When Death Sleeps, it Dreams of You: 20 Years of Acid Bath’s “Paegan Terrorism Tactics”

Acid Bath- Paegan Terrorism Tactics

Memorial and retrospective pieces are few and far between here on Black Metal & Brews, yet it’s important that we examine our roots as time goes on. Extreme music is a constantly shifting concept and realm, with today’s extremity becoming tomorrow’s norm. One of the most crucial acts to ever grace the American heavy metal community with its presence was Acid Bath. For those unfamiliar, let this serve as a primer and an opportunity to explore new ground. For those well acquainted, perhaps this will remind you of the creative potency of extreme music and its capacity to introduce new ideas without departing entirely from its core elements.

Acid Bath’s roots in the swamps of Louisiana serve a perfect starting point for all curious readers. Most areas deemed melting pots in the world are urban and industrialized, often port cities with money. With many socioeconomic and historical reasons that we have neither time nor reason to explore, the bayou has become a place where fusion is the norm. From the cuisine to the language, many unrelated cultures exist side by side and often cross-pollinate. In 1991, the members of Acid Bath came together to create a musical equivalent of their regional flavor. While “sludge” became the term many would associate with the band’s output, the genre inherently implies a murky amalgamation of many things that was embodied perfectly in the material that became Acid Bath’s 1994 LP, When the Kite String Pops. While Sabbathian doom obviously served as the band’s backbone, there was just as much borrowed from the crossover of acts like DRI and the thriving death metal and grindcore scenes of the era. While Acid Bath were later additions to a growing community in the American south with similarly minded acts like Corrosion of Conformity, Eyehategod, and Crowbar (whose ranks would eventually be joined by Acid Bath guitarist Sammy Duet), there were hints on this seminal recording of the band’s desire to break out in a new direction. While heft and groove reigned supreme in all of the aforementioned acts, Acid Bath’s interest in psychedelic self-destruction diverged from the pack, driven on in great part by frontman Dax Riggs’ LSD-fueled lyrics and inclination towards alternating harsher vocals with a soulful, hazy croon.

 

Acid Bath
(Photo by Harald Oimoen)

Despite the transcendent capacity of songs like “God Machine” and “Jezebel” on When the Kite String Pops, it was the unexpected doom ballad of crime and drug-lust, “Scream of the Butterfly,” that would set the tone for the surprising success of Paegan Terrorism Tactics. Released on November 12th, 1996, this record was both a masterpiece of clashing forces being seamlessly fused and an unplanned, although possibly inevitable, swansong for a group soon to meet its demise. While bassist Audie Pitre’s death at the hands of a drunk drive in January of 1997 was the incident that set Acid Bath’s end into direct motion, the songs on Paegan Terrorism Tactics seethed with an uncontrollable and impossibly volatile energy that couldn’t have been followed by anything other than complete dissolution of the very force that made it. Perhaps prophetically, in “Locust Spawning,” one of the songs that mostly closely captured the death metal leanings of the prior album, Riggs intimates, “I’m dead bored with your deathless blues. Scream for me and I’ll die for you.” If this wasn’t a veiled statement at his interest in leaving behind extremity, his subsequent departure from all things metal in favor of music drawing from the well of blues and folk was a telling factor in the overall sonic direction of Acid Bath’s final recordings.

What makes Paegan Terrorism Tactics such an intriguing, timeless record is its ability to escape stagnation or tedium without feeling foreign to those craving the ferocity and familiarity of extreme metal. Instead of shrugging off the weight of metal, its immensity is highlighted by searing leads and clever rhythmic variation in sludgy songs like iconic opener “Pagan Love Song” and the ever-shifting “Diäb Soulé.” While these songs serve as the sonic foundation upon which Acid Bath built its success, the framework was open enough for the band to explore unimaginably beautiful and strange new worlds without leaving listeners feeling abandoned or betrayed. Indeed, most bands that even hint at exploring melodic or subtle sounds within extreme metal are quickly labeled sellouts or posers, yet Acid Bath’s approach always had space for something new.

The finest moments on this landmark album are neither predictable for a metal band, yet they’re essential. The one-two punch of the cosmically huge “Bleed Me an Ocean” into the psychedelic epic “Graveflower” shows a band just as comfortable with cool, slick energy as it is with ugly, painful moments that are larger than the human mind can properly process. Elsewhere “Old Skin” explored the noise interlude before it became a token filler piece on every damn metal album while closer “Dead Girl” showcased the band’s ability to make even just acoustic guitar and voice serve as the template for an emptiness so vast that it’s more of a feeling than a perception. Still, the album’s highlight (and perhaps the pinnacle of Acid Bath’s short career) is in its most unintentionally balanced song, “Venus Blue.” Every element the band carried within their approach was on full display, teetering between precipices of mournful melancholy and a vocal line so huge it could’ve almost fit on rock radio were it not for the song’s vicious bridge. From the delicate, somber solo to the power chords that pummel in the chorus, even the guitars explore every bit of subtlety and maximal sound that the band could muster.

While Acid Bath’s career was cut short, could they have followed with an album of equal weight and importance? It’s a question that can’t be answered, but perhaps the post-breakup music made by guitarist Mike Sanchez and Riggs in the mournful rock of Agents of Oblivion and Duet’s aggressive hybridization of sludge and black metal in Goatwhore show the divergence at its peak. These two groups, in essence, show the polarization that Acid Bath held in place so beautifully, yet they also seem to have served to more appropriately highlight the conflicting impulses of the songwriters as they grew in time. Regardless of the things that “could’ve been,” today we celebrate the twentieth anniversary of an album that still serves as a high water mark for sludge and all of the genres it touches upon. While few bands have come close to successfully emulating Acid Bath’s balance of psychedelia, aggression, and poetic depth, Paegan Terrorism Tactics will always serve as a reminder that heavy metal is a form of music that can be made larger than the sum of its parts when made with passion and thought.