The lyrical prowess of former Discordance Axis vocalist Jon Chang has rightly been heralded in articles by various publications. But the interesting thing about this talent is what Chang claims as his main inspiration– anime and videogames, specifically the “bullet hell” microgenre of shoot ’em ups that maintains a niche level of popularity despite its unforgiving difficulty. His grindcore project Gridlink, sadly disbanded after recording its third and final album, has essentially acted as the aural equivalent of these games- the music’s frenetic, desperate sound evokes the hopeless situation of piloting a poorly armed spaceship against impossible odds, while the lyrics obliquely reference the resigned, fatalistic air of these media’s protagonists and tie them to themes of interpersonal conflict and the horrors of war. (There are more direct parallels as well- the album’s name comes from the classic arcade shooter Dodonpachi, which itself serves as one of the song titles.) As powerful and emotive as the band’s prior releases have been, though, their swansong effort Longhena is on a higher level altogether. Whether or not they knew that this recording would be their last, the group used this last stand, like the doomed pilot wading into certain death, to break through their previous limits.
There had already been an evolution in sound in between the raw, bass-free grind of Gridlink’s debut Amber Grey and the technical gymnastics displayed on its followup Orphan. This development continues even further on Longhena, being most immediately apparent in the extended song lengths. While those previous releases each clocked in at around twelve minutes, with no song exceeding the 1:30 mark, this album is nearly twice that length, with certain numbers stretching out over a leisurely two or even three minutes. The general tendency is still for blink-and-you’ll-miss-it ragers, but for the first time there are also variations on that core grind template. This is apparent from the very beginning, with the initial guitar bursts on opener “Constant Autumn” somewhat recalling pop-noise experimentalists Melt Banana, before a characteristic light-speed run is unleashed. The most obvious departure, though, comes in “Thirst Watcher”, which eschews blastbeats and Chang’s piercing scream in favour of layers of clean guitar and strings, summoning a resigned, melancholic counterpart to the bitter despair around it. This additional breathing space only enhances the effect of the band’s signature clinical freneticism.
But even on Longhena‘s most ferocious tracks, guitarist Takafumi Matsubara reaches dizzying new heights of technicality without sacrificing an ounce of emotive power. When this many of your songs last less than seventy or even sixty seconds, there can be no wasted space. Standouts such as “Island Sun” and “Look to Windward” use their (relatively) lengthier running times to pack the theatrics of an entire power metal album into one track. Rather than coming off as cheesy, though, the dramatic, even histrionic playing summons feelings of genuine sadness at the same time as it induces headbanging. If it’s exhausting, it’s not just because of the sheer speed and power of the music; the feelings of despair and hopelessness Chang picked up on in his favourite games and anime are successfully conveyed through both his lyrics, screamed into the void at 100 miles an hour, and Takafumi’s brutal yet melodic playing. Drummer Bryan Fajardo also deserves praise here- simply being able to play as fast as he does, as consistently as he does, is impressive. That he can inject passion and flair while performing at this speed is doubly so.
It’s obviously a massive shame that one of the most accomplished, inventive groups in grindcore decided to call it a day after a mere three albums, leaving us with not even an hour of recorded material to remember them by. But maybe it’s better this way. Rather than allowing the possibility of their legacy being spoiled with a disappointing misfire or a slow descent into mediocrity, Gridlink elected to go out with a bang, with this final statement representing the strongest moment of any of its members’ careers. Their discography was already a near-perfect encapsulation of this particular brand of extreme music, but Longhena might well become a high-water mark for the entire genre, the one to try and beat. It would have been incredibly difficult for the group themselves to top this; what hope do others have?
Longhena is released on February 19th on Handshake Inc.