Retrospective: Dystopia’s “Human = Garbage”

The first five minutes and 49 seconds of Dystopia’s Human = Garbage EP, originally released in 1994, are legendary. The song is “Stress Builds Character” and it opens with a horrifying screamed-word intro that summed up all the despondence of the California power violence scene: “I don’t even like money… I need a raise, man,” our freaked-out narrator barks at us before the song proper begins and he sings, “Life’s been swell, now I want to die.”

And so it begins.

Human = Garbage, originally released as a five-song EP—which we’ll discuss here, but the 72-minute reissued version with extra tracks from splits with Suffering Luna and the mighty Grief and one unreleased song is totally worth checking out and is a whole different listening experience—was a huge part of what made California power violence so great at the time: it was real, it was honest, and, sonically, there were no rules. Much of this EP doesn’t really sound like anything in particular: it goes from sludge to d-beat to trippy-guitar-guy stuff just like that. And it doesn’t care if you’re not along for the ride.

So, we mentioned opener “Stress Builds Character” already, and we can’t really mention it enough, because the song is an incredible documentation of lives unravelling then coming back together through extreme music. I held on to this song pretty hard as a young man, as I suspect lots of us who bowed at the altar of Cry Now, Cry Later did.

Next up is “Hands that Mold,” a weirdo sludge rocker with another deranged vocal performance (here: the whole EP is filled with weirdo deranged vocal performances). Am I the only one who was able to mentally wander the streets of bad parts of California through these guitar sounds? And speaking of bad parts of California, the tale goes that recording for the EP started three hours after bassist Todd Kiessling got out of jail on bail. No idea if that’s true or not, but I’m not even going to look into it, because that’s exactly the kind of lore that I want to believe is true about Dystopia.

Then there’s “Sanctity.”

“When Ed awoke on March 1, he was filled with a self-loathing he could not endure.”

Oh, man. This song… six minutes of absolute misery, featuring samples about suicide layered over a slow, bass-led sludge dirge that eventually, at about 1:22, explodes.

“It’s purely a business decision. I hope you can understand that.”

Ugh. “Sanctity” is almost too much to handle. The vocals are near-awkward to listen to, they’re so full of honest despair. And the long, slow-burn build-up of the whole thing is another example of Dystopia’s odd and unique style: seriously, they sound like no other band. Let’s give them a bit more recognition for that.

“Ignorance of Pride” is up next, the 3:24 song being relatively straightforward and upbeat, spinning a lyrical yarn of murder tied to societal issues: “You killed again today/she was 12 years old… and you killed again today/he overdosed on drugs/he was a friend of mine.” This song packs an incredible punch not for its music but for the lyrics and vocal delivery. And while this isn’t exactly Chomsky-level analysis, sometimes simple is better: “Racism starts with a twisted idea/genocide starts with the squeeze of a trigger/both are easy to do/both are fucking stupid.”

“Love/Hate” ends off the EP with that sample, the band managing to take something sweet and make it sound like a bad nightmare/trip, before some more horrid samples (and one classic, hilarious one: “Mother fucker… food eater!”) come in over twisted, bad-trip noise courtesy of the band, who you just imagine laying down these tracks behind a garbage can in the worst part of California, members of Despise You straggling past, everyone just totally out of it, the band finally coming together here at around the two-minute mark to create about 14 seconds of music before it falls apart again. Repeat, repeat, oh god, repeat, then, oh god: the closing sample.

And then it’s done, 27 minutes of horrifying emotion and musical experimentation that, in some ways, hasn’t been matched today. Dystopia aren’t spoken of as much as other underground bands of that era, but there are those of us who will never forget. There’s a reason why Human = Garbage stunned us all when it came out: it’s a masterpiece of underground extremity, one that has no rules and absolutely does not care about the listener whatsoever, which is always how the best music is created.