- Today's "Tom Sawyer": The Locust is redefining progressive rock through bursts of oppressive noise.
The latest disc from the artcore-antagonist members of the Locust is only 21 minutes long, but it seems to last a week when it's playing. Each of its 23 tracks is a blur of grindcore drumming, jagged guitar roar, bass that's practically subsonic, and the band's special secret ingredient -- screeching, farting analog synths. The whole spasmodic mess is topped by nearly indecipherable vocals, most of which are screamed by bassist Justin Pearson.
While the Locust's music is initially exhilarating, it can be hard to tell one song from another, and after five or six in a row, they get a little oppressive. This is the Achilles' heel of most grindcore -- and indeed most "extreme" music. With no real dynamic and no time for the listener to relax into a song and let it take over smoothly and naturally, the inevitable response is a feeling of victimization. The ear recoils. But the Locust's is a crisp, clean oppression; the band's latest, 2003's Plague Soundscapes, was produced by Alex Newport, ex-leader of Brit power-combo Fudge Tunnel and a man who knows how to create an impressive crunch-and-smash in the studio.
Don't assume that the Locust is just a nihilistic, caffeine-addled, destructo-spurting group, though. There's a genuine complexity and ambition to the band's music. It could almost be called prog, albeit in a highly compressed and somewhat alienating form. "We're redefining prog, I guess," Pearson says. "I would like to think that we're progressive in the way we write. Sure, they're not weird, 40-minute psychedelic jams, with hundreds of different parts that never repeat, but in a sense it's like -- the kind of music we play, I don't think you'd want to hear 5, 10, or 15 minutes of just pure hard-hitting music. So we come off in 45-second spurts. But there's many different parts and lots of changes and different time signatures. Theoretically, if you slowed it down, it would be more along the lines of your average prog song."
More than instrumental skill separates the Locust from the power-violence pack, though -- at least according to Pearson. "We have a message," he explains. "A lot of it's metaphors, a lot of it's open for interpretation. We're not saying, 'Here's our political platform; we feel this way, this is our political label -- we hate cops, or we think the government should be overthrown.' It's not a blanket statement; it's not cut-and-paste. It's obscure, and it has vague aspects, but it's open for listeners to make their own decisions."
"Obscure" and "vague" are good words for the Locust. The band wears tight green uniforms onstage, complete with masks featuring colander-like eye shields (for extra buggy effect). The group has dropped a pair of full-lengths, with Plague issued on Anti/Epitaph and featuring songs with such titles as "The Half-Eaten Sausage Would Like to See You in His Office" and "Your Mantel Disguised as a Psychic Sasquatch." Even with the lyric booklet in hand, it's hard to parse Pearson's screeching. But he insists the Locust is trying to get something across.
"We're playing aggressive music," he says, "and we're heartfelt about it. It's intense, so I don't really wanna be singing about bunny rabbits and shit. So, like, we're gonna sing about social and political things that are happening in our society. That's what makes us, as artists, do what we do. We're put in this fucked-up situation, we reflect society, and as artists, we're there to try to change it. I don't know if being in a musical band is what's going to change it, but it's definitely better than sitting in a cubicle working for some crappy corporation. So therefore, we are speaking out, and people are connecting to us lyrically, and I think that's another aspect that's brought into making a political change or social change.
"If I lived in some kind of garden somewhere in the forest, I doubt I'd want to be making this audio onslaught my creative outlet," he continues. "It makes a lot of sense that subconsciously we're drawn to do what we do because of this society that we live in."
Actually, it doesn't. Lots of musicians live in the same society as Pearson and his bandmates without feeling the need to express themselves in 45-second bursts of noise. The Locust unleashes its buzzing fury from a home base in sunny San Diego; Norah Jones, crooner of sleepwalking piano-bar ballads, lives in New York City. Which one better reflects the surrounding society and environment?
The idea that rock bands -- or any artists, for that matter -- are required to change society through politically infused creativity is a persistent one, despite decades of failure. After all, as Frank Zappa once asked, if songs can make people act, why don't we all love one another -- since 90 percent of pop songs are about love? One might wish, at this point, that artists would settle for making society more beautiful (however one defines beauty) through art. But sadly, many insist on preaching.
In any case, the Locust is certainly living up to its name these days: The band's buzz is overwhelming. Some of it's negative -- mostly from punk and hardcore bands and 'zinesters who view the Locust as sellouts for working with Epitaph. Pearson's fine with the attacks.
"It's almost like this left-wing conservative community that just has so much criticism and is so uptight about every little move," he says. "I mean, we're not part of any certain community. We're not a hardcore band. It's like, well, whatever, you think we're fags or sellouts, but at the end of the day, it doesn't really matter. We just kind of stand there and scratch our heads and go, 'Oh, well,' and move on."