Though publication year-end lists are ostensibly a gathering of raw data or historical record, they’re intended as storytelling devices. And despite 11 months of evidence to the contrary, it appears that most critics and listeners spent 2022 trying to imagine a better, brighter world. The reigning power trio of Beyoncé, Rosalía and Bad Bunny crafted globetrotting, celebratory dance albums that were both universally acclaimed and commercial blockbusters, achieving poptimism’s utopian ideal where the biggest artists in the world are also the best. On a more intimate scale, Sudan Archives, Bartees Strange and Soul Glo culminated their exploratory phases with bold statements largely inspired by their desire to defy expectations projected onto Black artists operating in “indie.” In those same spaces, Big Thief, Florist, and Beach House offered refuge in their sprawling, pastoral and welcoming epic double-LPs, whereas Alex G and Alvvays secured their status as A-listers after a decade of organic hustle. Meanwhile, Wet Leg and Jockstrap brought a much-needed sense of whimsy to British post-punk and even the consensus metal picks like Undeath and Dream Unending indulged in pulpy, airbrushed-van imagery. So it’s only fair to ask… what did become of all of the bad vibes?
Most would argue for us to use these feelings towards constructive ends — hardcore and metal albums were praised for how they make you feel like you could fight God or deadlift an 18-wheeler or set a Wells Fargo ablaze. But how does this square with how social media and, really, all media felt on a daily basis — the futile, impotent anger that arose when the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020 somehow led to police departments getting their budgets increased, or having student loan relief be subject to endless, frivolous lawsuits or any number of mass shootings or COVID spikes or Ticketmaster or JD Vance or Elon Musk? It’s understandable to seek escape when the worst people on earth face no material consequences for their behavior, but where does the negative energy go? To paraphrase Homer Simpson, are we just meant to squeeze that rage into a bitter little ball and release it at an appropriate time?
If 2022 needed a sin-eater, Chat Pile’s brutally hilarious and hilariously brutal sludge-metal opus God’s Country had the biggest appetite. I can’t quite come up with a word that suffices as the opposite of “escapism,” but if there is one, that’s what Chat Pile embodies. People who choose to go outside confront the horrors of the widening wealth gap, as tent cities of scabies and ringworm-infected unhoused push their shit around in a shopping cart in front of glimmering and empty condo complexes. People who stay inside are defenseless against both homicidal and suicidal impulses, which can take the shape of a drug-induced vision of Grimace. Family and friends are mere mirrors of our failures. Blue-collar meatpackers and corporate drones are haunted by how their proverbial sausage is made. The brutality of a cattle slaughterhouse is repeated at a Sirloin Stockade steakhouse at the hands of Roger Dale Stafford. The poor souls here are even denied the sweet release of death on “I Don’t Care If I Burn.” The substance of the Oklahoma City band’s “American horror story” felt both pulled directly from the headlines, while the sound was 2022’s most potent counterprogramming.
When I catch up with frontman Raygun Busch, he’s enjoying a typical lazy Saturday at home in Oklahoma City, planning to catch The Menu with his girlfriend later that night — a pitch-black comedy whose themes of mass murder and fine dining sit squarely within the subject matter of God’s Country. Busch compares his vocals to a “dying animal,” while others went with Barney Gumble — but he doesn’t sound all that different in person than on record. He attributes this quality to a naturalistic approach, to find a bespoke death growl by imagining yourself being chased by someone with a knife. “If you can tap into that when you’re doing music, you’re making sandwiches,” he deadpans.
I promise Busch in advance not to belabor the two most commonplace elements of Chat Pile’s narrative thus far — they like Korn and they’re from Oklahoma City. Even though God’s Country has been met with nearly unanimous praise, Busch acknowledges there’s something slightly backhanded about how Chat Pile is projected with inverse credibility — that their dirtbag doomsaying feels more real coming from them instead of, say, a Brooklyn band claiming Swans. “Luckily it hasn’t been rude, like that King Of The Hill episode where Peggy thinks that she’s an artist and that dude is portraying her as a hillbilly outsider,” he jokes. “It hasn’t been that extreme, but people definitely have their own conceptions about what OKC is like. I think a lot of people don’t understand that the internet equalized everything. I can get anything, especially now.”
Despite playing a style of music that had most often been judged by its potency in a live setting, Chat Pile is the type of band that was well-suited to exist almost entirely in Pandemic Time. Busch mentions that he’s 38 years old, and the other members — Luther Manhole, Stin and Cap’n Ron, all pseudonyms sadly — are likewise seasoned vets of Oklahoma’s noise-rock scene, no longer as willing to endure the get-in-the-van lifestyle they might have lionized a decade earlier. Similarly, a newly captive audience seeking claustrophobic, caterwauling music to mirror their quarantined existence accelerated Chat Pile’s rise more than a plum opening slot could. “When you put music on Bandcamp [with the tag] ‘noise rock,’ there are guys out there – people, but mostly guys to be honest – looking for new noise rock and we started to build a little steam,” Busch recalls. Chat Pile’s early EPs began to catch on in some of the…let’s say terminally online spaces of the heavy music internet. “We have a member in our band, he’s an active user on Sputnik and Rate Your Music…or used to be,” Busch explains, himself a former lurker on LiveJournal and MakeoutClub. As with many bands in this realm, positive notice from Anthony Fantano at the Needle Drop caused an immediate surge in Chat Pile’s profile, which peaked this July, when God’s Country received a surprising Best New Music nod at Pitchfork.
The music consolidates various generations of noise-rock fans — the concussive drum sound is sourced from an electronic kit, partially as a tribute to industrial metal icons Godflesh, mostly as a response to their limited amount of practice space. Busch first learned to scream by replicating Frank Black’s demonic performance on “Tame” and God’s Country’s bleak humor places them in a sarcastic sludge lineage of Jesus Lizard to Daughters to Pissed Jeans. However, their detuned, juddering riffs are unquestionably nü, creating another form of context collapse where heavy music fans saw no difference between “Ball Tongue” and “Mouth Breather.”
Even if Chat Pile might seem like an instantaneous success for people who mostly get their fix of heavy music from indie rock websites, rest assured that Busch had been putting in decades of sweat equity, toiling fruitlessly in the Rust Belt heavy music scene. “I have like 20 albums recorded by myself – they used to exist on CD-R,” Busch notes. Knowing where he landed nearly a decade later, the twee folk stylings of “Trust the Trees” might be even more unnerving than, say, “grimace_smoking_weed.jpg.” “We have just been trying to get people to listen to our music for 20 years and I had no expectations to do anything with this,” he continues. “When we were getting a couple thousand listeners on Spotify, I was like, “we are off to the races, boys!’ And then it has exceeded all of our wildest expectations.”
As with most albums created during peak pandemic times, God’s Country has been finished for long enough that the follow-up is already in progress. As for now, Chat Pile are running a victory lap of sorts with the recent release of a soundtrack for the indie film Tenkiller. Based on the film’s name and the sound of God’s Country, most could be forgiven for assuming it’s a horror movie, at least outside of Oklahoma; Busch notes that “it’s a straight-up drama,” and that anyone from the Sooner State would recognize the name of Tenkiller Ferry Lake. One of the film’s creators, Edmond-based noise rock fan Jeremy Choate, read an Oklahoma Gazette piece that compared Chat Pile to Jesus Lizard and reached out to the band – not only with “real money” for the soundtrack but a small role for Busch as a cop. “I didn’t have a lot of lines and I improvised everything,” Busch proudly notes. “They left just about all of it in.”
Busch also alludes to the possibility of new music to tide us over until LP2, but in the meantime, Chat Pile have tried to make the most of their big year. After playing a show in New York where they made a sizable amount of merch money, Chat Pile’s flight got canceled and they decided to make the best of the situation. “We may or may not have gotten LSD from this band in Philly who made a good album this year. We went to Times Square and saw the Seinfeld apartment, you only live once,” Busch laughs. “That was a gravy day, when I’m dying, I’ll be thinking of that day we had in New York City.” If anyone deserved a chance to break character in 2022, it’s Chat Pile.
God’s Country is out now via The Flenser. Get it here.