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War of the Abject
The shock values of two extreme music videos

A rare work-safe frame from Rwake’s “It Was Beautiful But Now It’s Sour” music video

Last week, two music videos surfaced in the heavy metal universe, openly vying for the title of most profoundly disgusting in the history of the medium. These clips have certain things in common, most notably the merciless and unrelenting portrayal of graphic violence. They also have some key differences, as one deals with sexualized violence and the other raises the spectre of animal cruelty. Both emerge in a medium (the music video) defined by extreme imagery, that often pushes the limits of what music fans, critics and censors will accept, and also in a musical landscape (heavy metal) whose denizens are more conditioned than the average viewer to be comfortable with the grotesque.

One of the elements that struck me as particularly fascinating about these two videos, and the bands and directors that created them, is that while they both use the palate of violence to convey their message and imagery, they are motivated by extremely different concepts. In examining the videos themselves, and the reactions from various viewers, it is clear that while there are some points of comparison, each video is disturbing in an entirely different way and with diametrically opposed positions.

The first video in question was made for the Cattle Decapitation song “Forced Gender Reassignment,” off their most recent album Monolith of Inhumanity. Cattle Decapitation compose notoriously misanthropic music, and generally portray human beings as a blight on the planet. Several members of the band are practicing vegans, and their songs frequently focus on issues of environmental destruction, animal cruelty and experimentation, frequently featuring the images of humans being subjected to the same experiments that animals undergo or the condition they suffer in factory farming. The “Forced Gender Reassignment” video is the most recent manifestation of this impulse. The video debuted on the horror website Bloody Disgusting, and comes with an extremely strong NSFW warning.

In discussing the content of the video (and the title of the track should tell you everything you need to know about the imagery), Cattle Decapitation vocalist and lyricist Travis Ryan stated that the desire to shock the audience was a deliberate choice, and that “it seems nowadays you have to be over the top in your presentation to get anyone to think about anything anymore.” As for the inspiration behind the lyrical content of the song and the final video, Ryan said that “Forced Gender Reassignment” is about “taking certain religious sects and showing them what its like to be in another person’s shoes — someone whose life is simply different than theirs — but forcibly so,” a new manifestation of the the theme of ironic vengeance and role reversal that Cattle Decapitation has worked with frequently in the past.

Even for Cattle Decapitation, this video is extreme. In talking about his approach to the material, director Mitch Massie states that “truly, nothing is more life affirming or fun than to shoot a project full of violence, rape, and mutilation with a group who has no fear of anything. So much of this video is real that I’ve never laughed so much in my life while being seconds away from a trip to the emergency room every day.” While knowing the video would shock and anger, and would require both a strong stomach and the ability to deal with awkward moments like receiving a box of replica penises in the mail, Massie reveals an aspect of making any kind of horror film: that it can be incredibly fun. No matter how horrible the imagery, it is all fictional, created with prosthetics and makeup, portrayed by actors who have consented and are enjoying themselves. Despite the difficult and for some unwatchable content, the “Forced Gender Reassignment” video is a bold exploration of the aesthetics of disgust, of boundaries and revulsion, the extremes of sexualized violence.

The second video in question was created by Casper Haugegaard for the Rwake song “It Was Beautiful But Now It’s Sour,” off their 2011 album Rest. The video originally debuted on the bands Youtube channel, but quickly taken down because of the content, and ultimately re-hosted on the Relapse Records Vimeo channel and premiered on Noisey by Vice. The video is much longer, clocking in at nearly twelve minutes, and features only one element, in the words of the band themselves: “It involves dead pig fetuses getting absolutely annhilated (sic) in slow motion in every possible way (tennis rackets, bullets, golf clubs, mouse traps, etc).” The band also make it clear in another statement to the Obelisk blog that, not only are the pig fetuses very real, but the whole thing was the director’s idea: “Casper came to us about a year ago with this idea. He said he had “certain” subject matter he knew he had to film and that it would fit to our music perfectly. He probably knew no other band in its right mind who would agree to this footage and believe me the original test shootings he sent were way sicker.”

What makes the Rwake video more disturbing for many is that it raises questions about very real animal cruelty issues. While many bands have used animal skulls, body parts and blood in their videos and performances — the easiest example being Watain, who regularly perform drenched in blood and with pig heads mounted on pikes — the questions of how those animal products are procured are often easier to answer. Most animal products that bands use are acquired from local butchers in the cities that bands perform or where videos are shot, and there is the possibility (depending on how concerned the band is about these issues) that those animals were raised and killed according to what many would call ethical standards.

Fetal pigs are actually incredibly easy to acquire as well, and there is an entire pre-existing industry for the purchase of fetal pigs, mostly for physiological dissections performed educationally. You can order them online, in bulk, in a vacuum pak. It’s not impossible to imagine how Haugegaard and Rwake got ahold of enough fetal pigs to make this video (though they do appear to be much younger/less fully formed that what is most commonly sold). However, the simple fact that real living things died to create a piece of film makes this video controversial in a completely different way.

Music videos have always pushed the limits of what listeners and viewers are willing to tolerate, and different videos have been considered controversial for drastically disparate reasons. The Nine Inch Nails video for the track “Happiness Is Slavery” also features sexually explicit and grotesque violence; on the other end of the spectrum, the video for the Sigur Ros track “Viðrar Vel Til Loftárása” raised a stir for the gentle, romantic portrayal of two teenage boys kissing. The best and most shocking often tread on the line of what many would call obscenity.

While both videos deal in the currency of abjection and shock value, I would argue it is Massie’s “Forced Gender Reassignment” that ultimately succeeds. Though nauseating, challenging and triggering, the video is an artful construction that pushes limits of makeup and authentic violence, and is a more intelligent treatment of extreme horror than Haugegaard’s one-note orgy of violence. While Haugegaard’s shot are often artfully framed, it lacks the narrative structure that pays off in Massie’s piece, the steadily increasing horror placed within the larger structure of cultural evil and comeuppance.


Natalie Zina Walschots is a poet and music writer based in Toronto, Ontario. Her second book of poetry, DOOM: Love Poems for Supervillains, was published by Insomniac Press this spring. You can follow her on Twitter at @NatalieZed.

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