Perfect Sound Forever


Photo thanks to Eagle Rock Entertainment

by Phil Freeman (April 2003)

One of the great things about insular music scenes like metal is that they allow for a far greater degree of career longevity than the pop mainstream. A band can establish a fan base within a circumscribed community, particularly one which is not only ignored but often actively rejected by the outside world, and receive a far greater loyalty than they would in the larger entertainment universe. This can provide for an interesting reaction in the mainstream media, if a band has a pop hit, or penetrates pop consciousness, early in its career and then reappears again, after a long (perceived) absence. Longtime fans can easily scoff at the myopia when a band they've followed for years is suddenly celebrated like a prodigal.

At the beginning of their career, Ipswich (UK) bred Napalm Death had their moment in the pop-culture sun. They didn't have a hit single, but their incredibly short, fast blasts of sound, hardly deserving to be called "songs" in the traditional sense, had an irrevocable impact on metal. The entire "grindcore" genre can be said to have sprung from their first two albums, Scum and From Enslavement To Obliteration, released on the fledgling British indie label Earache Records. And in the late 1980's (Scum was released in 1987), metal was benefiting from its highest public profile in years, from pop acts like Bon Jovi and Poison to thrash bands like Slayer, Metallica and Megadeth, and Napalm Death found themselves the beneficiaries of a tiny beam of attention. For a few minutes, they were a hip namecheck at the intersection of the punk and metal scenes.

But soon, the alternative-rock press's fascination with the blasting Brits wore off, and it was time to hype the next thing. By the time their third album, Harmony Corruption, was released, Napalm Death had disappeared from the pop-culture radar, but they'd built a loyal fan base within the extreme metal community - indeed, their example inspired numerous bands, establishing grindcore as a legitimate genre which persists to this day in the work of bands like Pig Destroyer, Benumb and hundreds of others.

What interests me about Napalm Death, though, is not their early records, which possess a certain savage vitality but no clear aesthetic vision. I believe that it was only on their fourth album, Utopia Banished, that they became the band they were destined to be all along. It was only on that record, after all, that they finally managed to solidify a permanent lineup, one which has persisted for seven albums (and a fistful of EPs) since. And with their personnel established, they've done the best work of their career, leading up to their 2002 release, Order Of The Leech, one of the strongest records they've ever recorded, and proof that far from atrophying out of sight of the media, bands can often thrive when they're left alone to the attention of only their most loyal fans. Napalm Death are a cult band making music of astonishing power, and have been such for nearly fifteen years at this point.

Live, Napalm are a tremendous force. The guitarists, Jesse Pintado and Mitch Harris, and bassist Shane Embury hold their ground onstage, headbanging as they play but never moving. Drummer Danny Herrera's obviously trapped behind his kit. But Barney Greenway, the band's vocalist, makes up for everyone else's immobility. He's a dervish, running back and forth from one side of the stage to the other with his arms in the air like a gorilla, throwing air-punches and lifting the microphone to his lips just in time to bark a lyric, one harsh denunciation after another. He's the jitteriest frontman since Buster Bloodvessel of Bad Manners, and he's sort of unintentionally hilarious, at least when the band's on tour in America: his inches-thick Birmingham accent makes it hard to decide which is more incomprehensible, his lyrics or his between-song comments.

The most important thing Napalm Death ever did, once they had everybody's attention, was to slow down. Scum and From Enslavement To Obliteration, and even Harmony Corruption, were fine, but the relentless quest for speed was a dead end, and they realized it. Thus, on the album Utopia Banished, they continued their grinding, harsh sound, but reduced it to a more traditional thrash-metal tempo, rather than maintaining the blinding velocity and the two-second "songs" of their earliest records. They were also jettisoning old members, and replacing them, until they achieved the solid, unified lineup that's sustained them to the present day. By the time of 1994's Fear, Emptiness, Despair--an album which was actually picked up for distribution by Columbia Records--the Greenway-Embury-Harris-Pintado-Herrera band was assembled.

The Columbia deal only lasted one record though; Napalm's 1995 follow-up, Diatribes, was released entirely through Earache Records again. The majors really missed out on something, as Diatribes is one of the band's best albums. It opens with one of their most ferocious latter-day tracks, "Greed Killing," and also contains some surprising sonic experiments. "Cursed To Crawl" is particularly powerful, incorporating echo-soaked vocals and a throbbing bassline. The whole impression is of a kind of industrial-strength metal-dub hybrid, like a thrashier version of sounds then being made by Godflesh, Killing Joke and Ice.

Two years later, after a brief, weird singer-swap with Extreme Noise Terror (that band's Phil Vane replaced Barney Greenway, and Greenway in turn took over Vane's spot in ENT), Napalm reunited and returned with Inside The Torn Apart. The disc backed away from the dubwise experimentation of Diatribes, but was an extremely solid, if unsurprising, thrash-metal effort. This was the sound Napalm Death wound up settling on; a furious brand of thrash, informed by a hardcore punk aesthetic. This was evident in the band's graphics, as well as its lyrical approach. Napalm Death have always avoided the gory clichés of death metal in favor of a bleak, if self-aware, cynicism. Their lyrics plumb the depths of post-industrial paranoia and despair, with occasional side trips into vocalist Barney Greenway's explicitly socialist politics.

Their music, too, has always, even in later years, reflected the influence of punk and post-punk. This is most noticeable in the near-total absence of guitar solos in their songs. They don't want to slow down long enough, and that's what gives their albums and live shows such furious, headlong momentum. This is demonstrated on the live release Bootlegged In Japan, an actual bootleg of a 1996 Tokyo show from the Diatribes tour. (The band found a copy themselves, and, recognizing its merits as a document and demonstration of their might, had Earache release it in 1998.) The show illustrates the band's view of their own history; while five songs from Scum make the set-list, along with three from From Enslavement To Obliteration, and two from Harmony Corruption, only one song from the experimental (and, in many minds, disappointing) Utopia Banished is performed. The performance is lightning-quick, savage and unremitting; it's one of the best live records in contemporary metal, practically an ideal introduction to the band.

The same year they released Bootlegged In Japan, Napalm Death closed out their relationship with Earache Records, releasing their final studio album for the label, Words From the Exit Wound. It was no contract-filler, either. Words was one of the band's most furious and instrumentally potent efforts to date, finding Pintado incorporating an almost space-rock sound into the band's roaring thrash. It was their third straight album with producer Colin Richardson, one of the architects of early-‘90's technical death metal, and by that time he and they knew exactly what to expect from each other. Napalm played to their strengths, but at the same time they felt the freedom to strike out in new musical directions, at least as far as the actual sound was concerned. Tempos and rhythms remained breakneck and furious, but the guitars were placed higher in the mix, avoiding the wall-of-sound approach of previous records and creating something close to a mainstream thrash sound. Words From the Exit Wound, promoted properly, could have brought Napalm Death to a larger audience than they'd previously enjoyed, but battles with the label prevented either side from truly capitalizing on their sonic achievement.

When the band re-emerged in 2001, they were signed to Spitfire Records, a label that initially seemed like the new CMC—a home for hard-rock acts past their hitmaking prime. The label had been on a relative hot streak lately, though, putting out Ted Nugent's best record in 20 years, Craveman, and signing Napalm Death. Enemy Of The Music Business, the band's Spitfire debut, was faster than anything they'd done since Harmony Corruption. In some ways, this made the record a little monotonous; they'd seemingly abandoned some of the subtle thrash dynamics they'd incorporated throughout the 1990s, possibly in an attempt to prove they still had it. This creates a kind of wall-of-noise feel after the first seven or eight tracks, and anyhow, no such efforts were really necessary. The initial feeling of corporal punishment vanishes after repeated plays, though; eventually, Enemy Of The Music Business becomes simply a very powerful Napalm Death record, and the perfect lead-in to their 2002 release, Order Of The Leech.

Order Of The Leech is a return to the band's late-90's form. It's not as relentless as Enemy, and features a renewed focus on songwriting over brutality for its own sake. Though the album's first track, "Continuing War On Stupidity," sets a furious pace which is more than maintained throughout the disc's running time, there's the same sort of subtlety and craft evident that was the key to earlier records like Fear, Emptiness, Despair and Words From the Exit Wound. In a year that saw terrific releases from metal bands both old (Immortal, Motörhead, Destruction) and new (Yakuza, Arch Enemy), Napalm Death more than held their own.

It's unlikely that anyone outside the metal scene is ever going to pay attention to Napalm Death again. For a brief moment, they were a fashionable namecheck. But that kind of attention is often a curse rather than a blessing, and it's only been in the relative pop-culture darkness of cultdom that they've been able to really bring their musical ideas to fruition. Even a band whose music seemed so simplistic it couldn't possibly be fucked up—the Ramones—couldn't ever recapture their innate greatness, in more than fleeting doses after 1979 and it was mostly due, in my view, to their embrace by the chattering classes of rockcrit. Once the Ramones were made to stand for something, their hand was forced. They had to change the formula, because to stand still wouldn't imply purity, but stagnation. Motörhead flirted with dilution, too, on a few records in the mid-90s. Why put acoustic ballads on albums like 1916 and March Or Die? Because there was the possibility of attracting new fans, and keeping reviewers happy. Napalm Death have no such problems. They know what they do best. So did the Ramones, so do Motörhead. But unlike those two acts, nobody's thought Napalm Death were hip in at least 15 years. And because nobody but diehards cares what they do, they're free to create their art on their own terms. Thank God for that.

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