Half-Life – Napalm Death, Pt. 1

There are very few bands in extreme metal that can be rightly considered significant influencers in the formation and development of multiple subgenres. Napalm Death are one of them. From their inception in Birmingham, England in 1981 through their most recent full-length output in 2015, the band have explored the far reaches of grindcore, death metal, groove and nu-metal, and back again with the vigor and force of an ageless titan. Spanning a career containing well over a dozen records, Napalm Death are truly one of extreme metal’s most diverse, talented, and legendary bands.

But the band’s journey to essential status hasn’t been without its fair share of left-field divergence. Not all of the band’s forays into uncharted territory were universally successful, as their mid-to-late 90s output is considered by many death and grind aficionados to be an utter abomination, tainting the band’s otherwise pristine legacy. Like most any band that have been around as long as Napalm Death, there have been more than a few bumps along the road to greatness. Yet here they sit, atop a pile of historic musical rubble, maintaining their status as the kings of grind. How did they accomplish this? A deep dive into their discography will shed some light.

This edition of Half-Life will be covering the bands fifteen full-length records and will be split into two parts. This first installment will cover the band’s grindcore influence, death metal insurgence, and groove and nu-metal wilderness phases. The latter half will discuss the band’s return to form and eventual dive into more experimental territory. There’s a lot to cover here, so strap in. Things are about to get filthy.

Phase One: The Kings of Grind (1987-1988)

Scum (1987)

If there’s a single record in Napalm Death’s expansive discography that best represents their aesthetic, their vicious debut Scum is it. One of the most famous debuts in extreme metal history, Scum almost singlehandedly put grindcore on the map. While it’s highly debatable which band officially created the most wild and reckless of metal’s subgenres (Repulsion and Carcass are most certainly also in the running here), it’s clear that Scum cemented Napalm Death’s reputation as the principal popularizers of the music. They did this through half-an-hour and 28 tracks of unrelenting aggression. The majority of this record’s tracks barely eclipse more than one-and-a-half minutes in length, making for an album that is not built for individual track listening, but instead an immersive, one-sit listen.

Easier said than done. The music on Scum is lo-fi and explosive, raging and thrashing through minuscule track lengths with reckless abandon. Hell, world famous “You Suffer” is only one-second long and still packs a hefty punch. But the entire record isn’t relegated to short, violent bursts of sound like the above-mentioned track. “Instinct of Survival” and “Scum” both take their time developing some quality riffs that pointed in the direction of the band’s eventual foray into Floridian death metal, allowing the music to develop compositionally without sacrificing its general ferocity, and highlighting the band’s skill I’m creating memorable riffs. But such lengthier fare is generally drowned by the acerbic bile of the album’s shorter tracks, leaving the listener disoriented and dazed by the sheer brutality of it all.

And that whiplash mentality is one of the album’s glaring weaknesses. While an utterly wild ride on first spin, subsequent listens begin to poke holes in the audio assault. The band’s lineup changed between its two sides, with only talented drummer Mick Harris bridging these two sections, and it shows. While exhilarating, Scum swings wildly between sounds and riffs to the point of near incoherence at times, and is definitely the work of a young band in flux, attempting to find and hone a sound in the midst of lineup changes and inner turmoil. While a classic, Scum is far from perfect, and the band wouldn’t find their true footing until their second record, From Enslavement to Obliteration. Nevertheless, the groundwork was laid for what would become the band’s defining sonic identity, and one of extreme metal’s most accomplished catalogs.

 

From Enslavement to Obliteration (1988)

If Scum had a physical representation, it would be that of a young, inexperienced cage fighter, throwing vicious punches and wild kicks at an opponent with little semblance of order or strategy outside the desire for rampant, wanton destruction. If we applied this analogy to the band’s second record, From Enslavement to Obliteration would be a heavyweight prize fighter. Seasoned, disciplined, tactical, and merciless. Retaining Mick Harris on drums and the vocals of Lee Dorian, who provided Scum’s B side histrionics, the band is smaller, tighter, and much more focused on the songwriting front. Clocking in six tracks and four minutes shorter than its predecessor, this record was in many ways a trimming of the fat found in the band’s debut, engendering a more streamlined yet equally ferocious sound, while stretching into some new sonic territory.

“Evolved As One” couldn’t be a more appropriate opener for an album bent on refining a band’s established sound while simultaneously propelling it forward. An attention grabber at more than one minute longer than any of the tracks on Scum, “Evolved” takes its time to unveil its heaviness, utilizing a much more languid tempo than the band had used before, serving as both a shock to the system and a primer for the madness to come. And that madness comes fast and furious on From Enslavement to Obliteration, with “Its A MANS World” and “Lucid Fairytale” offering a grind one-two punch that makes the erratic gyrations of Scum sound like child’s play. The production here is much heavier on the low end, allowing eventual long-time member of the band Shane Embury’s bass work to be heard clearly and with great impact, especially in some of the album’s shorter tracks such as “Private Death” and “Retreat to Nowhere”. It’s a more complete and ferocious sound that is a step up in every way from the scrappy Scum.

Of equal importance for the band’s future development, From Enslavement to Obliteration displayed Napalm Death’s first significant foray into death metal. “Unchallenged Hate” is a lively death march that mixed the Harris’ penchant for ridiculously fast beats with guitarist Bill Steer’s massive riffs to create something close to a full-on death metal track. “Display To Me” and “The Curse” exhibited similar traits, setting the foundation for the band’s next musical phase. Following up one of the best grind albums of all time is a tall task, and the band went about it by moving away from grind almost entirely. They would find their evolutionary catalyst in new vocalist Mark “Barney” Greenway, who would move Napalm Death’s sound from grindcore into solid death metal territory.

 

Phase Two: Death Dive (1990-1992)

Harmony Corruption (1990)

Any fan of death metal history is aware of the seminal records of the subgenre’s formative years. Death’s Scream Bloody Gore. Morbid Angel’s Altars of Madness. Possessed’s Seven Churches. Entombed’s Left Hand Path. While Napalm Death was busy perfecting their grind aesthetic, death metal was laying waste to listeners through its unique vision of a Florida-founded hell. It wouldn’t be long before they jumped into the death metal fray with Harmony Corruption, a sonic left-turn that must have been a massive shock to the system for the band’s faithful. With guitarist Bill Steer leaving Napalm Death to join his other band, Carcass, full-time, Harris and Embury joined forces with aforementioned vocalist Barney Greenway and guitarists Mitch Harris and Jesse Pintado to create the band’s initial foray into death metal, and the results were controversial, to say the least.

As is clearly evident throughout Napalm Death’s career, the band were not shy about changing their sound relatively quickly and with conviction. Harmony Corruption is the first such example of this proclivity for rapid and fundamental sonic change in the band’s full-length discography. From the very first notes of album opener “Vision Conquest”, it’s completely clear Harmony Corruption will be nothing like either From Enslavement to Obliteration or Scum. Kicking off with a feedback haze, any atmosphere the track builds in its opening seconds gets completely consumed by Greenway’s hellish growls and Harris/Pintado’s utterly disgusting expulsion of all the death metal riffs in their bodies. It’s a definitive opening to an album that would eventually become a favorite or most-hated addition to the band’s catalog.

Changes in subgenre aside, taken at face value Harmony Corruption is an incredibly solid death metal record in its own right. The band do an excellent job balancing tempo and tone, with songs like “If the Truth Be Known” bringing the slower, grimier pain only to eventually transform into a blast-filled torture trip. The band’s ability to balance the various elements present within death metal up to that point is a testament not only to their skill as musicians, but also to their songwriting ability. The tempo variations in “Circle of Hypocrisy”, the grinding death of “The Chains That Bind Us”, and the propulsion of “Suffer the Children” are as good as most all of their counterparts in the early death metal scene, and are worthy of commendation both in a historical context and in a modern listening context. But much like Scum before it, this record is far from perfect. A sense of monotony sets in closer to the end of the record, with the longer track runtimes of their death metal compositions causing not every song to land firmly on its feet in the uniqueness department. But these issues are minor compared to the fantastic display of brutality presented here. Whether you love or hate the band’s swan dive into the death metal cesspool, Harmony Corruption certainly offers a lot to admire. The band would continue to hone their death metal chops on their next record, doubling down on their change in sound with gusto.

 

Utopia Banished (1992)

If Harmony Corruption was Napalm Death’s death metal appetizer, Utopia Banished was the main course. Fully invested in their new sound, the band followed their precedent of second albums in a sound being infinitely more polished than the first. Where Harmony Corruption straddled the audio line between grind and death metal aesthetically, Utopia Banished discards all elements of the band’s grinding past, including drummer Mick Harris, who was replaced here by Danny Herrera, who would become the band’s permanent drummer in all subsequent full-length records. This dramatic shift in personnel would pay huge dividends for the band as they honed and perfected their death metal sound, resulting in a much more engaging, if cleaner, record than Harmony Corruption. If that record left any doubt that the band were fully committed to the death metal sound, Utopia Banished crushed it.

Heralding back to the previously discussed personnel changes, the departure of Harris was one of the last major shake-ups the band would have during this phase of their development. While Harris is heralded almost universally as a fantastic drummer, the style of grinding and erratic beats that he employed to such great effect on the band’s first two records conformed less fluidly to death metal. Compositionally, Harris and the band’s new sound were not a great fit. The introduction of Herrera served as a welcome reprieve from the maelstrom created by Harris drum work, implementing a more traditional death metal structure that allowed Pintado and Mitch Harris’ guitars to roam widely and with maximum impact. “I Abstain” is a great example of this, as the drums fill and roar around the guitars in a manner the complements rather than distracts. Greenway’s vocals are full death metal rage mode on this record as well, sinking in deeply into subgenre tropes with a great deal of vitality. “Dementia Access” finds him showcasing his range with growls, yelps, and screams, while tracks like “Idiosyncratic” and “Awake (To A Life Of Misery)” are heightened greatly in intensity by his ceaselessly violent bark. It’s an ensemble performance that feels much more premeditated than the band’s previous effort, and was potentially the band’s most sonically consistent death metal record.

But this newfound uniformity of style and instrumentation isn’t without its detractions. After all, the original pull of Napalm Death’s sound was grindcore, which is as disorganized and chaotic sounding as extreme metal gets. Four albums in, the band had completely changed their chosen style of extreme metal, and honed a sound that sounded so far from its original material that one wouldn’t be blamed for failing to recognize Utopia Banished as a Napalm Death record at all. Which is the beauty and frustration of Napalm Death as a whole. Completely consumed by their own muse, it became incredibly difficult to predict where the band would go, and whether that direction would incorporate songwriting even remotely similar to the music that came before. For better or worse, this trend would continue throughout the band’s career, and would begin afresh with the band’s fifth full-length record.

 

Phase Three: Groovy, Baby! (1994-1998)

Fear, Emptiness, Despair (1994)

Retaining the same band members for subsequent records for the first time in their career, Napalm Death released Fear, Emptiness, Despair two years after their previous record with yet another stylistic shift. A note on this topic before we dive further into this particular record…

There are plenty of bands who have changed the dynamics of their sound throughout their careers. Sometimes it works incredibly well (think Ulver or Darkthrone), other times it doesn’t (here’s looking at you, Morbid Angel). But to have changed your sound so rapidly and definitively over so few records is more anomalous than most genre-bending scenarios, and this is the rarified air that Napalm Death found themselves in as they released their fifth full-length record. But as they entered into the mid-to-late 90s phase of their musical evolution, one wouldn’t be faulted for questioning the logic and motivation behind such massive swings in style. It may all sound like noise to your grandmother, but to seasoned metalheads the distinctions between these albums are stark and obvious. With a devoted fan base that has weathered significant sonic shifts up to this point, why change again? I’m not here to speculate as to why the band made the stylistic choices they did, but perceptions surround these topics have tainted the band’s reputation in this regard for decades, and continue unabated to this day. It’s genuinely surprising that the band have retained so sterling a reputation in the metal world despite these shifts, but that’s more than enough of an aside on this topic for now. Back to the record at hand.

Those familiar with Napalm Death had to be used to their wandering interests at this point, and this record was no exception to the band’s previously established rule. In what would become the band’s most controversial and maligned subgenre switch to date, the culprit this time was neither grindcore nor death metal, but rather the popular, fast-rising sounds of groove metal. 1994 saw the metal world well into the groove revolution, popularized by bands like Pantera, Sepultura, Prong, and a whole slew of others. Whether the band found the sound genuinely interesting or viewed it simply as a cash cow given its popularity is up for debate, but nevertheless groove found its way onto this record in a big way. “Hung” and “Plague Rages” are two good examples of the band’s incorporation of groove and even some nu-metal approaches to their established death metal sound, and the results of these tracks vary depending on your mileage with the above subgenres.

While not a terrible album on the whole (“Primed Time” and “Retching On the Dirt” bring some old school Napalm punch into the mix), Fear, Emptiness, Despair presented a significant departure in sound yet again for the band, with their most definitive work in these sonic spaces yet to come. For those in the throes of the nu-metal revolution, Napalm Death was about to become one of the many bands in their wheelhouse. For those that shed tears at the band’s fall from grindcore grace, things were only about to get worse.

 

Diatribes (1996)

For all their stylistic inconsistency, Napalm Death at this juncture of their career were nothing if not pattern-oriented. Five albums into their career, the band had experimented with and perfected their own vision of two different metal subgenres. With Diatribes, the band reached for the trifecta, this time with groove metal. Fear, Emptiness, Despair clung white-knuckled to death and grind tropes while infusing the music with tons of groove-influenced songwriting. Diatribes lets go almost entirely of the band’s previous sounds, embracing groove and nu-metal with open arms.

From the outset, it’s very clear that this record is going to be dramatically different than the rest of the band’s discography. The upbeat melody (yes, you read that correctly… upbeat melody) that kicks off “Greed Killing” sets the stage for an entirely new Napalm Death experience. Melody and groove-influenced compositions pepper the tracklist here, with “Ripe for the Breaking” digging into its groovy undercurrent with gusto, and “Cursed to Crawl” showing the band at the height of their experimental peak. To be frank, it doesn’t sound much like Napalm Death as they’d been known at all. But that doesn’t mean that these experiments didn’t in some way or another work. The album contains some abject heaviness that the band had yet to fully tap into. “My Own Worst Enemy” and “Dogma” bite into super chunky rhythm and sticks with them with admirable conviction, creating the best music they can in a style that doesn’t fit their general skill set as well as the previous material they’d released. As is custom with Napalm Death, their second record in a style is superior to their first, and Diatribes is proof of that yet again.

Regardless of the band’s admirable leap into uncharted territory, their penchant for jumping from style to style has some obvious drawbacks. Mainly, they haven’t been able to dig deep enough into a style to perfect it. Many of the records in this middle period of the band’s career feel bloated and fat, with too many ideas and not enough concision. The methodology of grindcore long gone at this point, thirty-minute records have bloated to forty, with each record catching more and more filler material. Unable to focus on perfecting a style, the band released relatively weak material that paled in comparison to the ferocity and fire of their first four records. It would take a multi-record rebound to recover the magic they lost during their mid-career crisis.

 

Inside the Torn Apart (1997)

While not the comeback record that some fans of the band’s early records were hoping for, 1997 saw the first signs of Napalm Death’s old ferocity start to bubble back to the surface. Remaining firmly ensconced in the groove and more melodic elements that gained them new fans and alienated old ones, Inside the Torn Apart was a fairly fierce record that kicked off the band’s transition back to their more traditional fare. But the album is obviously more than just a footnote on the band’s trudge back to grind. There is some solid material here, and an album that presented a step up from Diatribes.

One of the most fundamental and immediately noticeable advantages that Inside the Torn Apart had was the band itself. Gone are the awkward gyrations found in the bands groovier material. This record quite obviously displays the band operating at peak instrumental talent, heralding to the band members’ comfort with one another and the style they had chosen to ride. Beyond that, Inside the Torn Apart showed the band jumping back into some of the faster, more aggressive aspects of their sound, culminating in a record that feels more varied than the band’s previous two efforts. Where “Birth in Regress” held onto groove, songs like “Reflect on Conflict” heralded back to the band’s death metal phase with a manic energy and precision that feels like a large gust of fresh air into a room that had grown incredibly stale. Greenway’s vocals underwent some interesting changes as well. While his legendary bark is most certainly intact, vocal work on the album’s title track showed an artist breaking his own mold just a bit, trying on new vocal hats to see what fit. Unfortunately, this penchant for jumping back and forth between the band’s previous styles also makes the album feel fairly inconsistent and listless, as if it was unable to find its true identity in the roiling sea of heavy sounds it was trying to harness. The performances are solid, and some individual tracks on the record go hard, but ultimately Inside the Torn Apart felt far less cohesive than it could have, and the end product suffered because of it.

Nevertheless, there were breaths of life on this record that heralded to the band’s eventual return to the styles that made them an essential name in the metal scene of the early 90s. Beyond that, more change was brewing in the Napalm Death camp, as Inside the Torn Apart also spelled the beginning of the end for their relationship with Earache Records, the label that had been their home since the very beginning. A storm was on the horizon, and it would take one more album to break through their creative funk and into bold new territory.

 

Words from the Exit Wound (1998)

If Inside the Torn Apart was a wild (if somewhat confused) carrion call back to the good old days, Words from the Exit Wound was a straight-up death knell for the band’s groove and nu-metal sound. While not completely shedding the band’s proclivities toward those two styles, the album would present a heavy-hitting return to form in more than a few ways, capping off the band’s “experimental” phase with a raging burst of blast beats and some fantastic guitar work. It would also spell the termination of the band’s relationship with Earache Records, which had provided the band a home since its earliest material. In the case of Napalm Death, change is good, and Words from the Exit Wound presented an appropriate and natural transition away from the band’s mid-to-late 90s releases.

One immediately recognizable change to the band’s sound on this record can be found in the production, which is some of the heaviest and most gnarly of the band’s career. These songs explode with a kinetic energy that sounds absolutely fantastic, highlighting the absolutely destructive drum work of Danny Herrera. The man is on fire here, utilizing death and punk techniques to create a rhythmic pulse that grooves with the guitars at one moment, then smashes them apart in a barrage of fills and double-bass blasts the next. It’s a truly memorable performance by Herrera, with “Repression Out of Uniform” being one of the best examples of his diverse playing technique on the record. Pintado and Harris’ guitar work feels reinvigorated as well, with riffs coming at the listener from all angles. “Cleanse Impure” is a 90s guitar geek’s version of Heaven, and “Ulterior Exterior” heralds right back to the band’s grind days, feeling like it’s about to go off the rails completely throughout. The album is also a shorter affair, trimming some of the fat to get back into a range more in line with the band’s earlier work.

For all its commendable aspects, the album does suffer from the same inconsistency that made Inside the Torn Apart an overall haphazard affair. Thankfully, these maladies are played out to a much less obvious and damaging extent. Words from the Exit Wound feels like a band finding its feet again, and on the whole is a pleasure to listen to after three albums of less-than-stellar releases. With a ferocious deluge of intense and powerful music, the band’s wandering through the sonic wilderness of the mid-to-late 90s came to an abrupt and definitive end, leading the way into a new musical phase that would find Napalm Death finding their roots once again to some electric results.

 

And thus concludes the first half of Napalm Death’s career. A tumultuous half, to say the least. Lineup changes and constant stylistic left turns made the band something of an enigma; an ever-shifting musical entity, filled with rage and abject aggression with no discernable direction. The band’s late career would change a great deal of that, which is where we will head in our next installment. In a few weeks, we’ll pick up right where we left off, discussing the band’s run with a new label, a reinvigorated sound, and a late-career resurgence of musical influence and critical acclaim. We’re out of the wilderness (for the most part, at least), and into some of the band’s best material to date. Sit tight. More aggression incoming.

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