In the Butthole Surfers installment of this Favorite Songs By Favorite Bands series, I discussed the importance of record labels in shaping my listening tastes at various times. The Chrysalis Records catalog was a great vehicle for my explorations in the 1970s, and in the early ’80s, the SST and Alternative Tentacles labels provided outstanding outlets for my obsessive completist tendencies.
Fast forward a few years, and Chicago’s Wax Trax! Records played a similar role for me, with an outstanding cabal of artists in their stable, anchored by Al Jourgensen’s Ministry and his gazillion related spin-off projects. Wax Trax!’s sonic sphere was largely filled with industrial music: hammering beats you could dance to, decorated with crunchy guitars and electronics, and shouty voices. Note that our American take on “industrial music”varies a bit from the earlier U.K. use of the term, rolled out to describe the likes of Throbbing Gristle and Cabaret Voltaire, who were more machine-oriented and less beat-dependent than the acts that followed them. That said, there were artists who embraced and succeeded in both versions of the genre, and I adored the full spectrum of the form, conspicuously consuming Wax Trax!’s commercial output until they sadly over-extended themselves in the early ’90s, watering down their stock and spiraling into bankruptcy.
As Wax Trax! were beginning their death spiral, I remained interested in industrial music, even if I started seeking it out from other sources. Sometime soon after we moved to Idaho in 1989, I stumbled across a tremendous new album called Streetcleaner by Godflesh. They were a British duo (plus occasional other collaborators) who offered thunderous machine-based fare, and strong, socially-relevant vocals/lyrics from one Justin Broadrick. I loved that record, and a magazine review at the time noted that Broadrick had previously (though briefly) been a member of the groups Head of David and Napalm Death, so I decided to check them out too.
I landed Head of David’s Dustbowl (1988) first. It was okay, but not great. I was actually surprised to discover the Broadrick was the group’s drummer, since he was serving as the singer-guitarist-programmer for Godflesh. Next up, I nabbed Napalm Death’s debut album, Scum (1987), and it was a weirder proposition. Side One of the record was performed by a trio within which Broadrick served as singer-guitarist. The music featured loads of short, sharp shocks, most amusingly “You Suffer,” which the Guinness Book of World Records later recognized as the shortest song ever recorded, at precisely 1.316 seconds in length. (Its lyrics: “You suffer. But why?”) Side Two of the record featured a quartet without Broadrick. In fact, drummer Mick Harris was the only common player across both sides of the record. That second half of the album was a different sonic beast, more guttural, less thrashy than the Broadrick side. Hmmm.
At bottom line for me at the time, it wasn’t really industrial, which is what I wanted in the moment, nor was it quite in the pocket of the types of metal that I was enjoying then (think Rollins Band), so it didn’t really knock my socks off in any way. Just out of a sense of due diligence, I did look into Napalm’s next album, 1988’s From Enslavement to Obliteration, and noted that it was the sludgier Broadrick-free quartet line-up who had moved the group forward, only with a new bass player named Shane Embury. I opted to pass, and went looking for industrial and metal stuff elsewhere.
Side note: Perceptive readers might note the seeming incongruity of the statements “we moved to Idaho” and “I nabbed Napalm Death’s debut album,” given the Famous Spud State’s conservative reputation. (We used to greet visitors at the airport by saying “Welcome to Idaho Falls. The current time is 1953.”) It’s true it wasn’t a musical hot bed, unless you liked country or bluegrass. I did all of my music shopping during our two years as Idahoans at a fairly generic mall record store called Music Land. (Our local mall’s big claim to fame was that it was the largest indoor shopping space between Seattle and the Twin Cities. I am sure that bugged Minot, Butte, Rapid City and Yakima to no end). While Music Land certainly didn’t regularly stock the extreme stuff I liked, their manager, Marianne, was really good about finding and ordering me whatever I wanted, in a timely fashion. Some time in the early 1990s, I recorded a musique concrète piece that incorporated an old voice mail tape I had found. (Remember those?) I called the piece “Marianne From Music Land,” as hers was the first voice appearing therein, an apt recognition and appreciation of her role in assisting me in my weirdness while we wandered in the Western wilderness. Here ’tis, if interested.
Back to Napalm Death: While Scum and Enslavement didn’t particularly rock my world at the time, mine was apparently a notable minority opinion, as Napalm’s debut album now holds iconic status as a hugely influential work on the development of extreme metal, most especially the grindcore genre. Wikipedia currently defines that musical endeavor thusly: “Grindcore is characterized by a noise-filled sound that uses heavily distorted, down-tuned guitars, grinding over-driven bass, high speed tempo, blast beats, and vocals which consist of growls and high-pitched shrieks.” Yep, that’s what Scum offered. Who knew it would be so inspirational to so many other musicians? I certainly wouldn’t have placed that bet back then.
So, since the whole premise of this article is that Napalm Death were my favorite band for several years, does this mean that I went back and re-evaluated my feelings about the album that many would consider the group’s best and most important? Nope, no it doesn’t. I still think Scum is pretty okay bordering on over-rated, and I don’t often listen to anything from it. From Enslavement to Obliteration is actually more interesting and appealing to me these days, though mainly as an entry pipeline for the works of Cathedral (which featured Enslavement singer Lee Dorrian) and Carcass (Enslavement guitarist Bill Steer’s long-running later band). But at bottom line, none of the line-ups documented in those early Napalm Death albums and related singles/EPs would likely ever have moved the group into the burning forefront of my attention, critical heresy though I know that to be.
The Napalm Death who ultimately made me rave with enthusiasm didn’t show up until 1992’s Utopia Banished album, by which time everybody who had appeared on the group’s earliest records was gone, except for Enslavement bassist Shane Embury. The rest of the new line-up was rounded out by singer Mark “Barney” Greenway, guitarists Jesse Pintado and Mitch Harris (who, confusingly, overlapped briefly with early drummer and final original hold-out Mick Harris), and drummer Danny Herrera. Embury and Greenway were from England’s Midlands (where the group originated), Harris was a native New Yorker then living in Nevada, and Pintado and Herrera were both born in Mexico before emigrating with their families to California. A truly international ensemble, that! Pintado died in 2006, with the remaining quartet carrying the Napalm Death banner forward to this day, though Harris has been on a family-related sabbatical for some time, replaced for live gigs by guitarist John Cooke.
I didn’t grab Utopia Banished at the time. Nor for a long time afterwards. Nor did I score the many Napalm Death records that followed it until around 2007, by which time we’d long left Idaho behind for Upstate New York. Two factors contributed directly to my subsequent rediscovery and deepest embrace of Napalm Death: the demise of brick and mortar record stores, and my personal fitness regimen of the time.
In the latter case, we had joined a gym in our neighborhood, and I had returned to my early love of boxing by anchoring my fitness regimen around beating the shit out of the heavy bag that they had hanging in a studio there. Extreme metal worked really, really well for such activities, so I was always looking for good new stuff on that front to help me move my feet and fists with frenzied ferocity. Then with regard to the death of brick and mortar record stores: as Amazon, eBay, mp3 players, Napster and suchlike killed off that retail sector, one of the nation’s then-largest players in the field, Trans World Entertainment, happened to be based in Albany, near where we lived. At some point as their stores were shutting down throughout the region, they set up a consolidated “everything must go” outlet in a dying mall, filled with boxes and boxes of leftover CDs, at deepest discount rates.
Needless to say, I went there often as TWE desperately tried to clear out their remaining physical inventory. Most of what was there was crap, the stuff which nobody had wanted when it was being offered in the proper mainline retail outlets. But one day I found a pile of Napalm Death CD’s, including Fear, Emptiness, Despair (1994, and the second record by the Utopia Banished line-up), Diatribes (1996), Inside the Torn Apart (1997), and Words From the Exit Wound (1998). By this time, I was obviously aware of the acclaim that Scum had come to accrue over the years, so it seemed like it would be worth the five bucks or so that I paid for those four CDs to see what they had been up to in the ensuing years.
And boy howdy am I glad I did. I loved those records, both at the gym and at home. (Though Napalm Death have always been a headphones and/or by-myself-in-my-office indulgence around the house, since neither Marcia nor Katelin care for their extreme fare, though Marcia was a trooper and went to see them live with me once. Kisses!) The music was strong and brilliant, and I very much appreciated (and still appreciate) the ways in which they expressed their social and political interests, on disc and in interviews. Unlike a lot of their monochrome fellows hoeing the metal field, Napalm Death have always been great at mixing up their sonic palette, and some of their finest moments eschew any high-speed thrash and whang for a more sludgy, Swans-y approach, often accented with nearly monastic chanting, or unexpected instrumental elements. Tremendous stuff. Very powerful.
In my prior article about The Fall‘s run as my Favorite Band, I noted how an enjoyable retrospective dig into parts of their catalog that I had missed in real time was reinforced by their then-current release (2004’s The Real New Fall LP) turning out to be one of their greatest records, the combination of those factors pushing them to the top of my personal pile. This was also exactly the case for Napalm Death, whose titanic Time Waits For No Slave, which hit the shelves in January 2009, built spectacularly on my unexpected love for those four cheapo cut-out discs, at which point the Favorite Band mantle shifted forward with a new focus. Brutal!
I obviously back-filled my Napalm Death collection fairly quickly after that, and loved doing so. But even better, Napalm Death themselves proceeded to have what I consider to be the finest phase of their career, with Time Waits followed by the stellar Utilitarian (2012) and Apex Predator — Easy Meat (2015), along with a variety of singles, splits 7″ discs, and an outstanding late-career odds and sods compilation, Coded Smears and More Uncommon Slurs (2018). To my ears, they’ve just gotten better and better as the years go by.
As noted above, Mitch Harris has been on a sabbatical, though the group steadfastly say that he is still a member. While their frenetic touring schedule continued unabated until COVID quashed everything (I was holding tickets to see them in March, alas), Harris’ absence seems to have slowed the studio process, as Apex Predator‘s touted successor disc has been steadily pushed outward over the past few years. That said, they have finally announced a title (Throes of Joy in the Jaws of Defeatism), released a great long-lead single (“Logic Ravaged By Brute Force“), and seem to be holding to a late 2020 release schedule. Fingers crossed! I’m ready!
Before posting my Top Ten Napalm Death tracks, I do want to acknowledge that there’s a bit of a “one of these things is not like the other” factor in today’s selection, with these tracks clearly standing as an outlier on the series playlist as easily the most extreme fare to be found. Some may choose to pass on these recommendations accordingly, which is, of course, perfectly fine. Unless as you pass, you find yourself thinking “That stuff all sounds the same to me anyway.” I have strong feelings about that sentiment. Gee, there’s a surprise, huh?
#10. “When All Is Said and Done,” from Smear Campaign (2006)
#9. “Climate Controllers,” from The Code is Red . . . Long Live the Code (2005)
#8. “De-Evolution Ad Nauseum,” from Time Wait for No Slave (2009)
#7. “Fall On Their Swords,” from Utilitarian (2012)
#6. “Incendiary Incoming,” from Words from the Exit Wound (1998)
#5. “The Code is Red . . . Long Live the Code,” from The Code is Red . . . Long Live the Code (2005)
#4. “The Wolf I Feed,” from Utilitarian (2012)
#3. “Life and Limb,” from Time Wait for No Slave (2009)
#2. “Cursed to Crawl,” from Diatribes (1996)
#1. “Apex Predator — Easy Meat,” from Apex Predator — Easy Meat (2015)
Note #1: Click Here for an after-the-fact summary of this series, with a convenient listing of links for all articles contained within it.
Note #2: For those who stream your music, Marcia has created a Spotify playlist with all of the songs discussed in this series. Note that the browser embed link below is limited to 100 preview songs. We have confirmed that all 120 songs included in the series are available when you open the playlist in the Spotify app.