I grew up in a family that loved comedy. Name any comedy programme from the 1990s and I can guarantee we used to watch it in my house. From Simpsons at 6pm every day to The Fast Show, Smack the Pony, Big Train, Never Mind the Buzzcocks, Absolutely Fabulous, Have I Got News For You, They Think It’s All Over, Shooting Stars and beyond, the art of taking the regular, the everyday, and subverting it, making it other, was an integral part of my development, and probably explains my often misplaced sense of humour as an adult. On an almost daily basis I will be in conversation with people and begin laughing to myself at elements of the discussion that are only apparent to myself. This brings me great joy.
One TV show that seemed to elude me, at least until I was probably 12 years old, was Brass Eye. For whatever reason, it just slipped past me. Its notoriety, however, was always there. I’d seen clips in those “50 best…” programmes and was familiar with the “Bad AIDS” sketch — on a side note, I genuinely watched the TV show which declared Stewart Lee the 41st best stand-up comedian ever, and remember not really getting the Princess Diana joke they used as a clip — but the actual experience of watching Brass Eye eluded me. As a result, it had the same status in my mind as 18-rated films, or knife crime, or heroin; these things that you knew existed, they were out there, but they were just too taboo for you to possibly be allowed to encounter.
Needless to say, I did eventually watch Brass Eye and fell in love. If comedy is about deconstruction and subversion, what Chris Morris did with that show is arguably the greatest demonstration of the artform of the 1990s. A few years later, the older friend of a girlfriend’s sister assumed the role of a dealer pushing the harder stuff to a jaded customer — “Of course, his best work was on Blue Jam”. A week later he gave me a burnt CDR of Blue Jam episodes and I sat down to listen. Fourteen-year old Gregk was changed for ever, and to this day I still haven’t quite gotten my head around what I listened to. Later I would read a profile piece on Chris Morris that explained his method along the lines of; “Chris Morris doesn’t do what he does because he thinks it’s funny. He’s asking a question. Is this funny?”
Around about the same time, I was getting really into metal and hardcore music, courtesy of a friend who introduced me to Australian grindcore band The Berzerker. Eventually he put me onto this math/grind band from Providence, Rhode Island, called Daughters. The first song I heard was titled, ‘And then the CHUDS came’, clocking in at 1 minute and 25 seconds in length. The album it came from, Canada Songs, had 10 tracks and was 11 minutes in total.
Needless to say, Canada Songs is an absolute headfuck of an album, but this wasn’t a typical grindcore album. There were no drop-B guitar tunings, no gutter vocals, no breakdowns, no tired, clichéd, tedious metal scene tropes. Where other bands played as low and gritty as possible, Daughters played nasal, whiny, high-pitched music that totally reconstructed grindcore as a genre. This wasn’t about being “brutal”. This was a demonstration of what madness actually sounds like.
For their 2006 sophomore, Hell Songs, Daughters reconfigured, doubling their album length to a staggering 23 minutes and doing away with most of the distortion on their guitars. Most polarizing, though, was vocalist Alexis Marshall’s decision to do away with his traditional screaming vocals, replacing them with a surly, disconcerting spoken word delivery that sounds somewhere between a drunken lounge singer and what you’d imagine Elvis must have sounded like toward the very end. Marshall justified this move by stating that he was sick of people not understanding what he was saying, the irony being that these vocals were often just as indecipherable, and even more alienating to most listeners than ear-piercing screams, if that’s even possible.
The band’s final album, Daughters, was released in 2010, and was received well, with many critics describing it as their most commercial album yet. In all fairness, they had a point; the production sounded almost traditional; the song names were radio-friendly and a reasonable length (so long ‘My Stereo Has Mono and So Does My Girlfriend’, hello ‘The First Supper’); some of the songs actually had a verse-chorus-verse structure; one song was even actually called ‘The Hit’ and you can genuinely imagine it being played on a radio station. Maybe not a big one, but in the context of Daughters that’s a big fucking deal.
8 tracks, 27 minutes, traditional artwork, self-titled, all the songs at a radio-friendly 3 minute length, with any other band this would be a roaring success, but if you knew Daughters at all then you knew something was up.
The band split before the album even released due to creative differences. Later, Marshall would dismiss the album as too commercial and contrived. For what it’s worth, there’s really nothing wrong with the album, it’s got it’s catchy moments and it still has those essential Daughters qualities, but it’s also fair to say that it was a pretty big departure from the sound they’d built their name on.
To give some clarity to this article about a band that 90% of people will probably have never heard of, Daughters were by no means an unknown band. They supported Fall of Troy on their European tour in 2007, as well as Russian Circles’ 2008 US tour, and they had close ties to a lot of the big names in the scene at the time. They headlined a show at the Engine Rooms in Brighton when I was about 15, a show which remains to this day the best show I’ve ever been to. To go into the details here would be pretty much impossible, but it involves vomit, nudity and microphones in places that microphones shouldn’t be. Debauchery. Pure debauchery.
I started this article talking about Chris Morris and subversion. The reason I talk about that stuff is because, in my opinion, there was a great deal of that in Daughters’ music. Firstly, like all genres, Metal and all of its subsections is rife with clichés, tropes, repetition and tedium. A few years back I decided to track down all the old albums I used to listen to and let nostalgia take hold, and it was only as a grown adult that I realised how many of those bands peddled the same old shit in a different tuning. A lot of it really was not good. But then that was what makes Daughters so great, because rather than get stuck in that cycle, everything they did was a massive ‘fuck you’ to convention.
Every time metal got louder and heavier, Daughters moved closer toward traditional sound. Standard tuning. No distortion. Clean vocals. Every time metal became more obsessed with gory lyrics, grim subject matter, blood and guts, Alexis Marshall doubled down on the simplicity of his songs; they’re all about fucking. Every single one. ‘I want to be the perfect quality to your three-pronged fingertips; the canine nose in your crotch. I want to watch you undress through the keyhole. You make me cum like never before.’ / ‘You’re wishing for a belt of human hair and teeth.’ / ‘This is how you sell when there is no product in the store. This is how you enter without a handle on the door.’ Every time metal tried to break convention by becoming ever more conventional, Daughters fucked with convention itself and created music that was infinitely more groundbreaking.
Between Hell Songs and their final album, guitarist Nick Sadler formed Fang Island, an instrumental indie-rock band that played music that couldn’t be further from Daughters if they tried. Sparkly, sunshine, bubblegum, singalong pop. Really great songwriting, but so disturbing from a guy whose other band wrote such disturbing music. But that just adds to the whole mythos of Daughters to me. The anti-pop element of Daughters is no accident.
In the third series of his Comedy Vehicle programme, there’s a moment where Stewart Lee tells a really conventional joke and the audience bursts out laughing, and he turns to the camera and says, ‘I can write jokes. I just choose not to.’ There’s a similar kind of feeling with that final Daughters album. Something really subversive about writing an album that is more commercial and accessible than anything they’d done before, but only so much that you could just about recognise those qualities. It was never a case of Daughters not being able to write conventional metal — or conventional pop music, for that matter — it was simply a choice not to. It was about challenging convention and showing how much can be done when you stop allowing convention to restrain you.
In Richard T. Kelly’s book “The Name of this Book is Dogme95”, the writer interviews Lars Von Trier and Tomas Vinterberg, founders of the Dogme film movement which birthed Festen, Harmony Korine’s Julien Donkey-Boy, The Idiots, asking what motivated them to create such a deliberately restrictive and confrontational set of rules. Von Trier responds that the angry responses they got from other directors was precisely the reason. “If you tell a filmmaker the only artificial light they can use is a torch tied to their camera, they say, “Then I’ll show you what I can do with a torch tied to a camera!””
That’s the kind of feeling I get from Daughters’ music. If you take away all the bullshit that most metal bands hide behind, would they still be able to tear your face off? And the answer is usually no. The fact is, most metal vocalists sound amazing on recording, but the moment you hear them live they sound like they’re gargling sand. Alexis Marshall just gave it up and decided to sing like William Shatner falling down a well. The effect is so much more chilling, for an entirely different reason.
That quote about Chris Morris treating comedy as a question, then, feels relevant to what I’m talking about here. Daughters never really set out to be the most popular band in the world. Spend five minutes listening to their music and you’ll be able to make your mind up whether this is a band for you or not, and the answer will probably be no. But for me there’s always been something incredible about a band that, despite breaking almost every single rule in the genre, still ends up in the ‘metal’ category at the record store. And not because it sounds anything like metal. Because it’s just too fucking weird to go anywhere else in the store.