Years before I had heard a single note it was the logo, the way the letters seemed scratched in flesh, sinister crosses embedded in the “N” and “M” signifying something I wasn’t prepared to listen to…yet. By the time I finally opened up to the grand progenitors of grind, Napalm Death, it was during their post-2000 resurgence, and my purchase of their compilation Noise for Music’s Sake led me down a rabbit hole of the most exquisite display of passionate anger and rage this side of the universe. Between 6-second bursts of grind, impeccable artwork, and some of the most biting social commentary ever put to paper, the arrival of a new EP and a new full length on the horizon makes this a perfect time to dedicate a Nine Circles ov... to one of the best bands to ever carry the tag of “extreme” in their music.
Let’s do this.
“Scum” (from Scum, 1987)
This is a personal list, but there’s no better place to start than the beginning, and though there are more “classic” tracks (like the six-second “You Suffer”) For me it’s the decrepit bass line that kicks off the title track. It’s sometimes hard to remember that not every Napalm Death song goes 1,000 mph, and the groove the band finds on this track is a stellar example of how to play furious and grimy and still come off like a razor to the throat.
“Suffer the Children” (from Harmony Corruption, 1990)
And enter Mr. Greenway. Far from the screeching hellion of today, Barney brought a mighty death roar to the band’s charge toward more death metal pastures on Harmony Corruption. But there are still moments of blazing grind, and “Suffer the Children” shows how deftly the band could blend the chops from grind and death together to create something frighteningly special. When that lumbering breakdown comes at about the three-minute mark the tendons in my neck snap from the hand banging.
“I Abstain” (from Utopia Banished, 1992)
I feel like Utopia Banished sometimes gets lost in the shuffle compared to the massive upheaval that Harmony Corruption brought to Napalm’s sound, which is a bit of a shame (getting rectified, to be sure, since they’re playing the album in its entirety at this year’s Beer and Metal Fest) since for my money Utopia has the better production and some truly ripping riff construction, particularly on the rage that is “I Abstain.” When Greenway shouts “Open your eyes!” it’s the prelude to a spiraling blaze of guitars and vitriol at the way people are conditioned to feel inferior by those with the most, and his call to arms to abstain from the status quo is something that sticks with me every time I listen to the band.
“Breed to Breathe” (from Inside the Torn Apart, 1997)
This was actually the first studio album I bought after the Noise For Music’s Sake compilation, and although it’s considered a weird time in Napalm’s career, there’s no denying the sense of rhythm and attack on opening track “Breed to Breathe.” It may be slightly more in line with what metal was doing at the time, but the mid-paced attack of the song just brings out how catchy their songwriting was. Far from being an outlier in their discography, the songs and albums that make up the end of their Earache relationship feel like a vital piece of the puzzle that would launch their resurgence to grind masters a few short years later.
“Nazi Punks Fuck Off” (from Leaders Not Followers, 1999)
You can’t talk about Napalm Death without talking about their covers, and they took the classic Dead Kennedys track and completely owned it, taking just over a minute to decimate just about every other cover bands were putting out at the time. As a prelude to their second coming of punk, grind, and metal with 2000s Enemy of the Music Business I don’t think they could have picked a better song to cover. The whole Leaders Not Follower comps are great, but this has always been the feather in the cap of those records.
“The Great and the Good” (from The Code is Red…Long Live the Code, 2005)
Let’s stay on the Dead Kennedys path for a minute, since it lets us talk about how great it is hearing Jello Biafra letting loose on “The Great and the Good,” and it also serves to remind folks that jumping onto Century Media with The Code is Red…Long Live the Code was absolutely the best thing that’s happened to this band, pushing their name out further and further without once compromising their music. If anything, they’ve gotten more ferocious, and I could have easily picked anything off this record and it would be a standout: “Silence is Deafening,” “Pledge Yourself to You,” and “Sold Short” show both Shane Embury and Mitch Harris writing some of the best music of their careers.
“Diktat” (from Time Waits For No Slave, 2009)
There was a time when I thought Time Waits For No Slave was the best Napalm Death album. There, I said it. It was something to do with how great the production was (Russ Russell is phenomenal – if there’s a fifth Beatle in Napalm Death, it’s him), and also how good that opening riff is on “Diktat.” Listening now after being away for a few years I feel like it’s more of a static record, keeping the even keel of Smear Campaign before jumping to the next level with 2012’s Utilitarian, but there’s still something undeniable about “Diktat” and its followup “Work to Rule” that keep this in the mix when I return to the band…something I’m doing more and more often these days.
“Dear Slum Landlord…” (from Apex Predator – Easy Meat, 2015)
I was tempted to put the opening title track on this list: it’s mesmerizing, one of the most diverse things Napalm Death ever put down, but ultimately it’s an extended intro to the album. “Dear Slum Landlord…” on the other hand is a monolithic slab of industrial march, a dirge to the ones who hold the power over the homes of the less fortunate. It borders on noise as the song crescendos to static and rage, and the way it dovetails into the awesome “Cesspits” makes for a hard album to top, something I think we might have said back when it was released in 2015…
“Logic Ravaged By Brute Force” (from Logic Ravaged By Brute Force, 2020)
We can’t end this column without acknowledging the fact that Napalm Death just released their opening salvo for 2020. If “Logic Ravaged By Brute Force” is any indication of where the band is heading with their forthcoming album Throes of Joy in the Jaws of Defeatism, expect more diversity of sound couched in blistering extreme grind and death. There’s a huge sense of melody present even as the chords explode in open arrays of sound. To make things even better, the single is accompanied by another fantastic cover; this time “White Kross” by Sonic Youth. So, you know…just more fuel for my fire of anticipation.
Until next time, keep it heavy.