Thursday, September 5, 2013

Fear, Emptiness, Despair: Ranking the Work of Napalm Death Mk. 3

Napalm Death fans generally fall into two categories. There are those perceptive individuals among us who believe their finest moment was Scum, particularly Side A (aka, those who are RIGHT) and untrustworthy mountebanks who argue the band’s best representation was From Enslavement to Obliteration (aka everyone else who is WRONG).  But endlessly debating the relative merits of two albums (especially since we’ve already established the correct answer is Scum Side A) kinda ignores the fact that the band has recorded a dozen other albums since.
The quintet of Mark “Barney” Greenway, Shane Embury, Mitch Harris, Jesse Pintado and Danny Herrera—in various juxtapositions over two decades—took their predecessors’ grind and alloyed it with spine of death metal crunch and crust punk apocalypse, forging a  new middle path that was often delivered in the same indecipherable gibberish language that the cast of The Red Riding Trilogy tried to pass off as English. And whatever you might think about the legitimacy of Napalm Death Mk. 3, that’s an assload of material worth consideration and closer scrutiny. So let’s rank the work of the lineup that has defined Napalm Death for past two decades.

12. Inside the Torn Apart

The accurately-titled Inside the Torn Apart was the low point of Napalm Death’s nearly three decades history. Tensions in the band were so fraught that Napalm Death and Extreme Noise Terror briefly swapped singers. Once heads cooled and apologies were exchanged, Napalm Death completed their 1997 album, a frustrating, nearly blastbeat-free record that sounds just as off kilter and out of synch as the band was at the time. While leadoff track “Breed to Breathe” was an adequate entry into Napalm Death’s catchy crusted death metal arsenal—at least as far as their mid-‘90s output goes—the album quickly tails off after that as passionless songs blur into a mire that was one egomaniacal therapist and a film crew away from being Some Kind of Monster.

11. Time Waits for No Slave
Century Media

After a late career renaissance that peaked with the superlative Smear Campaign, Napalm Death stubbed their toe a little with Time Waits for No Slave. Not a bad album necessarily, but there’s just something flat about the proceedings that felt leaden after its punk toned predecessor. Time Waits for No Slave is a little overlong at 50 minutes and some judicious pruning could have made this a tighter banger overall. There are still some great moments like that roaring “Diktat,” which finds Barney snarling his way into paroxysms of moralizing outrage, which is pretty much everything you demand from Napalm Death these days.

10. The Code is Red…Long Live the Code
Century Media

After a pair of supremely aggressive and punchy albums in Enemy of the Music Business and Order of the Leech, Napalm Death returned to the comfort and familiarity of their death metal fetish for their first Century Media effort and official debut as a quartet. While it lacks the speed and pop of its twin predecessors, The Code is Red…Long Live the Code finds Napalm Death hitting a comfortable stride as death metal elder statesman, focusing more on their own fun than meeting any fan’s or critic’s expectations. In that vein, Napalm Death corralled a whole host of their friends, including Jeff Walker, Jello Biafra and Jamey Jasta for a sing-along effort that hearkens back to the way hardcore bands were always piling in and out of each other’s albums on guest spots. It’s certainly not the strongest album to ever bear the Napalm Death logo, but it’s probably the closest the band has ever come to just kicking back and throwing a party.

9. Fear, Emptiness, Despair

For traditional grind fans who stuck with Napalm Death through the decidedly more death metal shift of Harmony Corruption and the Mick Harris-less Utopia Banished, this is probably where things got wonky and they started to jump ship. Fear, Emptiness, Despair is not a bad death metal album at all. In fact, it's a pretty good death metal album. It’s just not what you would have expected from Napalm Death if you were a fan forged in the late ‘80s or early ‘90s. The blast beats come farther apart and there’s more emphasis on writing perceptible song structures than there is on savaging the legacy of hardcore. The art, which nods back to the famous Amebix face, hinted at the crust that still lurked in Napalm Death’s core, but now that was being hammered in the forge of death metal to create a perverse new alloy that maybe wasn’t to everyone’s taste.

8. Diatribes

Diatribes represents a confounding transitional album for Napalm Death. On one hand, it boasts some of the best songs that particular lineup ever crafted in “Greed Killing,” “Corrosive Elements” and “Cursed to Crawl.” But it was also hampered by a glossy, too clean production job that was almost poppy, sapping the band of any bass heft and neutering their rage. Now I remember the mid-‘90s and, in retrospect, we can all acknowledge it was an…odd…period for Western civilization. But whoever told Napalm fucking Death that green and purple would be an appropriate color scheme needs to have what little is left of their taste slapped right out of their mouth. Also videos apparently demanded random Asians? But to get a proper appreciation of these songs, seek out one of Napalm Death’s later BBC sessions where they just ripped “Greed Killing” live. Mitch Harris was down with the flu so Jesse Pintado handled the whole song solo and killed it. It’s rather poignant when you think about what would happen to him in the next decade.

7. Words From the Exit Wound

Napalm Death’s Earache kiss off Words From the Exit Wound is an underappreciated effort, reveling in the sound that they should have captured for Diatribes with another handful of punked out death metal songs that hit like cannons. Actual bass tones, what a novel concept! Songs like “The Infiltraitor” were the kind of explosive detonations fans had come to expect from that lineup and that era of the band. But then, in a harbinger for strangeness to come, Napalm Death also threw in a few curveballs like the slow build landmine of “Next of Kin to Chaos,” the odd “Trio-Degradable/Affixed by Disconcern” and the first hints of the Gregorian chanting vocals that would sneak into plenty of their later efforts. Words From the Exit Wound is an all around strange little critter and that’s part of its perverse charm. You could tell Napalm Death were feeling restless, ready to cut ties with the label that had made them and suddenly there were no more barriers. Anything could be tried. Wearing my spiffy Words From the Exit Wounds concert tee at a show in DC in 1999 once got me groped by a metal celebrity. But that’s a story for another day.

6. Order of the Leech

Order of the Leech saw Napalm Death continuing down the path they blazed with Enemy of the Music Business. It still wasn’t quite a true grind record, but it nodded back to the death-grind hybrid of Utopia Banished. Napalm Death were pissed (in all senses of the word) once again. If you wouldn’t listen they would grab you by the throat and start ranting into your ear until you were hacked off enough to finally get up off your indolent ass and start doing something about the shitty state of the world. Songs like the grammatically challenged “Out of Sight Out of Mind” found that sweet spot where Barney’s commanding vocals crested some of the catchiest, punkiest tunes the band had ever penned and performed. And about those guitars—though he’s credited on the album, Jesse Pintado didn’t play a note on the record. His health and relationship with the band were frazzling at that point and shortly after Order of the Leech he’d set off to recreate Terrorizer before eventually succumbing to a fatal combination of alcoholism and diabetes. It says a lot about Napalm Death's character that they gave him full credit anyway.

5. Utilitarian
Century Media

If you told me in advance that album number 14 would Napalm Death’s most varied, experimental and downright enjoyable in their cannon as well as one of the best records of 2012, I would have politely inquired about your delicate mental health. But there it is. Shows how much I know. While I could still do with a tad less of the chanting, I can’t deny that Utilitarian was a whopper of a record that spanned Napalm Death Mk. 3’s career from excitingly intense pit-stirrers like “Collision Course” to the John Zorn horn freakout of “Everyday Pox” and the Voivodian “The Wolf I Feed.” There’s something here that every fan who has stuck by the band through shit and shine can be totally fucking chuffed about. Twenty years on we’re not looking for this lineup to innovate anymore. Instead, we just want them to bang out exciting albums that build on the groove they’ve worn into the earth. If they happen to crack a few new ruts along the way, all the better.

4. Utopia Banished

After Mick Harris’ ceremonial defenestration, Napalm Death recruited a new drummer in Danny Herrera and turned out an album that sounds pretty much exactly what you’d expect the guys responsible for Terrorizer, Righteous Pigs and Defecation to pull together. After the pure death metal pivot of Harmony Corruption, Utopia Banished brought sexy back with a leaner, more hungry effort that played grindcore antagonism off of death metal’s heavy trod and dedication to recognizable song structures. What that turned out to be was the best of both worlds, a death grind amalgam of ferocity and craft. Is it wrong that 20 years after he pounded the shit out of the toms on “Dementia Access” that I still mentally refer to Herrera as the new guy?

3. Smear Campaign
Century Media

Napalm Death’s first Century Media record, The Code is Red…Long Live the Code, was worrisome, seeming to indicate that the Birmingham bastards had lost the fire that immolated their two Spitfire records. Napalm Death seemed content to once again churn out the comfortable and unchallenging death metal that had defined them for the bulk of the ‘90s. But a funny thing happened when it came time to record their follow up. Apparently somebody pissed in their cider because Napalm Death were royally cheesed off. Smear Campaign just seethes with barely contained outrage. It’s probably the most aggressive album to ever boast the ethereal presence of The Gathering’s Anneke van Giersbergen, which is probably the last cameo anyone would have guessed. After an unexpectedly operatic opening in “Weltschmerz,” Napalm Death established from the outset that they were returning to their proper killing configuration a decade and a half into their partnership with the blistering “Sink Fast, Let Go,” which got an added boost from Barney passing the mic to unleash a Cerberus-headed vocal tirade.

2. Harmony Corruption

Lineup overhauls were nothing new to Napalm Death—even occasionally coming in between Side A and Side B of genre defining albums—but the debut of Napalm Death Mk. 3 turned a lot of heads not just because they culled members of Terrorizer, Righteous Pigs and Benediction into a Beneton ad for international extremity. Napalm Death had gone full death metal. The band that had pushed the short, fast and loud mantra to its reduction ad absurdum conclusion was now spending a baroque five minutes on songs with recognizable structures and distinct choruses. While it’s understandable to want to pin this one on the n00bs taking over the band, most of the music bears tenured member Mick Harris’ imprimatur. While Napalm Death shed a lot of grind cred, Harmony Corruption is probably the album that’s done the most to boost the band’s profile in the wider metal world as they gnaw their way some choice death metal cuts in “Unfit Earth” (a personal favorite), “The Chains That Bind Us” and what’s surely become their signature song, “Suffer the Children.” Napalm Death weren’t grinding any more, but they were just as intense and angry as we’d come to expect.

1. Enemy of the Music Business

After their relationship with Earache soured and ground to an acrimonious halt, Napalm Death roared back with an album that can only be seen as a gigantic fuck you to their prior label. Out was that hideous ‘90s logo and in its place reigned Jeff Walker’s scratchy font classic. Moribund death metal likewise got jettisoned in favor of the fastest, leanest and hungriest sounding songs in Napalm Death’s arsenal since Utopia Banished. Enemy of the Music Business represents the culmination of all of the potential Napalm Death’s latter lineup had teased for the preceding decade in one perfectly executed smartbomb of anger and derision. This was the album the steadfast fans who suffered through the mid-‘90s wilderness years had been clamoring for. Finally Napalm Death sounded dangerous again. A rough and tumble production job let flash all the razor edges that past albums had filed away behind shiny, big budget studio sessions. This was a return to form that saw Napalm Death regress into their apotheosis. Some of the credit has to be due to Nasum. Shane Embury has been pretty open with his praise for the Swedes and the way they kicked the Brits in the rump to get them up and raging again.  The only complaint I have with this album is that Napalm Death felt the need to tack 10 minutes of silence on to the last track before ending on some bullshit bonus track crap (a scam repeated on Order of the Leech). I fucking hate that shit. But if that’s the most glaring fault to be found, then we’re dealing with one king hell of a fucking record.


blasting D said...

love this band!
good post Andrew! I think I'll revisit some of these records tomorrow.

Perpetual Strife said...

way more detail than I could have ever given this band. Wish you did this for Agathocles so I knew what fuggin albums to buy (been putting this off for years).

"A Guide to Mince" would be be a nice addition to my "How to Shelf."

Full Metal Attorney said...

OK, as someone who is a huge fan of things that should also make me a huge fan of Napalm Death, but who has only one Napalm Death album (because of the Mortal Kombat soundtrack) and had no idea where to start on their extensive and widely varied discography:

Thank you. This was much needed.

Andrew Childers said...

that's the beauty of napalm death, fma, they've changed so much over 30 years that there's an album for everyone.

also you're the fourth of fifth person i've heard say the MK soundtrack was their first exposure. may have to write something about it one day and its impact.

Anonymous said...

Make me the sixth, haha. It was my introduction to extreme metal. It led me to Fear Factory, which was the first band I ever liked with growled vocals. All downhill from there.


Anonymous said...

awesome! personally, i'd move "Exit Wound" and "code" up a bit more, certainly above "order of the leech" leech has good songs and some of barney's most intense performances, but those goddamn triggered drums make it sound like a freakin Fear Factory album...

Anonymous said...

Just to chime in: this was a great article; I haven't listened to their 90s stuff in a long while! Fear, Emptiness, Despair was the first ND album I bought, so I would have that one higher up on the list haha. Again, cool article! --Steve

Anonymous said...

There is no denying how powerful and primal those early albums are but I always find myself listening to the middle era stuff a lot more. It took me a little while to come to terms with some of the 90s stuff but now I feel it's all good top to bottom. Great article, great band!