Beneath the countless genres of rock and metal, shock rock is the one that everyone needs to take a deep breath for before talking about. Alice Cooper, KISS and Marilyn Manson remain the cornerstones of their eras for scaring the crap out of their audiences while delivering their music, but with that embrace of spectacle, the “rock” part of “shock rock” was frequently ignored. It was a musical movement where the live shows fueled record sales, not the music itself.
GWAR were one of the first shock rock bands to completely embrace the joke the genre had become. The members put on ridiculously intricate outfits and face makeup, purposely made their live shows into spectacles in controversy and obscenity, all while staying vehemently dedicated to their wacky mythology of being aliens that landed in Antarctica to play metal for us all. With nearly 30 years of ravaging Planet Earth with their music, GWAR continue their legacy with their 13th studio album, Battle Maximus. GWAR have not changed lanes much since 1985 and they don’t much of that on Battle Maximus either, but if you’re a fan, you won’t be left disappointed.
GWAR’s live performances and obsession with a ridiculously crafted lore behind the band has been their calling card, almost overshadowing the band’s surprisingly enticing mix of punk rock pacing and heavy metal influences. Battle Maximus straddles the line of speed metal with hard punk rock, moving throughout the band’s inner circle with ferocious intensity. “Madness at the Core of Time” is clearly a punk rock song. Despite the thrashy nature of Brent “Pustulus” Purgason’s guitar solo, the pace is so drenched in adrenaline that for a second, you might think you’re listening to some up-and-coming hardcore band in a local dive. It’s made all the clearer when Brad “Jizmak” Roberts started pounding on the drumkit like a maniac, frequently shifting pace and tempo throughout “Nothing Left Alive.” GWAR don’t just parody metal; they can play it really well too.
Dave “Oderus” Brockie, despite donning the spiked shoulder-pads and wrinkled makeup of a shock rocker, actually has a very good and distinctive metal voice. Less guttural and much more influenced by the snarl of Ozzy Osbourne, there’s just enough crowd-pumping spirit behind his voice to get the circle pits turning. “Bloodbath” lets Oderus vary up his singing style with punk calls to the crowd and the occasional sliding melody. His lyrics dance around the controversial content that has made GWAR so widely known and loved in metal. It can get rather raunchy, but GWAR capitalize on that vibe and make it their own. When anyone else does it, it’s uncomfortable. When GWAR does it, it’s their weapon of choice.
“They Swallowed the Sun” is one of the best on the album, with lyrics working around machine control and the same cosmically evil themes GWAR brought with them from outer space. Left-turns are abound throughout the track; shifting tempos, metal breakdowns and a great amount of punk-infused energy. The last chorus escalates immensely, reaching a crowd-pleasing height and ultimately diving down before a climactic final note. However, after the halfway point hits, Battle Maximus starts to blend its parts together. Aside from the instrumental title track and “I, Bonesnapper” (featuring vocals from the artist of the same name), the band loses steam from its distinctive mix of punk and thrash. The songwriting stumbles and the band’s signature tones and themes muddle together into something that will get the circle pits turning, but you won’t necessarily know why.
But does this mean that GWAR are bad? Not really. For a band so completely inseparable from their stage presence, their music is actually quite good and can stand alone. You can’t say that for every shock rock band, but GWAR have some very well constructed songwriting in their arsenal. It’s just a shame that much of that excellent songwriting is shoved to the front of the album. It makes an incredible first impression then starts dragging its feet before its end. Battle Maximus is as blistering and ferocious as GWAR has ever been; it won’t make any new GWAR fans, but it’s still incredibly encouraging to see a shock rock band that can still keep its actual music from getting stale, even 30 years after donning the makeup.