Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Napalm Death "Utilitarian" (Century Media)

Within hours of this new ND long-player being released, the Corporation of London - that strange and profoundly undemocratic body, unaccountable to those who live or work in the City, run essentially by men of means who work in the Square Mile and enjoy dressing up - sent in the police and bailiffs to clear the Occupy London protestors from the grounds of St Paul's Cathedral, with Boris Johnson and the usual press corps suspects leading the cheerleading. This, in the context of Napalm's recent campaigning for Occupy, and the themes and artwork for "Utilitarian", struck a raw nerve. It also reminded me of when I last went down to the camp, in freezing December, and one tent just towards St Paul's Churchyard was positively *bouncing* with music, no doubt an attempt by its occupants to keep warm. But what were they bouncing to ? "Dancing Queen". To a po-faced child of the turbulent 80s, this was profoundly depressing. Had they not heard of Crass ? Of Discharge ? Of Napalm Death ? For a moment or two, I developed a sudden sympathy for the aldermen.

Luckily, Napalm Death themselves are rather more unshakeable in their beliefs. They rightly enjoying a status as longtime agents provocateurs within the metal scene, even managing to live up fully to album titles like "Enemy Of The Music Business", "Leaders Not Followers" and "Noise For Music's Sake".

And it's been interesting to monitor the development of their songwriting over the last few years. When "reviewing" each of their previous three albums, we were at pains to point out that their normal modus operandi had been preserved, but our focus was on the sonic diversions exhibited by each LP. So when welcoming "The Code Is Red... Long Live The Code" in 2005, we noted how bonus track "Morale" saw them "handily revisit their experimental / industrial influences". 2006's "Smear Campaign" took things further, with opener "Weltschmertz" building in keyboards and female backing vocals while the title track built on the forbidding strains of "Morale" to "dive headlong into Swans-ish industrial territory, replete with doomy, almost choral vocals". By the time of their last full-length, "Time Waits For No Slave", we were still excitable about the broadening of their palette: "more Swans-type industrial doom, more Deicide-like bumblebee guitar parts, more of Mitch Harris' high-pitched backing screams, more thoughtful and extensive arrangements and there's even a dramatic, epic bonus track, blooming with semi-gothic doom, which reminds us in parts of the Cocteau Twins". Yet we couldn't find it in us to give the LP the glowing review that we really wanted to.

So "Utilitarian", on Century Media Records of Dortmund, is their "difficult" 15th album. Like the 12th, 13th and 14th, it's palpably part of an evolutionary process, combining Napalm's core sound with some pure WTF? moments. But we think it's better, and their most bombproof set for aeons. I suppose we should tell you why.

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So where to start ? Well, the sixteen songs on vinyl and mp3 (there are eighteen on the initial CD, plus 36 pages of lyrics and more of Frode Sylthe's excellent drawings) make for a furious and flayed, spitting and splenetic three-quarters of an hour: the urgency matches that of Shane Embury's last outing, Lock-Up's fearsome third album last year. The template is, but of course, the genre defined by the Napalm Death of old - 24-carat grindcore, typified by taster single "Analysis Paralysis" - but the record is riven with other influences (punk riffs, death metal, Shane's predilection for industrial noise), and punctuated with all sorts of improbable diversions. There are Greek choruses and pseudo-Gregorian chants (when one of these morphs back into blitzkrieg grindcore without missing a beat, it's truly a wondrous sound to behold), a dizzying array of vocal styles, hints of Killing Joke and (yes, again) Swans, a blink-and-you'll-miss-it interlude of punk poetry, and a John Zorn saxophone solo. (Yes, you read that right. It sounds as brilliant as you'd expect, a cross between Public Enemy's "kettle's boiled" JB's sax rip and Terry Edwards' rather marvellous "Napalm Death Medley"). But please don't get the idea that Napalm have gone all arthouse on us: late on, as if to prove the contrary, they unleash "Nom De Guerre" (65 seconds) and "Opposites Repellent" (81 seconds) which may be the shortest, most brutally direct songs they've recorded for twenty years.

"Utilitarian" begins with "Circumspect", powerchords like hammerblows crashing through a darkly melodic, keyboard-tinged void, and the band ominously intoning "WE SIMPLY WILL NOT ACKNOWLEDGE WHAT WE CHOOSE WILLINGLY TO IGNORE", immediately harking back to the theme of "Analysis Paralysis". But after this (otherwise instrumental) intro the album is pretty much unconditionally, and unapologetically, high tempo. There are no purely atmospheric tracks like "Morale" or "Atheist Runt": instead, the experimental sections here tend to be parcelled up within otherwise piledriving songs, rather than acting as menacing stand-alone interludes. And there are hooks aplenty (none of Coldworker's issues with singalongability) in addition to carefully rationed breakdowns, lightning-strike guitar, tumbling Embury basslines (check out "Everyday Pox"), and some superb drumming from Danny Herrera, as elastic and dynamic (ooh, especially on "Leper Colony") as Pete Sandoval's anchoring of "World Downfall".

The lyrical themes, too, draw from their Napalm's rich history. "Errors In The Signals" takes on identity politics, duplicitous MPs are called out by "Protection Racket" and "Blank Look, About Face", "Fall On Their Swords" castigates arms trade respectability and "defence and ordnance as commodities" while "Orders Of Magnitude" tackles the more traditional grindcore theme of atomic and nuclear disaster. The Zorn-enhanced "Everyday Pox" is a diatribe about bigotry which mocks the constant drip, drip, drip from quarters of our national media ("a steady diet of hearsay, rumour, primed to up the fervour"). Powerful closer "A Gag Reflex" is their latest - typically uncompromising - take on gender politics, a line which runs all the way back to the various songs about sexism on "From Enslavement To Obliteration". Oh, and the "The Wolf I Feed" seems particularly poignant in the light of the police moving in to the grounds of St Paul's: "outweighed, policed and rationed", yells Barney, "our liberties seized and blackened".

But, as always with Napalm Death, there is much thoughtfulness and introspection on show (not limited to the self-awareness of "Analysis Paralysis"). They don't pretend to know all the answers, and can display a peculiar vulnerability: on "Collision Course" Barney laments that "the stress is mounting... what was important now seems pointless" before concluding that "perhaps it's time / to embrace our lives for all that they are worth". Later on, ruing the greyness of popular culture, he's more economical with his language, but just as plaintive: "I want sensuousness to stun me / Not everything in mono".

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You know, there are very few British institutions of which one can be justly proud. Radio 3, maybe ? The FA Cup ? Half Man Half Biscuit ? But "Utilitarian" is more than ample to justify Napalm Death's surely unquestionable status as national treasure. And perhaps it's just as well that they've made a reputation for themselves as "leaders, not followers". Because it is extremely hard to see how they are going to follow *this*.

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