Metal Progressive #1: How Terrorizer’s “World Downfall” Foresaw a Capitalist ‘End of History’
This new column examines how heavy metal can be progressive in thinking, regardless of execution -- and what better record to start with than LA death/grind legends Terrorizer's pulverizing debut?
Before delving into its intriguing thematics, it's important to first clarify just how significant Terrorizer's World Downfall is within the grindcore pantheon. The L.A. band's debut album is a savage and exhilarating cut of early grind that, alongside other seminal releases like Repulsion's Horrified and the first few Napalm Death albums, has earned its place as one of the genre's foundational texts. The guttural vocals, the precision blast beats, the relentlessly kinetic riffs - Terrorizer's debut was vital in helping to define grindcore's musical identity.
As well as this seminal musicianship, World Downfall also helped cement the genre's thematic identity. Like its mesmerizing cover art, the album's worldview shares much in common with that of Napalm Death - the English band born in the UK's politically-radical crust punk scene. Both bands' music from this era adroitly reflects the time of its creation - the conservative 1980s obsessed with rugged individualism and the relentless pursuit of financial wealth. World Downfall's internal language is scathing in its critique of this period. References to "gain", "greed", "power" and "propaganda" all recur, alongside more violent imagery that eschews gore or the macabre in favor of harsh displays of psychological violence.
World Downfall's brutality is unique to this era, a period defined by the rise and consolidation of the neoliberal ideology. Under the leadership of Ronald Regan and Margaret Thatcher, this intensely market-oriented, economically-liberal brand of capitalism helped transfer swathes of global wealth into the hands of the upper echelons of power. Economic policies that deregulated markets, privatized public bodies and increased the influence of the financial sector were all brought in at a breakneck pace, shifting power and resources away from the working class and into the hands of capitalist elites.
Terrorizer use World Downfall to lay bare the blatant moral emptiness of this era and its predominant ideology. Several tracks tackle specifics -"Corporation Pull-In" attacks abhorrent business practices, "Infestation" critiques systemic groupthink. There's also sharp psychological portraits of life in a vicious, market-driven world, in particular "Storm Of Stress" - a sad study of the worries and struggles that come with being trapped within the permutations of an all-pervading, oppressive system.
Most intriguing, however, is the more abstract utterances on tracks like "After World Obliteration" and ‘Human Prey". Both lyrical screeds are freed from spatio-temporality, portraying a hopeless, obliterated world that, when paired up next to the rest of the most temporally-specific tracks, envisage where following this ruthless ideology will lead the world. "After World Obliteration" imagines "nations falling to defeat" via "suffocation, no way out" (from the pervasive, insidious influence of destructive capitalism?), while "Human Prey" "looks into the future" and sees "the devastation, mutilation of mankind".
At this point, it's crucial to clarify that Terrorizer, despite the grim clairvoyance on display, are not nihilists. They care deeply for humanity and believe keenly in the strength of the human spirit, as evidenced by the shafts of light that burst through their debut album (see: "Infestation"'s closing line - "never let them take control / uphold your words and don't back down"). Their pessimism regarding the future stems from the brutal nature of the system and its domineering influence, as though their philosophy preceded the now-common leftist mantra ‘it's easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism'.
In the same year of World Downfall's release, the political philosopher Francis Fukuyama published his essay The End Of History? Both this essay and his 1992 book The End Of History And The Last Man posited the notion that, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the evolutionary process of history had ended, due to the triumph of liberal democracy over the forces of communism. Fukuyama suggested that Western liberal democracy and its corresponding capitalist market economy had won a grand ideological battle and was now set to become the final form of world government.
This idea was, of course, deeply controversial. The intervening three decades have provided a litany of reasons against the thesis, from the rise of authoritarian capitalism in China and Russia to the political and institutional rot we are currently witnessing in the Western world. Numerous thinkers also critiqued the notion, notably postmodern philosopher Jaques Derrida, who in 1993's Specters Of Marx rubbished Fukuyama's claims by pointing to the extensive violence, oppression and inequality that this supposedly triumphant ideology depends upon.
However, aspects of Fukuyama's concept hold undeniable power. Unlike its interpretation by some critics, the notion that history had reached its endpoint is not an inherently positivist one. In fact, Fukuyama states in his original essay that "the end of history will be a very sad time", one defined by "economic calculation, the endless solving of technical problems, environmental concerns and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands". He imagines a world stifled, homogenized and crippled by a "nostalgia for a time when history existed" - in short, a world much like the one imagined by Terrorizer on World Downfall.
The album's lyrics brilliantly portray this sense of sociopolitical homogenization. "Strategic Warheads" uses imagery of apocalyptic conflict as a pointed metaphor for the similarly-world ending triumph of neoliberal capitalism. The track imagines the post-historical world as a wasteland of ideas, the result of a "cut-throat system" and "nations falling to defeat". It features the repeated mantra of "nothing left but wasted years" - a mournful lyrical barb that mirrors the hollow ideological wilderness of Fukuyama's vision.
Fukuyama concludes his essay by invoking the potent image of a period defined by the "perpetual caretaking of the museum of human history". This prediction of an era defined by a dearth of ideas would be thrillingly-expanded on by the late theorist Mark Fisher and his notion of ‘capitalist realism'. Fisher saw the end of history era as one where capitalism had become so dominant that it was now impossible to imagine a coherent alternative to it. World Downfall is packed full of allusions to this ideological stasis, from "Enslaved By Propaganda"'s blunt but ruthless understanding of social malaise ("entrapment by society") to "Corporation Pull-In"'s vision of a world ruled by the profit motive, where there's "no way out of this misery".
World Downfall's psychological landscape is dominated by this feeling of being trapped, of being stuck in the jaws of a malevolent creation that is not only stifling, but actively destructive. The ultimate reference to this grim, post-historical world is the album's title. From Terrorizer's 1989 perspective, they had witnessed the ascent of neoliberal capitalism and the title of their debut adroitly envisions the ruinous consolidation it would soon bring about. In their own way, they got it more right than Fukuyama did. The neoliberal hegemony is collapsing around us, yet wealth, resources and power are still being disproportionately funneled to those at the very top of the economic food chain. The western world is in a state of downfall and we must do all we can to build new ideas—to "never run from the system, face it strong and proud".
World Downfall released November 13th, 1989 via Earache Records.