An ongoing, ever-mutating adventure into a brutal ultraworld, Birmingham-spawned Godflesh was formed in 1988 by ex-Napalm Death guitarist Justin Broadrick (who’d just finished a stint as Head of David’s drummer) and bassist G. Christian (“Benny”) Green. Godflesh is a sonic bulldozer, its ultra-low tunings and distant, disembodied vocals (not unlike Pornography-era Cure) creating a bass-heavy lava flow of sound that fuses early Swans with a half-speed Sabbath. Using a numbingly precise drum machine, tornado guitar, bass from another dimension and a mind-melting array of tape loops and effects, the band projects almost no midrange — high frequencies skitter well above the bottom-feeding throb. Heaviness raised to a singular mission.
Streetcleaner is more industrial, cluttered and even more powerful and destructive than the debut. Sounds attack from all angles (some cuts include guitarist Paul Neville, who’d played with Broadrick and Green in the pre-Napalm Death Fall of Because); seemingly unrelated elements frequently run simultaneously. But with the exception of the pulsing “Dead Head,” the album jolts where its predecessor grooved.
Godflesh’s next phase — incorporating a strong influence from the burgeoning techno movement — emerged on Slavestate, concurrent compilation tracks and bonus cuts. The debut’s 1990 reissue includes two new tracks, one of which is the staggering “Wounds,” a twelve-minute sci-fi shooting gallery of beats and effects so hard it hurts. The Slavestate mini-album (with distorted remixes and “Wound ’91,” the CD totals nine tracks and runs nearly an hour) catches the band thrashing onto the (dance)floor, giving Streetcleaner’s lurch-and-crunch the twist of a clunky rhythmic basis and winding up in a harsh and forbidding realm where Foetus might be found fronting Einstürzende Neubauten with Al Jourgensen mixing the sound.
Neville left to pursue his band, Cable Regime, full-time and was replaced on Pure by ex-Loop guitarist Robert Hampson. (A year earlier, Loop and Godflesh had covered each other’s songs — alternately credited to Fleshloop and Loopflesh — on a split 7-inch.) Although the album is a straightforward compromise between grindcore (slow, bludgeoning riffs, shouted, raw vocals, slathering solos that neither begin nor quite end) and industrial thrash (impersonal electronic beats, endless, aimless repetition of elementary ideas, monstrous sonic density heaped on to the point of impossibility), the incongruous element is the swing of the thing. Songs like “Spite,” “Mothra” and “Don’t Bring Me Flowers” have a definite groove along with the rocket in the band’s pocket. Other tracks (such as “Baby Blue Eyes”) reshoulder a trusty jackhammer, but the standouts truly stand out. As a bonus (and further confounding those expecting one thing or another from Godflesh), the CD contains “Pure II,” a 20-minute feedback treat for ambience addicts.
Hampson’s stint with the band lasted only a matter of months before he plunged full-time into Main; he was not replaced. Alone with their machines, Broadrick and Green made the thuggish, monotonous four-song Merciless EP — blame a lack of conceptual friction for its failings. That unlikely major-label debut paved the way for Selfless, reportedly inspired by the John Coltrane song of the same name (although Blue Note fans are well advised to steer clear). Institutionalizing another set of stylistic precepts — dropping the techno inclinations for slow-motion Melvins meltdown surrealism and variations on Chicago skronk ratchetry — the album shares the EP’s tendency toward tedium, but doesn’t succumb to it. Some tracks do devolve into thundering riff loops that are numbing in their glacial progress, but “Empyreal,” the screaming “Crush My Soul,” “Heartless” and the semi-restrained “Mantra” all demonstrate an incipient sense of melody and dynamics beneath all the radioactive grunge. (Following Pure‘s plan, the CD concludes with a generous bonus: the 24-minute “Go Spread Your Wings.”)
Godflesh’s members have indulged in a mind-boggling array of side projects; there are probably more than have reached our ears. Final is the group’s ambient alter ego (released in America on Bill Laswell’s Subharmonic label) and resembles Godflesh’s more atmospheric album tracks. Green has played on an album by Swedish avant-jazz masters 16.17, as well as Main’s Motion Pool. Broadrick has produced records for Terminal Power Company and Cable Regime, played remixer-for-hire (Pantera, Murder Inc. and others) and done several projects with British noise impresario Kevin Martin: touring and recording with God, recording as Techno Animal and trance dub ensemble Ice. He also works with Cochrane and drummer Scott Kiehl (aka SDK of England’s Slab) in Sweet Tooth. Finally, Broadrick’s solo LP contains several neo-ambient “guitar manipulations,” paired with a separate album from Laswell associate Andy Hawkins. Somehow, Broadrick finds the time to run his own label, Head Dirt.