August 20, 2018
Released In 1996
Released By Edison Records
All it takes is R. Lee Ermey’s voice to get my blood flowing. “If you ladies leave my island, if you survive recruit training, you will be a weapon! You will be a minister of death, praying for war!” Even if I only hear it because someone is watching Stanley Kubrick’s 1987 film Full Metal Jacket in the next room, I can’t help but think “Ohhhh shit,” as I hear cymbals crashing in my head.
This sample begins Acme’s lone full-length collection of music, …To Reduce The Choir To One Soloist, and launches the band into a brief, rumbling intro that establishes their overall vibe as Ermey continues to rant in the background. As he reaches the crescendo of his drill-instructor rant from Full Metal Jacket — “You are nothing but unorganized grab-assing pieces of amphibian shit!” — the rhythm section drops out and the dark lead guitar melody pulls us into the thick of Acme’s brutal metallic hardcore sound.
This is “Blind,” the first of nine songs lasting less than half an hour total. Their entirety — seven studio tracks, two live — constitutes the sum total of Acme recordings created during the band’s brief existence for two years in the early ’90s. A four-piece band from Bremen, Germany, Acme released a four-song 7 inch EP and appeared on four compilations, all of which were released after the band had broken up. By the time their complete recordings were collected on To Reduce The Choir…, the band had been over for years.
Despite their flash-in-the-pan tenure, Acme made a huge impact on the hardcore scene, in Germany and beyond. Creating the dark, metallic version of the genre that became synonymous with their hometown of Bremen over the next half-decade or so, they unleashed a new sound that was seemingly exactly what the worldwide hardcore underground was waiting for. This is what led to the status they were first accorded in America within a year or so of their breakup.
Having never played live outside central Europe, and only releasing their first material on American labels as they were breaking up, Acme were simultaneously blowing minds in scattered scenes across the country and enjoying an atmosphere of total mystery to American fans who weren’t even given official song titles for our first tastes of their music (it took until To Reduce The Choir‘s release for any of us to find out that the band’s contribution to Old Glory Records’ All The President’s Men compilation was called “Repress” — the name of the band was the only info listed on the compilation’s liner notes).
Even as Acme were steadily growing in repute as more of their material made it to US shores, culminating in the release of To Reduce The Choir on well-distributed American label Edison Records in 1996, American kids in the pre-internet hardcore scene of the mid-’90s found that, try as they might to dig up info about Acme, they largely came up empty. At this far chronological remove, I can say that this air of mystery was part of what made them such a fascinating band for me, and for a lot of other kids I grew up with.
But none of that would have mattered if Acme hadn’t totally blown our minds with their then-unique approach to hardcore. It was stunning to hear them in full roar, somehow combining a dark, metallic sensibility that mingled the then-nascent sound of groundbreaking Scandinavian black metal bands like Emperor with the mosh-uber-alles formula of American straight edge trendsetters Earth Crisis and the harsh screams and emotional atmosphere of chaotic hardcore groups like Groundwork, Unbroken, and Honeywell. Other bands had covered similar ground before, most obviously New Jersey’s Rorschach (an admitted influence on Acme), but they streamlined previous takes on the sound, forgoing complex arrangements in favor of mostly-midtempo songs that delivered riff after brutal riff in an unrelenting sonic assault.
That kind of thing was very common for a while, in the years that followed, and when it fell into the wrong hands (as it frequently did), it could result in plodding, stagnant sludge. After all, when every single riff in every single song by a band is heavy as fuck, eventually none of them sound heavy at all. It’s like Christmas every day — sounds like a great idea when you’re five years old, but as you grow older, you realize that Christmas is only special because you have to wait so long for it to come around again.
Acme avoided the Christmas-every-day conundrum by stringing their riffs together in an intelligent, effective fashion that kept things from getting predictable. Drummer Gregor Iwanoff may have largely delivered variations on a rumbling double-bass mosh beat for 90% of this entire album, but the way he and bassist Sonke (last name unknown — see what I mean about this band’s air of mystery?) alternate between driving, pummeling power and ominous vamps, just as guitarist Sven Seelkopf shifts between chugging downtuned riffs and foreboding single-note melodies, results in the perfect level of nervous tension that breaks in explosive fashion as all three leap into another pounding crescendo.
Indeed, Acme’s music succeeds in its steady oscillation between suspense and catharsis in a manner that could be compared to the post-millennial buildup-release that marks the most dancefloor-torpedoing EDM singles of the modern era. You might almost call them a groove band if it weren’t for the persistent darkness of their music, and the searing howl of vocalist Hannes Stang, who introduces a crucial additional element of emotional tension that drives the pounding riffs with even more furious velocity.
The band knew what sort of weapon they had in Stang’s frantic voice, too, and you can see that in certain moments on the album. Toward the end of opener “Blind” when, after screaming his head off for over two minutes, Stang suddenly drops the throat-shredding howl to demand, “I want to see you without the mask / I want to see your blinded eyes” in a quavering voice as the rest of the band builds to a crescendo behind him, it’s a revealing glimpse of the emotion behind the fury, one that is only further underscored as the song’s final breakdown hits and, after a wordless gasp, Stang screams as if his heart is breaking even as the rest of the band drops the hammer with maximum impact.
The compilation tracks on side two were written and recorded later in the band’s development, and show a greater incorporation of musical dynamics, even as they maintain the dense, streamlined brutality of the EP material on side one. “Basterdiser” is noteworthy here, as it begins not with a brutal mosh riff but a more chaotic, syncopated midtempo riff that has a more frantic sound than anything on side one. It evokes a frantic nervousness that is largely absent from side one, only hitting peak brutality at the song’s midpoint as all the chaotic syncopation pays off by unleashing a sudden powerful breakdown full of bent notes and pinch harmonics. “Repress” pulls off a similar trick, opening with a speedy, rumbling riff that is thrashier than anything else the band has done before eventually dropping into a sludgy, crawling dirge worthy of Eyehategod.
As this album goes, these side-two tracks definitely have more to offer in terms of dynamics than side one’s four mosh-focused tracks. But I don’t want to give the impression that the earlier material is boring; even when Acme were sticking with a more limited range of tempos, they knew how to write memorable riffs that stood out from one another even when they were placed back to back; “Injection“‘s chugging chorus runs headlong into its incredible final breakdown in a manner that feels like something held back for the entire song has finally been unleashed with maximum force; it takes quite a few repeated listens to realize that the two riffs have the exact same beat.
In 1995, I’d never heard anything that delivered the sort of powerful emotional gutpunch Acme’s brutal hardcore was packing, a blend of rage, terror, and panic that came closer to mirroring the roiling instability of my psyche as I stood on the precipice of adulthood, struggling with depression, imposter syndrome, and gender dysphoria and having no clear idea how to function in the real world. Their music was still hitting me just as hard when I lived alone in a two-room apartment a decade later, riding my bike 10 miles each way to work every day because I loved my job but couldn’t afford a car. It became a ritual of sorts to drag my bike through the front door, throw my backpack down, and put on …To Reduce The Choir To One Soloist at maximum volume, throwing myself around my empty living room, despite my fresh-from-a-10-mile-ride exhaustion, as the music gave outer voice to inner struggles I couldn’t name. Today, over 20 years after I first purchased it, this album still provides an outlet for emotional issues I’ll probably be grappling with until the day I die. I sold most of my record collection a few years ago at a point of maximum financial desperation — but this one stayed around. I hope I’m never without it.
Collage taken from Marco Walzel’s ’90s zine Speak So That I May See You #3.
The idea of extremity in music is an interesting one to contemplate, partially because what was once shocking becomes softened over time as it is replaced by sounds that go even further. The famous examples of fistfights and riots at the premiere performances by Stravinsky and Schoenberg, which I mentioned in my review of Blood Brothers’ Crimes back in OYR #22, come to mind. While it is possible to get in touch with what distinguished those groundbreaking pieces from what came before — and even to connect with Stravinsky’s depiction of rituals that could be deemed “savage” — the music itself, while still visceral and exciting, doesn’t sound extreme in any way. We’ve heard too much in the ensuing century. Which brings me to the German metalcore band Acme, whose 1996 compilation …To Reduce The Choir To One Soloist we’re considering this week. Their sound of brutally serrated guitars topped with nearly inarticulate, howling vocals, with a distorted, pummeling rumble of a rhythm section somewhere below, is an approach that still retains much of its power, if not to shock, at least to affect the nervous system, over 20 years later. Part of the reason for that I think, besides their pure, white hot energy, is a kind of considered chaos in their songwriting, which keeps you off-kilter through repeated listens. It’s not easy to pull that off and still sound like you know what you’re doing! While they weren’t the first band to sound like this, they were early enough to be considered a defining force in the style. That fact, along with Acme’s sheer excellence in their pursuit of sonic nastiness, makes them worthy of wider knowledge. Without having had time to fully research the aftermath of this short-lived band, who never released anything else as far as I know, I wonder if they simply felt there was nowhere else to go. If so, I respect their decision to let the dead horse’s battered and bloody carcass lie where it fell without subjecting it to further beatings. And you just gotta love a band who start a song (“Blind“) with a clip of the great R. Lee Ermey from Kubrick’s devastating anti-war flick Full Metal Jacket and then proceed to shout him down, burying his rant under their own blistering attack.
That an audio clip from Full Metal Jacket opens this compilation is unsurprising. A band like Acme — whether you wanna call what they do powerviolence, grindcore, hardcore, et cetera — is certainly designed to be antagonistic and abrasive, right down to the brittle production. To Reduce feels, appropriately enough, like all-out warfare. The Morse code coda of “Ordinary,” as well as the false ending of the live version of “Attempt” that feels like a battle you thought was over but isn’t, suggests as much. Naturally, Hannes Stang’s tortured bark fits right in. Perhaps, though, it’s what he’s barking that’s the most combative aspect. Enraged screeds about societal passivity, drug addiction, and domestic abuse are volleyed throughout with the precision of napalm, which at times makes Hannes crass and simplistic (i.e., “Inconsiderate, your intellectual mask has made you judge you so fast”). And yet, some of these lyrics are eerily relevant. A line like “This satisfaction rules your life / Again and again, helpless forced self-destruction” accurately describes the opioid crisis, while “A man is born to rule, a woman born to accept / Society makes the rules we accept/ Accept and shut our eyes” points to the source of the #MeToo movement. But I suppose you have to get past the ugliness of Acme’s presentation, and that can be a tough ask. Patience and a willingness to pay attention to gleeful enmity are required traits for music like this. In that way, much like war, To Reduce is a reminder that ugliness can sometimes be instructive.
When people talk about crimes of passion, they tend to focus on the crime part, discussing the number of times he was stabbed or where her body was found. In trial, jurors are walked through a step by step reenactment of the emotional climb that erupted into the crime at hand while the alleged perpetrator looks abashedly on. The tenor and true blinding nature of emotion like that can’t be recreated with any authenticity, but in certain films and albums and memories, we can pull from that well and understand how someone could feel so overwhelmed. …To Reduce The Choir To One Soloist puts me back into some of the worst memories of my life, snippets of days that are never paraded out for a laugh because even years later the animalism takes my breath away. Brutality is the best word for this album, an exploration into the passion before the crime. Chaos, an insistent driving grind, the album plays out over 24 minutes of fists clenched, jaw twisted open in a scream, eyes screwed shut, and the worst kind of emotional honesty flowing forward.
Laura Burroughs (@_thetwors)
Jestful Musical Erudite
To my knowledge, no scientific study has tested this but I have to believe that on some level there is a mental framework that metalheads share. Maybe it’s something about the retro symbolism of the non-conformist, long hair, mullets, black t-shirts, leather jackets, and a fondness for all things macabre. More fascinating still is the seemingly contradictory nature of their personal dynamics. The more unsettling a thing, the harder it’s embraced. Metal is an audio manifestation of the isolating defense mechanisms we surround ourselves with. They rock out in their bedrooms to some of the angriest, riff-heavy guttural roars and grinding guitar chords. They contort their faces as though they’d been seized temporarily by evil spirits. They strike fear for their futures into the hearts of their parents despite being some of the kindest most compassionate people you’ll ever meet. “Don’t mind that t-shirt with the bare-breasted, winged riders from hell carrying flaming severed heads, Bruce is actually the nicest guy you’ll ever meet.” Many are merely socially awkward, trading in the difficulty of human interaction for the convenient excuse of being being so surly and visually unapproachable that only the like-minded would bother. It’s easier to say “people can’t handle me” than “I can’t handle people.” They’re all power-stances and aggressive posturing in the mosh pit while simultaneously reaching down to help a brother or sister up when they fall. They’ll shoulder-check you into an amp stack and then stop mid-circle-pit and yell “Are you ok?!?! Yes?!? Roock-oooon then!!!” before disappearing into a sea of sweaty hair pom poms bouncing rhythmically in the floodlights. It’s within this scene that we find a sort of zero-sum game. Subgenres of metal seem to descend into hierarchies of who can sound the hardest and most off-putting. And of course, the more off-putting it is, the more prestige there is in saying I’m into that. I can take this — this brutal onslaught of sound is somehow comforting to me. I can relate to this — this is what the voices in my head sound like. At the bottom of this vortex, we scrape up the subgenres of sludge and metalcore. The first, a genre which made its name on slowing things down and muddying things up until it sounded like the music heard through the wall of Satan’s lower intestine as the listener gets slowly digested. The second, punk and hardcore tempo while blasting out double-bass, chuga-chuga guitar riffs and blast beats. This gives us the 1996 compilation …To Reduce The Choir To One Soloist by the short-lived German metal band Acme. Though the words are irrelevant, they’re actually quite meaningful and well-written. When a teenager is screaming at you, you don’t need to examine the symbolism of his or her words to know he’s fairly upset about something. It’s only necessary that you feel it, not listen to it. Despite there being just 9 tracks, this is a compilation of all their work and yet the entire beast weighs in at around 30 minutes. One of those tracks is a 15 minute reprise of a previous song. Indeed, this analysis is already longer than the band’s career but Acme’s blue flame burned hot and bright in the short time they’d been summoned and before they were banished back into the black, soulless, void of torment from which they emerged, they left a hell of a burn mark.
Above the blistering vocals & dense riffage, you’ll find Acme’s erratic musical nature their most compelling feature.
So did Robbie Fulks just teach me how to appreciate metalcore? Did that really just happen? Yes, I’m talking about the Robbie Fulks who plays country and bluegrass and who, a little more than a week ago, released a collaborative album alongside Linda Gail Lewis, sister of Sun Records legend Jerry Lee Lewis. That one’s called Wild! Wild! Wild! — I gave it a headphones-in listen over the weekend while working in the yard and was struck by self-referential it is, with frequent lyrical nods to canonical country artists like Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, and of course, Jerry Lee. In that way and others, it’s feels like music about music. So meta, as they say. And the more I listen to Acme’s …To Reduce The Choir To One Soloist collection, the more I get that same sense. Central to metalcore is the idea of fusion (hence the name), and you can hear that spirit of interplay throughout Reduce, most clearly in spots where stops, starts, tempo changes, and transitions show how complex Acme’s approach is, and how adept they are at making multiple musical ideas fit next to one another. (“Attempt” is a great example.) Until now, my main point of reference for metalcore has been Mutoid Man — the Stephen Brodsky-helmed outfit that also includes drummer Ben Koller of Converge. Brodsky is as versatile a singer and Aria Flying V slinger as you’ll find, and he makes switching gears seem easy, especially when it comes to the way he can serenade you one minute and scream at you the next. (Remember Off Your Radar Issue #4? With Kid Kilowatt?) Acme may stick to the screaming/growling throughout, but their breakdowns and left turns show a kind of devotion and care that places them at the center of an admirable web of influential associations. Quick epilogue: Did you know Jerry Lee Lewis’ nickname is The Killer? I didn’t before today, and learning that on a day spent listening to metalcore feels entirely appropriate.
The imminent descent of screech vocals and the immediate recognition of …To Reduce The Choir To One Soloist as a definitively hardcore sludge metal record should have both been at least entertained as a possibility when the opening track, “Blind,” kicked off with a sound sampling from one particularly abrasive scene in the classic 1987 war film, Full Metal Jacket. But who’s to know the context and purpose for spoken sound samples? Well, the abrasiveness in one drill sergeant reaming is nothing to shake a stick at but when stacked right up against a single, unrelenting, thin, and scratchy growl vocal, the former suddenly seems almost melodic by comparison. The more intense of the metal sub genres isn’t without its merit in my eyes. Heck, I once attended a panel at an academic music conference wherein the main topic of someone’s paper discussion was on the physics and biological execution behind scream and growl vocals with regard to metal bands. It was a take on the style that had incredible nuance and scientific data to back up what is defined as proper technique among those who perform it, as opposed to just thinking it’s all about making one’s voice as loud and deep as possible, in any way possible. Such recklessness is really just a fast track to vocal cord destruction. There is indeed a method behind the madness. Listening from this vantage point that helped make the journey through …To Reduce The Choir To One Soloist less droning. The instrumental contributions to this record are plenty heavy but easy to follow. Long, deliberate down beats across the loudest of drum beats, sustained bass strums, and thick guitar chords. Need a good punch of intensity in that playlist? Acme has that on lock. Workouts, rough days at the office that need a comparable way to let off steam; there are times and places heavy can be great and easy to embrace and I’m all for that. Where it can be difficult to embrace this album is in the outcome that results from Acme choosing to apply screeching vocals with a register that is also rather high and thin. The combination leaves a significantly monotone quality to the delivery and while I’m not talking lethargic monotone, the difficulty in differentiating pitch per se, makes much of what’s said, run together in a sonically singular kind of way. This of course, speaks nothing of the actual lyrics which the songs contain but, it would be awful presumptuous to believe that anyone who’s casually looking into a record for the first time ever, might have the full lyric list on hand to decipher what’s underneath the music and the growls. The album is often referred to as a classic for the time it was released, being ahead of peer music in its genre and pushing boundaries. Knowing also that so much can be packed into a work less than 25 minutes long is always pleasantly surprising for the heavier metal varieties. This album doesn’t go by as fast as one might presume it would — not like, perhaps, a garage punk record of the same length, which crowds a short run time but does so in an often much faster manner. Truthfully, it might be hard to get into this if done as a solo mission but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth the time. Sub genres of metal like these can be a little hard to crack beyond a superficial assessment but, find a good metal music forum, text that metalhead friend, and say you want their insight on why they like this style, and suddenly what seems so impenetrable will display layers of will display layers of intriguing sophistication that is way more than just noisy screaming.
A few days before my first listen to Acme’s …To Reduce The Choir To One Soloist, I spent a night having a few drinks with a co-worker with the intention of talking about music all night long. We didn’t quite achieve that (work history, pets, and my inability to drive all came up at some point to derail our plans), but she did ask me one question that really got me to think about the way I listen to music: what’s the first thing that draws me in? There are a lot of ways to answer that question — which, coincidentally, is how I answered her. More often than not, at least in my case, I’m often drawn to lyrics — a lot of my favorite bands are often known for sharp witticisms and poignant couplets about life rather than innovative musicianship (for proof, look no further than The Copyrights). That said, when it comes to certain subgenres of hardcore and metal, there’s a part of me that feels that if the riffs are heavy enough, I can generally overlook whether or not I relate to the lyrics. And listening to Acme, I can certainly say that the riffs do it for me. If my OYR colleague Steve hadn’t so generously provided a means to the album’s lyrics in an e-mail earlier this week, I may not have ever known what some of these songs were about, but quite frankly it doesn’t take much to figure out that these are some angry tunes. That’s not to say that Acme’s lyrics aren’t worth investigating — the anger directed toward the willingly ignorant in “Blind” is only more infuriating when you realize that the song is twenty-odd years removed from the rise of internet anonymity, as is the ugly reality of “Ordinary,” that is still just ugly as it is today. But what To Reduce truly excels in is heavy distortion, growled vocals, and harsh feedback. The moment I heard the soundbite from Full Metal Jacket at the very start of the album, I knew that this would be an album that I was going to be able to headbang to in my living room. And I wasn’t wrong.
A shot from another chaotic show, this time a spring 1994 concert in South Holland.
The thing that primarily strikes me about this album is that even though it’s so short, it feels incredibly long. I think it has something to do with the tempo that the band is playing at. It’s somehow slow and trudging and also blisteringly fast. As a scientist moonlighting as a writer, I can confirm that these are just the conditions necessary to stretch and warp the space-time continuum in such a way as to make an album that is just over 20 minutes long seem like an epic saga. I also would be remiss if I didn’t commend the choice of samples. Starting with a clip from Full Metal Jacket was mood-setting enough, but it also primed my mind for the horribly violent and tragic image that the clip at the start of “Cathode” (a child’s voice saying “May God unite us in Heav–” and then being cut off by a blast of guitars and drums) paints. My mind went immediately to the atrocities of war and the innocent lives cut off by violent blasts. So yeah. Acme packs meaning into every corner of this album and even as I was surprised that the genre of music was different than I had been anticipating, I was immediately delighted by the explosion!
Today is one of my favorite days of the year, or rather yesterday as I’m writing this on the third Sunday in August. Nine year old me surrounds himself with two things to maintain his boyish grin, and to keep life from getting too life-like: music and professional wrestling. And today, as I write this, it’s Summerslam Sunday. Listening to Acme, I quickly noticed that every one of these tracks could be entrance music for current members of the WWE roster, so here is my rundown in the spirit of the second biggest show of the year. “Blind” goes to Braum Strowman. This track is larger than life aggression, perfect for WWE’s newest monster. “Attempt,” from what I can tell, bet fits the high flying legend Jeff Hardy. Even though it’s near impossible to understand the lyrics on this record, I thought I made out a “look out below.” “Injection” is already damn near the current entrance music for Seth Rollins. With it’s off-kilter opening and Twilight Zone-esque break, “Ordinary” is tailor made for Mr. I-hear-voices-in-my-head, Randy Orton. I love “Cathode” for Dolph Ziggler — the prolonged opening calls for your attention just like Ziggler’s constant attempts to steal the show. Samoa Joe may as well be called “Basterdiser,” so there’s that. And finally, I’ll assign “Repress” to The Lunatic Fringe, Dean Ambrose; finally making his much anticipated return to the ring after being repressed by injury for the better part of a year. And now, it’s go time!
When I first heard the Full Metal Jacket sound bite at the beginning of Blind, I knew I was in for something intense, but I’m not sure if just saying this album is intense does it any justice. I’m not going to lie — it took me a lot of googling to wrap my head around what I was listening to when I first played …To Reduce The Choir To One Soloist, but now I feel confident in saying that the album is a dark and twisted roller coaster ride to hell. Its brutal, unrelenting rhythms and swells were the highlight of sludgecore music in 1996 and nowadays you can trace thousands of artist’s works back to the influence of bands like Acme, So, if you’re looking to enhance your hardcore tête-à-tête, drop …To Reduce The Choir To One Soloist into conversation. You will leave any sludgecore purists you may come across feeling truly enlightened.
Erin Calvert (@erinpcalvert)
Elder Goth In The Making
Much of Acme’s sound comes off as gnawing noise, a phrase which will probably excite people who listen to bands that exist in Acme’s periphery and deflate those who seem blissfully unaware of terms like metalcore, sludge, and grind. But it’s in that gnawing noise that you’ll find some superbly rich musical moments, ones that are subversive and disorienting enough to makes this compilation hover above the riff-heavy quicksand that most metal and hardcore bands willingly wade into. Jumping between grind and sludge for instance provides Acme plenty of opportunities to bend time around their songs, a facet of music I’ve always felt drawn to. Leaning on the beat or easing up on the rhythm so that every song doesn’t fit squarely within the confines of quarter, eighth, and sixteenth note grids can really make a song stand-out. And when it’s the basis of your sound like Acme, it’s even more exhilarating, adding a spastic energy to the already chaotic environment. Let’s be real — as unruly and rebellious as metal sounds, there’s still plenty of order to be found in their songs. The riffs are heavy and the bass is deafening, but after a few bars, you pretty much know what you’re in for and can use your own instincts as guidance. But within Acme’s sonic constructs, it might be hard to figure out which is way is up. Here is a band fully capable of thrashing around though much more interested in letting silence and intermittent percussion disrupt the well-established groove. Clearly not all people who make music like this are maladjusted members of society, but this type of music certainly comes from a dark place, one where there’s no compass, light, or way to go from “A” to “B.” In that sense, this might be a great exploration of that dark sense, and the creativity and brilliance that can occupy it if you have the stomach to handle it.
Rebeldes by Álex Anwandter
Chosen By David Munro