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Napalm Death

Drawing a line from BLACK SABBATH, DISCHARGE and, quite possibly, Lucifer, himself, pioneering 80s+ grindcore merchants NAPALM DEATH were not for the squeamish, or for anyone with a nervous disposition. At times bloodcurdlingly ferocious, they’d pick-pocketed the Devil’s best tunes without a return policy and, before any screamos and emos spouted out their placid personifications of Linda Blair in The Exorcist (part growl/part howl), NAPALM DEATH’s nightmare navigated one to no-holds-barred evil.
Formed in Meriden, near Coventry in the West Midlands, it would be an entirely different combo that would un-grace the stage in 1981. Consisting of Nicholas Bullen (vocals/bass), Miles Ratledge (drums) and Simon Oppenheimer (guitar), the trio chose to hook into the burgeoning anarcho-punk movement that was spearheaded by CRASS and The POISON GIRLS. Instability was the keyword early on, exemplified when Graham Robertson was added on bass early ’82. As the year unfolded, Robertson switched to guitar (after short-stop Darryl Fedeski) when Oppenheimer bailed; Finbar Quinn (ex-Curfew) duly took up bass and vocals when an invitation to perform one track for CRASS’s `Bullshit Detector’ V/A compilation, gave them some hope.
Returning in the summer of ’85 with Nic’s “Final” project buddy Justin Broadrick (on guitar) joining him and Ratledge (Robertson and fellow guitarist Damien Errington were also in tow), NAPALM DEATH began to play regularly and record demos; their fifth `Hatred Surge’ caught the ear of local fan Mick Harris, who filled the berth of Ratledge when the drummer departed. A sixth demo `From Enslavement To Obliteration’ was recorded by the main trio in March ’86, although personnel upheaval (Bullen departed for studies that December after Broadrick formed HEAD OF DAVID) left Harris, and fresh bassist/lyricist Jim Whitely, obliged to invite “vocalist” Lee Dorrian and guitarist Bill Steer (of CARCASS) to perform side two of debut vinyl SCUM (1987) {*9}. Released on Digby “Dig” Pearson’s Earache imprint, the record was a tale of two halves, with the aforementioned “Enslavement…” side nestling in naturally with the new Napalm’s flip-side. Needless to say, all asunder were cranium-shreddingly extreme, pioneering white-hot blasts of a thrash/death-metal/punk hybrid which was duly Christened “grindcore”. Taking punk’s short, sharp shock technique to its ultimate conclusion, many of the tracks were under a minute in length; John Peel’s favourite play-lister, meanwhile, `You Suffer’, lasted less than a second! The influential and ever-eclectic Peel would subsequently invite the band to record a session that year, acknowledging the group’s sonic innovation while large sections of the metal press mocked them. The “vocals” in particular, came in for a lot of stick; almost wholly unintelligible sub-human growling was how they described them, although it was a style that has since been ripped off wholesale by legions of death-metal bands. And while the “singing” may have been incomprehensible to anyone missing a lyric sheet, the growling actually belied a radical political and social agenda, not exactly a priority of your average hair-metal band.
By the release of the 54-track, single LP! FROM ENSLAVEMENT TO OBLITERATION (1988) {*7} – if anything, more extreme than their debut – bassist Shane Embury had replaced Whitely; the new gun in town would exchange death threats with another teeth-grinding outfit SORE THROAT, mainly band member Rich Militia. A sludge-fest through the minds of a band unwilling to sacrifice anything but the odd goat or two (one imagines!), the post-nuclear nihilistic theme was ever-present on `It’s A M.A.N.S World!’, `Unchallenged Hate’ and `Cock-Rock Alienation’. Distressing to the point of self-harm and locking doors with several large bolts, the well-named NAPALM DEATH was to many, like poking one’s eye out with a pointed stick – this music was not for the squeamish.
Further line-up changes ensued the following year when Dorrian and Steer both quit to form/re-form their own respective outfits, CATHEDRAL and CARCASS; replacements were duly found in vocalist Mark “Barney” Greenway (ex-BENEDICTION) and Mexican-born guitarist Jesse Pintado (ex-TERRORIZER). The group spearheaded the infamous “Grindcrusher” European tour, while to promote the event, the shortest ever 7” single (shared with The ELECTRO HIPPIES) was given free gratis inside their Various Artists album; a must buy!
With another American guitarist Mitch Harris (ex-Righteous Pigs) recruited to bolster the group’s stark sound, NAPALM DEATH recorded HARMONY CORRUPTION {*5}. Released late in 1990, the opus relayed a more conventional death/thrash metal sound with longer songs to boot, aided and abetted by producer Scott Burns. Pounding drums, suffocating bass, driving guitar and Greenway’s horror-show growl, highlights among the 11 pieces were arguably `Suffer The Children’, `The Chains That Bind Us’ and `If The Truth Be Known’.
Prior to the release of the Colin Richardson-produced UTOPIA BANISHED (1992) {*5} set, Mick, who was said to be involved in a jewel shop robbery, opted for scary ambient outfit, SCORN; his seat on the drum-stool filled by Danny Herrera. If head-banging was once the property of MOTORHEAD (who almost seemed tame by comparison), the thunder and roar of NAPALM DEATH’s `I Abstain’, `The World Keeps Turning’ and finale `Contemptuous’ was of tsunami proportions.
A batch of heavy touring followed, playing to fans in the most unlikely furthest-flung corners of the globe. A 1993 cover of the DEAD KENNEDYS’ `Nazi Punks Fuck Off’ proved the grindcore group hadn’t left their roots behind them completely and, with the acclaimed FEAR, EMPTINESS, DESPAIR (1994) {*8}, they finally managed to incorporate their uncompromising vision into a consistent, almost-coherent set of tracks. Producer Pete Coleman was the guy to thank for such hair-raising cuts as `Hung’, `Plague Rages’ and `Twist The Knife (Slowly)’; the latter a worthy selection for the Mortal Kombat movie soundtrack. The mighty Sony Records were behind ND briefly, while “Fear…” was their most successful album to date, winning them support from the music press who’d been a little reluctant to show them any leeway.
Sharing a couple of tracks that featured on late 1995’s mini-set GREED KILLING {*5}, DIATRIBES (1996) {*6} consolidated NAPALM DEATH as Britain’s thrash kingpins bar none. Bolstered by lyrics a mere mortal could almost make out, but thankfully not sing-a-long, there was indeed method to their madness in `My Own Worst Enemy’, `Glimpse Into Genocide’ and the title track.
Proving almost untouchable due to being reinstated after his dismissal in November ’96, Barney returned to the hot seat to replace deputy Phil Vane (of EXTREME NOISE TERROR) in time for INSIDE THE TORN APART (1997) {*5}. Bravely attempting to break from the grindcore mould that had been their blueprint for a decade or so, one could almost hear traces of their American peers HELMET, PRONG and MACHINE HEAD on many of the tracks. The Napalms were entitled to experiment any way they wanted. It wasn’t as if there were a million fans baying for their blood – only thousands. And with `Lowpoint’, `Indispose’ and `Breed To Breathe’, the quintet were hardly moving into arena-rock territory.
On the back of a live BOOTLEGGED IN JAPAN (1998) {*5} set, which captured the brutal intensity of the band and covered a good deal of their back catalogue, 1999’s WORDS FROM THE EXIT WOUND {*5} brought about another anxious and cathartic studio album. Sadly, with industrial skirmishes thrown in, the equally nihilistic and nauseating `The Infiltrator’, `Incendiary Incoming’ and the 7-minute `Sceptic In Perspective’, rounded off their time with Earache – no pun intended. In addition to their boundary-busting riffs, NAPALM DEATH had also helped cultivate the more extreme end of the music spectrum via their ground-breaking Earache label, home to such uneasy listening experiences as GODFLESH, MISERY LOVES CO, et al.
As well as being involved in EXTREME NOISE TERROR, Mitch Harris had earlier initiated side-project MEATHOOK SEED, along with Shane Embury and OBITUARY moonlighters Donald Tardy and Trevor Peres. Following on from the grindcore dynamics of their 1993 debut album `Embedded’, the pair re-grouped with new members Christophe Lamouret (of OUT fame), Russ Russell and Ian Tracey. The resulting `Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth’ (1999) was an apocalyptic clash of techno and metal, lyrically inspired by Michael Drosnin’s book, The Bible Code.
Out of sync for the likes of grindcore acts and signing to Dream Catcher Records (Relapse overseas), NAPALM DEATH returned to the fold with two Kerrang!-friendly albums, their first off being the mini-set of covers LEADERS NOT FOLLOWERS (1999) {*5}. This record featured 6 cuts, namely `Politicians’ (Raw Power), `Incinerator’ (SLAUGHTER), `Demonic Possession’ (PENTAGRAM), `Maggots In Your Coffin’ (Repulsion), `Back From The Dead’ (DEATH) and that old DK chestnut `Nazi Punks…’.
NAPALM DEATH were back in the new millennium with the brutal wake-up call of ENEMY OF THE MUSIC BUSINESS (2000) {*8}. A cacophony of sound spearheaded by the guttural and visceral Barney Greenway, the group pounded into political parties (e.g. `C.S. (Conservative Shithead) Pt.2’, `(The Public Gets) What The Public Doesn’t Want’ and `Necessary Evil’) and, ultimately, never let up.
Ditto the biting ORDER OF THE LEECH (2002) {*7}, a master-class in musicianship played at break-neck speed. If the title gave a flavour of the coruscating political diatribes within, it offered little forewarning of the manically accelerated tempo relative to the band’s latter day records; examples `Lowest Common Denominator’, `Continuing War On Stupidity’ and, similar to their previous set (for `Fracture In The Equation’), an 11-minute finale `The Great Capitulator’.
Digging up over a dozen graveside warriors by way of sophomore covers set, LEADERS NOT FOLLOWERS: PART 2 (2004) {*6}, the doom-mongers tried their hand at turning death-metal into devil-metal. Nineteen tracks in all, er… recognisable bands with clout stemmed from sides by CRYPTIC SLAUGHTER, HELLHAMMER, DISCHARGE, KREATOR, DIE KREUZEN, SEPULTURA and AGNOSTIC FRONT.
Century Media Records were now NAPALM DEATH’s label of choice, but the long-serving Pintado wanted to concentrate fully on re-forming TERRORIZER, thus leaving a gap that was never truly filled on THE CODE IS RED… LONG LIVE THE CODE (2005) {*6}. Persuading idols JELLO BIAFRA (on `The Great And The Good’) and CARCASS’s Jeff Walker (on `Pledge Yourself To You’) to jar and spar alongside the gritty and guttural Greenway was way out of the box, helping secure a few hundred more in sales – no doubt.
Maintaining their heavyweight status quo considering it’d been 20 years since parts of “Scum” was virtually turning heads all over Britain, SMEAR CAMPAIGN (2006) {*6} was the Godfathers of Grindcore’s menacing metal manifesto. An agenda of adrenalin-fuelled angst, the demonic quartet proved they could go on forever and ever given the chance (check out `Sink Fast, Let Go’, `When All Is Said And Done’ and the closing title track); pity then the sad news of Pintado’s untimely death just weeks before the album’s release in September.
Offering up little change to their extreme noise terrorism through albums TIME WAITS FOR NO SLAVE (2009) {*6} and UTILITARIAN (2012) {*6} – JOHN ZORN performed sax on the latter’s `Everyday Pox’ – it was back to the grind (chapter 15) for the unrelenting APEX PREDATOR – EASY MEAT (2015) {*7}. Concerned yet again with global capitalism and corporate greed, the opening title track utilised Barney’s Jaz Coleman-meets-Dalek growl to a new level (c. `Wardance’). Twisting and turning like some poltergeist with a hangover, Barney and the band’s brutal rage against the machinations of political power was striking on `Timeless Flogging’, `Dear Slum Landlord…’, `Cesspits’ and final piece `Adversarial / Copulating Snakes’. NAPALM DEATH we salute your tenaciousness and dexterity.
© MC Strong 1994-2004/GRD // rev-up MCS Jan2015

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