6. Training For Utopia - Plastic Soul Impalement
Christian bands looking to play metal disproportionately gravitate to metalcore. Sad fact. If half of these bands played with the passion of Training For Utopia on their debut full-length Plastic Soul Impalement, this phenomena might actually be justifiable; but as it stands, the better part of the Christian metalcore gene pool is content to rip on the same handful of fifth- or sixth-generation hardcore riffs in the hopes of injecting some modicum of intensity and all-too-elusive conviction into their music. I would argue that Christian metalcore is in large part responsible for metalcore’s low standing in the metal community as a result of this shameless copycatting. When words like “formulaic,” “repetitive,” “redundant,” “squeaky-clean,” and “hollow” are slung in metalcore’s direction, it’s these bands that deserve the blame. To be clear, I don’t think it has anything to do with the religious subtext (sometimes just text) of these acts, at least not as far as the casual listener or critic is involved - again, it’s that shocking and scene-wide adherence to the same techniques, approaches, and even marketing strategies that these bands utilize. This is a horse so dead it can’t even be beaten, yet new bands continue to kick around in its dust. It’s dispiriting.
Training For Utopia’s debut is a shot of fire-and-brimstone, blazing an alternate trail for the frustrated Christian with a guitar. Their template of late-nineties metalcore several lenses out of focus gives them the wilder, coarser textures of noise rock, setting them leagues apart from their genre cousins from the get-go; and while it’s a brash, messy, and imperfect sound to a fault, Training For Utopia’s songwriting is surprisingly sophisticated, often eschewing repetition on a track-by-track basis for mood-building and sudden, frenzied eruption. It helps (or doesn’t, depending on your tastes) that the riffs they pull from this morass are Frankenstein’d together by loops and static, the end product one thick with doubt and loosely-restrained malice - not at all what you’d expect from a Christian band! But make no mistake: Plastic Soul Impalement is one of the most single-mindedly abrasive albums in the subgenre, a metalcore “Sinners in the Hands of An Angry God” to everyone else’s flimsy evangelical pamphlets.
It’s Training For Utopia’s album-writing skills, more than their songwriting, that really elevate Plastic Soul Impalement beyond their genre trappings, and so it’s crucial that the album be listened to as a single piece, just as you would Buried Inside’s Chronoclast. Things begin on a subdued note with the ominous smear of noise that is the title track, but “A Good Feeling” lays down the first proper brushstrokes with its frayed guitar, gravelly shouts, and cymbal-heavy drumwork. The Drowningman-esque “Brother Hezakiah” builds on that template with Simon Brody-ish spoken word, layering those wonderfully noisy guitars toward a stomping rock climax. On its own, it’s a mean groove worth snapping your neck to; in context, it’s a ramp through the paranoid noise of “Two Hands” to the balls-out violence of “Pretty Picture of Lies.” which itself leads into the thorny “One Zero One” and the aggressive lurch of “Burning Match In Hand.” “Human Shield” compresses all the feedback and noise of the previous tracks into a three-minute whirlwind of shrapnel riffage and wounded screams, clearing a path for the climactic “Single-Handed Attempt At Revolution.” The transition from “Human Shield” is seamless, working that song’s mathcore antics to a froth before wiping it all away to reveal the existential fury at the heart of the album, transcribed below:
And I didn't care for so long. I didn't succumb to your disgusting apathy. This is an obligation, my entirety. I know, I know: cover your ears because it’s time for the truth. I've questioned you before and received nothing more than the irresponsible, thoughtless ideology, one which stresses an independent way of thinking with no help but your own. You’re running backwards and you’re getting nowhere fast. You trip over every word you utter, and you still proclaim complete awareness and perfection. I've never heard so many foolish thoughts born from such a feeble mind, but it’s nothing new. You aren't different. Your way of thinking has been around for centuries for those who thought they had to challenge every teaching, no matter how perfect, no matter how beautiful that teaching was. Where has that challenge gotten them now? You watch your own mind. You want to make your own decisions? You want to think for yourself? It becomes hard when you don't know what you think, and all that's left to do is to protect your foolish mindset by using some elaborate word to cover up the fact that you spend your time being unsure about everything. Your disguise has proven itself transparent and your mask finds only the impressionable its true victims. I will not be a victim. I will not bathe in your flames. I will not wallow in your disease. You don't scare me; your makeup, your woman's clothing, they don't make me shudder. I'm sorry if that's what you had in mind. Nor do your childish threats strike panic into my heart. No, this is not a joke. This is not an act. I want a reaction. I want to strike more than just a nerve. Do you feel it? You've been wrong this whole time. Your book of Satan, your book of Mormon, you Quran: they've been wrong this whole time. You think the truth is painful. Continue in your meaningless motive until it’s your time to go. That is pain: when there's no chance left to turn on your incompleteness. Not the answer you looked into. Analyze your fall. No end to your pathetic considerations. Have you ever thought about how it might feel? Has your brain ever stretched past the boundaries of the obvious? Isn't there more? You have no standards. No morals. You live for nothing. Continue to reject, and you'll be nothing. I hate this, all of it. This is your fault, and when it ends, look not into my hands, for you’re blind.
Rambling? Messy? Occasionally juvenile and contradictory? All of these things are applicable not just to this song and this spoken-word passage, but also to Plastic Soul Impalement as a whole; but it’s the hair-raising conviction, the honesty of the delivery, that eclipses and makes up for any problematic ideology and instrumentation on both a micro- and macroscopic level. This segment, with its tribal beats and abstract chords, seems to darken the room with that eerie doomsday mentality that suffuses so much of the album. It’s a hard feeling to shake, and it partly overshadows “A Gift To A Dying Friend,” probably the only significant issue we can level at Impalement. Fortunately, it packs one of those twenty-minute silences that was so popular with ’90s records, providing the listener time to reflect (and maybe come to terms with their God) before an unnamed hidden track finishes things on a note of total madness. It consists of little more than unintelligible screams over a distorted jam session, like a nightmare of all that came before.
I can’t help wondering what might have been if Training For Utopia had arrived on the scene at a more formative period and made some sort of mark, rather than dropping this masterpiece to deafening silence and, in response, retooling their sound for a lesser follow-up. Looking back now, it’s hard to imagine how something like Plastic Soul Impalement could pass through the annals of metalcore almost unnoticed, but the best we can do is attribute its failure to a musical climate that just didn't know what to do with Training For Utopia’s challenge to hardcore, metal, and noise rock. Part of me wonders if the sort of circumstances that would allow Plastic Soul Impalement to attain the classic status it deserves are even feasible, now that metalcore seems to be entering its twilight, but I suppose that’s exactly why we started the American Metalcore Project: to shed light on albums like this, in danger of being forgotten, that did what no one was doing and what few are doing now. It’s well past time for Plastic Soul Impalement’s rediscovery.
Wherein Brian hilariously overanalyzes a subgenre of metal!