophomore year of high school, to be exact—heavy metal's arms race to be the most shocking, brootal band on the planet was already well under way. In fact, you could argue that the race was effectively over. On that final night of their summer vacation, the two lifelong best friends road-tripped through the Santa Cruz mountains to attend their first death metal concert: Obituary, Agnostic Front, Cannibal Corpse, and Malevolent Creation at the One Step Beyond in Santa Clara, four blocks from where Widener lives now.
We can argue over whether Cannibal Corpse's "Entrails Ripped from a Virgin's Cunt" was more disgusting than Mayhem's Euronymous using pictures of bandmate Dead's self-inflicted shotgun wound to the head for an album cover, but really that's just splitting hairs. From thence forth, metalheads have had little recourse but to shrug in desensitized boredom as band after band tries in vain to push the envelope, each one more desperate for attention than the last. When Freakery came along sounding like it had been recorded from inside a garbage can about twenty feet away from the band (that's a compliment), it was obvious that Martinez-Hoadley, Widener, and drummer Col Jones (Exhumed, Repulsion) were aiming for death/grind classics like Repulsion's Horrified and Carcass's Symphonies of Sickness. Here were three adults recapturing youth by following a well-established tradition of getting their kicks using the female body as a canvas for demented projections and violent fantasy. In metal, 'just trying to be offensive' has often been shorthanded with 'your body is my province to defile,' which, in turn, often gets dismissed as harmless, sophomoric goofing.
Except that there was more going on in Cretin's case. Freakery is loaded with clever limerick verses that pick up from where Carcass's sense of humor left off. Next, the rape victims aren't exclusively female. And finally, there was the fact that Martinez-Hoadley's long-simmering gender dysphoria permeated songs like "Daddy's Little Girl", "Object of Utility" and "Uni-Tit", all of which, she freely admits now, gave voice to fantasies she'd harbored before her transition. Thus, in retrospect, Freakery serves as a pivotal moment in the heavy metal timeline where the rampant violence of its male gaze turned inward as one of its proponents turned out to identify as the female in the crosshairs of that gaze.
Widener, who penned all the lyrics this time, never explicitly references his bandmate's transition on the new album, but it doesn't take long to spot parallels in Stranger's recurring manifestations of "other" figures that grow out of the self. He also shies away from the sexual assault scenarios that would justifiably call for trigger warnings had Freakery been released today. (Where so many metal acts typically get coy, defensive, and huffy when discussing the subject matter they've put so much effort into trolling us with, Widener and Martinez-Hoadley don't evade tough questions and flat-out admit that even they feel offended by some of their old lyrics.) Still, coprophilia, sexual compulsion, and horror are quite well represented on this new crop of songs. Which is part of what makes Cretin so tantalizing—even necessary—as we come to terms with new definitions of gender: As poster-children for paving a path for trans and gender non-conforming participation in metal, Martinez-Hoadley and Widener have doggedly managed to preserve the ugliness of their art.
Perhaps that's as it should be: While Cretin and peers like Pig Destroyer, Fuck the Facts, Antigama, and Pyrrhon breathe new life into metal's aesthetic potential, real life is still messy; gender and misogyny intersect with the music that Martinez-Hoadley and Widener still love. To their credit, they haven't necessarily made this conversation easier with Stranger so much as they've made it impossible to ignore. Do women even belong in extreme metal? It's an absurd question—but one that Martinez-Hoadley felt compelled to ask herself at the start of her journey into transition. If anything, its unflinching look into a wide spectrum of sexual pathology and gender confusion leaves us with clues that only lead to more clues rather than answers.