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Municipal Waste’s Hazardous Mutation Turns 10

HM

What metal listeners often forget, or choose to ignore, is that no matter what a subgenre’s essential foundations are, change is fundamental and inevitable. The death metal of 2015 would be barely recognizable to the listener of 1990, and even today’s so-called “OSDM” can’t help but reflect the advances in technology and production over the last 20 years. This essential evolution is often less than apparent in subgenres that are tied quite heavily to a time and place: in the case of Municipal Waste, ’80s crossover thrash.

For most, the term “crossover thrash” brings to mind a fairly limited sound and set of images: bandanas, flipped brims, skateboards, just wanting a Pepsi, and so forth. And yet, like all subgenres must, thrash has matured and evolved since ripping into the metal genre at large in the early 80s. And unlike the evolutions of other subgenres, the evolution of thrash metal out of the 1980s and into the contemporary consciousness can be traced to a single album, the ne plus ultra of “retro-thrash:” Municipal Waste’s 2005 landmark Hazardous Mutation, which was released a decade ago today.

The Waste’s first effort, 2002’s Waste ‘Em All, was unusual for its time in being a fairly straightforward thrash metal album in an era dominated by NeurIsis post-metal and the growing brutal death metal scene. It stood as an anomaly, a rare record of aggressive thrash metal that didn’t register with many listeners. Three years later, the Waste returned, and that time they left a lasting impression.

For many young metalheads, as I was in 2005, this was the first new thrash record we had seen in our lifetime. Sure, we’d all jammed Ride the Lightening and Reign in Blood, and I’d even gotten as far as Kreator and DRI, but those all seemed like ancient history, stepping stones on the path to the hazy future of brutal death metal and the ubiquitous mid-aughts At-the-Gates-core. But here was a band, signed to one of the biggest metal labels, that not only played the old style but improved upon it, producing a cleaner, tighter, meaner sound than the crossover giants of the 80s and in the process making itself relevant to those of us who’d grown up in the mp3 era.

Small wonder, then, that my infatuation with Municipal Waste can be seen as a necessary precursor to my later exploration of doom metal. If these guys could take a subgenre I’d assumed archaic and breathe new vitality into it, surely the same was true of other, older subgenres as well?

For me, Hazardous Mutation both holds up and stands out because, to paraphrase one of the many bangers contained in its blistering 26 minutes, it is “Guilty of Being Tight.” I can’t be the only guy who first listened in slack-jawed amazement and then immediately commenced to mosh off the walls when, at age 15, I first gave this record a spin in my bedroom. I often describe it to the few people I know who will understand the reference as an 80’s crossover thrash record played with death metal precision by punks, and when you listen to it, that description becomes apt.

Hazardous Mutation moves on a fucking dime. Look at “Black Ice”: 24 seconds, not a missed beat or half-second lapse. It’s come and gone before you know what hit you; it’s equal parts punk rock attitude, thrash metal aesthetic, death metal craftsmanship. Part of what is remarkable about this record is that it was Waste’s first with the almighty Dave Witte, best known for his blistering track record with Discordance Axis and Burnt By The Sun, and with Phil Hall, whose aerobic low-end here would foreshadow the bass-heavy calisthenics of Cannabis Corpse.

Rather than letting any one member steal the show, Mutation works as a quintessential team record. Ryan Waste has perfected his trademark full automatic attack since Waste ‘Em All, keeping up with Witte’s frenetic pounding, and Tony Foresta has found his unique voice and machine-gun patter. Together, Municipal Waste blasted forth into 2005 as a well-oiled, turbo-powered machine leaving a trail of toxic slime down Fury Road.

But more than the top-notch musicianship, Municipal Waste taught us that it was alright for us heshers to laugh at ourselves again. Look at the landmark recordings of 2004: Isis, Converge, Mastodon, Sunn O))). It was amazing, but not a lot of uplift for us goofy goobers. Now observe Mutation: there’s a song about a big shark eating people called “Terror Shark.” There’s a track called “The Thrashin’ of the Christ.” Phil Hall is credited as “Land Phil.” Even the band name is a reference to everyday trash disposal. And that beautiful, sleazy Ed Repka cover of a gaggle of monstrous mutants bearing down on some hapless hazmats in a souped-up dump truck. It’s not a joke album at all, but the Waste showed that they weren’t afraid to let their (long) hair down and just have fun with metal and in doing so breathed a new vitality and sense of laissez-faire into a metal scene that, while resurgent, seemed to teeter on the brink of becoming overwhelmed by long faces and extreme solemnity.

Perhaps the biggest appeal of Hazardous Mutation is that it appeals to the teenager in all of us. I had the benefit of first buying it when I was an actual teenager, so for me the nostalgia is tied to very real memories. Regardless of when you first heard it, to have “Deathripper” enter your earholes is akin to Proust’s reaction to his Madeleine, only instead of tea-time with Aunt Leonie, we get smoking a joint rolled from bible paper behind the dumpsters at the Baxter Avenue Mall on a hot-ass July afternoon before going home to two-step surreptitiously in the basement. It’s the sound of an idle teenage summer with too much testosterone and too little patience to put it to use.

By taking an old subgenre and breathing new life into it, Municipal Waste proved that even those who had put their teenage thrashing behind them could still feel relevant, could still tap into that wellspring of glorious teenage angst even 20 years on. Make no mistake, the Waste were and are very much a band of men, but with Hazardous Mutation they showed beyond a shadow of a doubt that you can teach an old dog new tricks, and that often those tricks involve bangovers.

—Rhys Williams

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