The sophomore LP by California grindcore miscreants Cretin is their first since frontwoman Marissa Martinez-Hoadley came out as transgender, but anyone hoping (or fearing) that it would be her Transgender Dysphoria Blues should start looking for another narrative. Stranger isn’t particularly interested in its own mythology.
What it’s interested in is pummeling, and it does that well, retrofitting Exhumed-like bursts of shredding to economical Repulsion song structures. It’s easy to attribute that to the fact that Martinez-Hoadley, drummer Col Jones and bassist Matt Widener have done time in those bands, but that misses the huge contributions from Dreaming Dead guitarist Elizabeth Schall. Her frenetic, Slayer-indebted playing invigorates tracks that might feel rote without her presence. She plays all the solos on Stranger, and each is thrilling. The one that ushers album closer “How to Wreck Your Life in Three Days” to its conclusion is especially revelatory.
If the addition of Schall is the biggest thing separating Stranger from 2006′s Freakery, the lyrical maturation isn’t far behind. Where Freakery tended to present its vignettes for shock value alone, the stories here are far more clever, and they perfect the pitch-black comedy that ham-fisted older tracks like “A Fowl Fetish” and “Walking a Midget” failed to achieve.
At their best, the lyrics on Stranger, written by Widener, recall the work of Pig Destroyer‘s J.R. Hayes, though the protagonists tend to have odder obsessions than Hayes’s gallery of stalkers and murderers. “Honey and Venom” depicts a woman who hugs a beehive and commands its tenants; the title character of “Mister Frye, the Janitor Guy” fertilizes his beautiful garden with stolen sewage.
While there’s nothing as personal as Freakery‘s de facto trans anthem “Daddy’s Little Girl,” Stranger is the work of a more mature band operating at a higher level. It treats Martinez-Hoadley’s transition as a footnote rather than a focal point. Stranger sells itself on the strength of its songs, and that’s more than enough.