Just as they missed the boat with rap, the champions of “alternative” music refused to acknowledge a new alternative several years later when it arose from the English hinterlands in the form of grindcore, a virulent mutation of the most extreme elements of hardcore, metal and industrial. This blurred sonic cesspool just might be the death of traditional music: in its purest form, grind’s five-to-90-second blasts of time-defying beats, hyper-distorted guitars and unintelligible growls and shrieks contain no verses, choruses or anything nice at all, just exploding bites of encapsulated hate and rage.
Formed around 1981, vaguely in line with the British hardcore and Crass-related tribes, Napalm Death made its vinyl debut on the third Bullshit Detector sampler. Crass’ influence is clear in both Scum‘s structureless metal-core blur and its cover art. Although the album’s 28 tracks were recorded in two sessions eight months apart (with different lineups, to boot: guitarist Justin Broadrick left after the first to form Head of David and, later, Godflesh; he was replaced by Bill Steer of Carcass), the songs are indistinguishable to all but the most carefully attuned ears; Lee Dorrian’s larynx-shredding nightmares of a contaminated world explode on impact with the sonic holocaust. Several tracks are under five seconds; “You Suffer (But Why?)” actually reaches the one-second mark.
Grindcore quickly outgrew its “extreme hardcore” parentage in virtually every category except intelligibility. From Enslavement to Obliteration lengthens the songs but maintains a superhuman intensity level, with a distinct early-Swans influence adding an even more sadistic twist. The scathing lyrics attack a mind-boggling array of topics. (“Cock Rock Alienation” quotes Rudimentary Peni and contains the priceless lines, “Who cares if they’ve got no brains / Give us tits and tools / We love it when you feed us shit.”) First pressings came with a five-song bonus EP; Scum and four from the EP are included on the 54-track From Enslavement CD.
Enslavement rallied the likeminded bands that had arisen in England, Europe and Japan into a full-fledged international grind movement. John Zorn championed the band Stateside, forming a Napalm-ish “jazzcore” outfit called Naked City with Boredoms vocalist Yamatsuko Eye. (Zorn and Napalm drummer Mick Harris later recorded the Painkiller album, The Guts of a Virgin, with Bill Laswell.)
The Mentally Murdered EP presents a more articulate (yet no less savage) sound, its advanced and better-structured songs suggesting a promising new direction, putting a thrash metal tinge where its predecessor’s industrial accent had been. Napalm Death is a hopelessly rare 7-inch recorded live on the band’s European tour in November ’88; the apparently titleless Japanese EP offers six rough but otherwise unissued tracks plus a half-dozen cuts by a local outfit. Cut in ’87 and ’88, The Peel Sessions crams a total of 26 songs (including several rarities) into an awesomely brutal 21-minute listening experience.
Vocalist Lee Dorrian and guitarist Bill Steer left in mid-’89, the former to form Cathedral, positively the slowest, lowest-tuned band ever; Steer to concentrate full-time on Carcass. Remaining bassist Shane Embury and drummer Mick Harris recruited metalhead vocalist Mark “Barney” Greenway (ex-Benediction) and two American poison-pen pals for guitar duties — Jesse Pintado (of Terrorizer) and Mitch (different from Mick) Harris (of Righteous Pigs) — thus arriving at its first semblance of internal stability. The thrash metalers helped remake Napalm in their own style: first-class, but no longer innovative. In an attempt to conform with the thriving world of death metal, Harmony Corruption is Napalm Death’s most disappointing moment. Predictable thrash tracks like “Unfit Earth” and “Vision Conquest” owe too much to influential but monotonous punk metal bands like Death and Repulsion. The album concentrates the metallic elements of Mentally Murdered: lightning-fast drums, buzzsaw riffs and Greenway’s wolfman vocals push the band firmly into Slayer territory. Initial British vinyl copies came with a live LP that includes an awesome cover of Godflesh’s “Avalanche Master Song.” The British CD adds a bonus studio cut and the entire Mentally Murdered EP (also available on its own CD); the American CD only includes the studio track, “Hiding Behind.”
Mass Appeal Madness, a raw-in-the-studio rapid-fire romp through two new cuts and new versions of two older songs, finds the band in much looser form than on Harmony Corruption and promisingly suggests a return to their trademark sound, high-pitched screams and all. The American edition adds two non-LP tracks of Harmony Corruption vintage, as well as the Mentally Murdered EP. The thirteen-song Death by Manipulation collects the Mentally Murdered, Suffer the Children and Mass Appeal Madness EPs and more ferocious grindcore. Raw production serves the band’s intensity well, as the blend embraces wicked minor-key metal and wild moments of hyperactive abandon. A European version includes tracks from a 1987 split EP with influential Japanese blurcore group S.O.B. For collectors, Earache also issued the limited-edition Live Corruption and the deluxe boxed Live at Salisbury.
Mick Harris left Napalm Death in 1992 to pursue computer music in Scorn and play the part of avant-garde enfant terrible in projects with John Zorn and Bill Laswell. Utopia Banished shows a slight improvement in the band’s situation, thanks to the unrestrained drumming of Californian Danny Herrera and the introduction of atmospheric elements on “Contemptuous.” Lyrically, the song “Aryanisms” takes a strong stand against the fascist tendencies brewing among the genre’s adherents: “Challenge the sordid claims to purify,” bellows Greenway in his usual voice from the cesspool of hell. “I cannot begin to comprehend how you wear such shame with vigour / Homophobic race antagonist / Harmony can only flourish with mutual regard.”
With only Embury remaining from the early lineups, Napalm Death began to evolve beyond its legacy, touring Russia, the Middle East, Asia and other regions hungry for Western decadence. Released after a trip to South Africa, Nazi Punks Fuck Off includes three versions of the titular Dead Kennedys song, musically unremarkable but significant as a further indication of leftist sentiment — a courageous stand as such contemporaries as Morbid Angel and Deicide were irresponsibly preaching quite the opposite.
Fear, Emptiness, Despair, Napalm Death’s major-label experiment, shows the same lineup binding bleak English punk roots with the progressive metal aggression of its three-fifths American membership. As the whirlwind thrashes forward on “Retching on the Dirt,” a guitar or an extra beat is always riffing back in tense counterpoint. The band’s dissonance becomes a conscious effect, not a side benefit of chaos, and the marriage of intense anger and calculation yields a near-masterpiece of passionate negative realism.
Released after an uncharacteristically long silence, Greed Killing points the way toward further change, combining two Napalm-style attempts at accessibility with a few short blasters and one live track (Fear, Emptiness, Despair‘s “Plague Rages”). Something is up, as the band’s massive presence has been transliterated into sonic terms more familiar to Björk than Bolt Thrower.
With drums coming down in constant flurries and Greenway roaring his brains (or at least his uvula) out, Diatribes still manages to slow the pace and sound fairly airy. Repetitive discordant guitars find memorable hooks and create heavy, haunting background as intricate rhythms pile up on each other in a well-orchestrated onslaught. Whether metal fans or the pop scene are prepared for radio-ready grindcore, “Just Rewards” and “Glimpse Into Genocide” are relatively mainstream rock songs, an indication that Napalm Death’s long-term achievement may not be as idiomatic exemplars, but as genre-destroying innovators.
On their own, guitarist Mitch Harris and bassist Shane Embury have taken advantage of corporate backing to record with their friends and drum machines. Embury and vocalist Lou Koller of Sick of It All present a harshly digitized vision of hardcore as Blood From the Soul: To Spite the Gland That Breeds is anger taken to the point of exhaustion. (Most biologically dubious lyric: “Tendons on a nerve edge / Spasms uncontrolled.”) There’s more breathing room in Harris’ Meathook Seed, Skinny Puppy-style metal psychedelia executed with the help of Embury and two members of Obituary.