Toxic Holocaust leader Joel Grind straddles the divide between thrash, punk and heavy metal
“Lots of Samhain, Misfits, lots of Black Flag’s Damaged, Venom, Welcome To Hell. All those kind of records—when I had my first car, those were in the tape deck.”
Toxic Holocaust frontman Joel Grind is proving our theory that metal kids might just be the best kids. Or at least the friendliest. Despite a downright gnarly public persona—the cover of the new Chemistry Of Consciousness (Relapse) has a rather unsettling cobra-and-disembodied-eyeball motif, and the band’s videos are fire and leather—Grind is one of the most affable artists we’ve interviewed in ages. There’s an energy to his voice that belies his career as a thrash-metal malcontent, as the purveyor of decidedly non-bubbly records like An Overdose Of Death… and Evil Never Dies. After ingesting five albums of Toxic Holocaust, talking to Grind is like getting lifted off the floor of the pit by the kid who knocked you on your ass in the first place.
“I don’t have any brothers or sisters,” says Grind, “but I had a friend with an older brother, and we used to all skateboard and stuff. And he made me a few mixtapes, and one of the first he made me was like D.R.I.’s 4 Of A Kind and Nuclear Assault, I think. From then on, I was like, ‘All right, this is really cool.’ I was bit by the bug after that and then it became my life, you know?”
Grind’s laughter underlines the nuttiness of a life laid out on 120-minute Maxell tapes, but his back story isn’t uncommon—in fact, for a generation of metalheads, it was pretty much standard. Grind’s taste for the classic sounds of crossover is impeccable, an affection that wasn’t always fashionable and, frankly, never needed to be. The bludgeoning drums bonded by blood to fist-in-the-air choruses are the sorts of things that never go out of style. Or into style, for that matter. This is outsider music that resists trends—even within the underground—blasting forth like spiky-haired hellspawn. But the sophistication in Toxic Holocaust’s songwriting, the razor-sharp social commentary and ultimate listenability doesn’t come from a calcified moment in musical history—the astuteness of songcraft comes from an ever-evolving ear.
“When we finally had wheels, we would go and record-shop on our own,” says Grind. “We would go to Philly—I grew up in the Maryland area—and buy records on South Street and stuff. That’s when I discovered punk. I did some research and just picked out some records that looked cool to me, not knowing if they were punk or metal, but they just looked cool. That’s kind of my motto ever since: I never really draw a dividing line between those two. I draw influence from both. I’m just a music fan in general. I’m always digging for all kinds of music even outside of metal and punk. I’m always listening to all kinds of stuff. Especially on tour, when you’re touring with three other metal bands or punk bands, the last thing you want to do when you get in the van after a show is listen to another heavy record.”
And while Grind’s dalliances with other genres remain the provenance of his bedroom and hard drives (“I’ve done a lot of records that are sort of soundtrack-y, and I’ve done a lot that are almost psychedelic”), their influence can be felt. Chemistry Of Consciousness is not thrash-by-numbers—the dynamics in tracks like “Acid Fuzz” and “Rat Eater” are deeper than your average two-dimensional nostalgia peddler. Grind’s attention to melody amidst the volleys exploding from his armada of intensity is what makes the album so worthy of repeat spins. From the out-of-phase string-slides that beckon the verse of “Salvation Is Waiting” to the Lemmy-with-a-fistful-of-Black-Bettys assault of “International Conspiracy,” there’s a lot to keep going back for. Not unlike, say the classics in Grind’s first car.
“On the last one, I was trying to push the boundaries with the metal side of things, and this time I’m trying to push the boundaries on the punk side of things,” says Grind. “With Toxic, I’ve always walked the line in between both of those worlds. So, this time I almost wanted to go back to the (2008) Overdose Of Death era without remaking that record, if that makes sense. There was some backlash over the last record (TH’s fourth, Conjure And Command) for the dumbest reasons. For the way it looks, because it’s black and white and has a different logo—no one was talking about the music much, and I was really proud of that record and still am.”
With Chemistry Of Consciousness, Grind expands the TH sound, explodes it with color and textures that seem more vibrant than the none-more-blackness of Conjure. The speed and righteous indignation of artists like Discharge and G.B.H. combine with the massive mixdown and mastering by heavy-music maven and Converge guitarist Kurt Ballou, creating a juggernaut of an album, a record that fires on all cylinders all the time. “Awaken The Serpent,” “Mkultra” and “Out Of The Fire” smack the listener upside the head like the wayward boot of an especially surly crowd surfer.
“I just sort of wanted to do something where the songs were really short (and) really simple,” says Grind, “but pretty catchy and right to the point.”
The thrill is not in watching the melee from the sidelines, but getting right up in the fray, allowing Chemistry to spin-kick you right in the brain, letting it drop-kick you in the chest. Grind writes songs that leave no room for wallowing in misery, no room for self-indulgence, no room for anything but pushing back at society even if that society is an underground music scene. And especially if that music scene is the type to get its collective panties in a wad over something as silly as whether a band has a new logo or opts something other that the four-color cover.
More than anything, Grind is pushing back against himself, pushing the limits of his band beyond the arbitrary lines drawn by music critics, the chattering classes and the comment-section peanut galleries. However those folks felt about Conjure And Command, they aren’t going to be able to rehash whatever horseshit they trotted out last—Chemistry Of Consciousness connects with all of the moments in the TH back catalog that have made the band into the cult figure it is today without ever feeling rehashed, reworked or warmed over. Chemistry is not just a tribute to the thrash canon, but a record that’s worthy of inclusion.
“I never want to make the exact same record over and over again,” says Grind. “I’ve been telling people that this doesn’t mean I don’t want to be throwing a ton of curveballs at people either, but I don’t want to make the exact same record.”
—Sean L. Maloney