By Craig Haze
I’ll be honest; my flirtation with grind thus far has been a fairly unwholesome affair. Grind and I have fooled around a bit, often late at night, but I’ve never found myself ready to fully commit. There are a few grind bands I’m fond of—and in Napalm Death and Pig Destroyer’s case essentially worship—but I can’t say grind is my go-to choice on many occasions. At least, I couldn’t say that. But after listening to Liberteer‘s ferocious and innovative debut, Better To Die On Your Feet Than Live On Your Knees, I’m thinking about seriously reassessing my relationship priorities.
Liberteer is the solo-project of famed grinder Matthew Widener, well known for his work with Cretin and Citizen. Widener performs all the instruments and vocals on the 17 tracks that make up Better To Die… with his anarchist beliefs comprising the major theme of the album. His impassioned odes call for social action to halt the rising tide of rampant fundamentalism—be that religious, political or economic.
The album contains a raft of instrumentation you’d not normally associate with grind. Horns, banjo and mandolin all make an appearance, along with a few other fancy bells and whistles. Widener uses all these differing sonic tools cautiously, often as a means to break-up the remorseless assault, as there’s no gaps between songs. But the primary purpose of all the non-grind musicality is to emphasize the album’s revolutionary zeal.
Serving as wake-up call, the album is filled with rousing tracks, and the varieties of sound are melded to uplifting arrangements, making it all the more anthemic. Still, if the idea of unorthodox music maneuvers leaves you feeling anxious, you can rest easy in the knowledge that the production is filthy and crusty; ensuring Better To Die… remains overwhelmingly pugnacious.
You don’t have to agree with Widener’s political philosophies to enjoy the album, although you should, at the very least, respect the fact he has crafted a deeply heartfelt release. While the overarching anarchic narrative is clearly essential to Widener’s own ambitions, Better To Die… is, at its core, a 27-minute blast of ripping grind. “Build No System” has a stirring bugle and flute section, but it still hammers away unrelentingly. The aptly titled “99 to 1” is earth scorching in its intensity, but its throbbing electronic outro serves as a very cool linkage into the pumped-up 80s pulse of “Sweat for Blood”, which in turn disintegrates into the fire-spitting “Barbarians at the Gate”.
In many ways I’m reminded of tech-wizards Gigan on certain tracks— that ability to turn on a dime, shifting from one radical point of view to another, and yet still retain the overall thrust of the argument. “Rise Like Lions After Slumber”, for example, is imbued with all sorts of tinkling acoustics and a cleaner soaring riff, but when the next track “That Which is Not Given but Taken” takes over, with all its caustic biting might, there’s no great shock at the vastly differing tones. And the same can be said of “Usurious Epitaph”, which has its jig-like ending transform into the powerful “Revolution’s Wick Burning Quick”. It shouldn’t really make any coherent sense at all, but it does, and it’s a testament to Widener’s compositional ability that he is able to harness so many disparate and eclectic sounds and still craft an album that is eccentric without sounding remotely disordered.
Better To Die On Your Feet Than Live On Your Knees is an unequivocal victory for Widener for a number for reasons. Firstly, it is refreshingly unique. Its spectrum of idiosyncrasies makes for a memorable and quick-witted listen. For any grind fan, new or old, it’s bound to be an incendiary rush. Secondly, for fans that felt their affection was waning for the political theories grind so often spouses, it’s a gigantic kick in the ass—a reminder to ceaselessly challenge and question authority at every opportunity. And lastly, the album is ultimately a monument to ingenious artistry. It’s a succinct testament to one man’s vision for a better world and the courage he drew upon to present his thoughts so fervently and creatively.
You can sit and stew in your cynicism; you can bemoan the state of the world. You could even pour scorn on anarchist thought. But you cannot deny that Better To Die… is a triumph of political thought turned into genuinely innovative and inspiring action.