Occasionally, elements at odds combine beautifully: Black metal and ambient music, crust punk and melodic death metal, and, in the case of LA-based outfit Graf Orlock, screenwriting and grindcore. On their newest effort Crime Traveler — the samples of which are taken from the band’s own film — they’ve taken the template of sampling in grindcore and elevated it to levels of ambition few can touch. Graf Orlock don’t just throw samples in the mix; they fully integrate them into the songs to narrate the arc of the corresponding film, all while the music itself is a winding grind/hardcore hybrid.
This was my first encounter with Graf Orlock, so I’ll confess that I had to do some research and listening to older works to get a context for understanding Crime Traveler. For more than a decade, they’ve imprinted their distinct “cinema grind” onto scenes, earning their reputation as one of the genre’s most original bands. Crime Traveler conceptually focuses on a French-Canadian time-traveling anti-hero bent on destroying some of America’s foremost figures in order to establish Canada as a global power in the future. The lyrics themselves are from the film’s dialogue; samples from the film itself introduce songs, offering glimpses of the narrative while leaving enough to listeners’ imaginations.
On the musical front, Crime Traveler succeeds in combining hardcore, metal, and grindcore into an assaulting barrage of blast beats, breakdowns, and sludgy stomps. “A Decent Proposal in a Shitty Alley” is a standout with a savage groove that stops on a dime to launch into a surging skank beat before a breakdown levels the ground at the end of the song. On the opposite side, “600,000 Tons of Explosive Ordnance” stays in low-and-slow-mode, toeing a line between two-step beatdowns and traditional NOLA-style riffs, and “Nursing a Hangover” combines frenetic speed with guitar figures that recall Ruiner. Musically, Crime Traveler is a solid, if not a great hardcore/grindcore record, the main strength of which is its ability to traverse myriads of tempo changes and unbridled fury without losing focus; the core songs (with samples removed) rarely run over two and a half minutes and cover as much ground in that time as most bands do during an EP worth of material, with far more calculation and vigor than most.
The Achilles’ heel of Crime Traveler, then, is the godawful samples that take up the other half of the album’s running time. I can handle samples in small doses — even bad ones — but when a dialogue sample is one-third of a song’s running time, the album becomes a chore to listen to. More of a drag than the length is the fact that acting in this self-proclaimed piece of cinema is bad enough to make Troll 2 look like Gangs of New York. The dialogue in “Afternoon Lunch at the Red Bacchus” and “Regional Turf War Spills Blood” are particularly awful, but every single sample here is a varying degree of terrible. Our anti-hero protagonist sounds like a constipated, fedora-wearing Redditor who is high on steroids and a lust for power, and the violent bits are exaggerated at best but always cringe-worthy.
Even the best actors couldn’t save the screenwriting itself, though: It’s clichéd, forced, poorly written, and all too self-aware of its aim to be edgy satire with a social commentary. Hyper-masculine teenagers and adults who play Cards Against Humanity will probably find the samples witty and “cool,” but in the context of the album, they fail horribly and cut the balls right off of the music. Then again, in retrospect, when your storyline is about a guy who travels in time just to kill people and cause mayhem, you’re not talking top-tier work anyway. (No offense intended to our Canadian readers. Promise.)
Without the cringe-inducing, I’m-embarrassed-on-your-behalf samples, Crime Traveler could be a much better record. But the fact that they take up half the album is sort of like saying that waiting twenty minutes in line for a burrito at Chipotle is “part of the experience, maaaan” — no it’s not. It’s the garbage you have to deal with to get that tortilla-wrapped bastion of goodness. In the case of Crime Traveler, you’ve perma-cringed your face to the point that by the time the music gets going, your sighs of relief become more labored as the album plays. I beseech the gentlemen of Graf Orlock — regardless of their ambition and aspiration to make grindcore more cinematic — to stay out of film and keep writing the jams, because it’s the only thing they do well.