Friday, March 30, 2012

Morbid Angel "Illud Divinus Insanum (The Remixes)" (Season Of Mist)

You've just released a fairly ill-received album: on any level, a pretty terrible record, but one which attracted most cursing and gnashing of teeth courtesy not so much of its inexorable badness, but by dint of its wilful deviation from what your acolytes regard as a 'proper' metal template. These upset fans are baying for blood, demanding that you formally renounce all the experimental and industrial nonsense that you were tentatively (if hamfistedly) trying to embrace. So what's your next step ?

Well, if you're Morbid Angel, it's to make your next release a double CD containing some two and a half hours of left-field remixes of tracks from said album. Not only that, but somebody then obviously worried that perhaps 31 tracks and a mere eleven versions of "I Am Morbid" wasn't enough, and came up with the idea of an additional dropcard download to ensure that you actually get 39 remixes - including a baker's dozen "I Am Morbid"s - and an album clocking in at an epic *three hours and six minutes*. That's ten times as long as the best album of 2011.

But as you'll have guessed already, "Illud Divinus Insanum (The Remixes)" is not the disaster it should be, and don't listen to those who tell you it is. Quite the reverse: it is *completely* ace. "The Remixes" is better than the original album, better than many a Morbid Angel album, better than many other people's remix albums, better than most other people's original albums. It's exactly the kind of thing more bands should be doing, especially if it's the last thing their fans want. And to be fair to the Angel, they have longstanding remix credentials: it's fourteen years now since Earache's "Hellspawn" (a document of that label's brief if sadly abandoned obsession with dance culture) showcased their two excellent collaborations with the Berzerker.

For us, the only saving grace of the original LP was probably the raging debate it engineered on the proper use of Latin, given that surely the grammatically correct title would have been either "Illud Divinum Insanum" or "Illus Divinus Insanus". It was heartening to discover how many extreme metal (well, alright, mainstream-extreme metal) fans cared about a so-called dead language. Little details can sting, can't they: like the great "Emma's House" correct lyric controversy exposed in the Sarah fanzines, the resolution to which was that Bobby called "it" Emma's House, which of course we his most fervent devotees already knew.

But let's focus on the music, specifically the remixes. Yes, it probably would have been helpful if a mere four tracks from the original LP didn't account for some *twenty-nine* of them. But then again, perhaps it all adds to the Napoleonic grandeur of the whole enterprise. Real highs are plentiful, but if we - reluctantly - had to limit our pick of the Illud Divinus remix pops to a mere top twenty, we'd go for: DJ Ruffneck and Scott Brown both separately invigorating "I Am Morbid" with hammer happy hardcore, yet (especially in Ruffneck's case) preserving large chunks of the original within the madness; Mulk's whirlwind, V/Vm-Test meets electro-goregrind "Existo Vulgoré"; Sylvgheist Maelstrom's fabulous, discombobulated and ghostly "10 More Dead"; Roger Rotor's "Radikult", which would (seriously!) have sat comfortably on the Fall's "Levitate" LP; Tek-One nicing up "10 More Dead" through the medium of UK lurchstep; Igorrr expertly *rinsing" his "Remixou Morbidou" with compact drum n' bass; Laibach's opening "Wall Of Morbid" mix, which alternates Viennese drawing-room chamber music with something akin to the sound of an air-raid (well, why wouldn't you ?); Chrysalide's clanking industrial re-jig of the single "Nevermore" (surprisingly, the only version of that song here); Project Pitchfork's achingly definitive version of the charmingly silly "Destructos vs The Earth / Attack", with its warm, almost moving, tones hinting at New Order and the Mode; HIV+'s feedback-drizzled, wind tunnel take on "Too Extreme"; John Lord Fonda's pitch-shifting, eventful Metallyzer remix of the same; Ahnst Anders' windswept, atmospheric remoulding of "Morbid"; Mixhell's "Too Extreme", which not only goes for a predominantly instrumental touched-by-the-hand-of-disco approach (we'd have believed it if it turned out to have been remixed by Bronski Beat or even Fosca) but halfway through starts to ape the Mary Chain's "Cracking Up"; Dead Sexy's crunching, proto-space-grunge-hop "I Am Morbid"; Toxic Avenger's danceably devilish "10 More Dead"; Brain Leisure's alternately mournful and celebratory "Black Symphony" version of "Too Extreme"; the Horrorist's techno-spattered yet grisly "Existo Vulgoré"; Black Lung's concerningly high-voltage alarm and siren-crammed take on "I Am Morbid" and Evil Activities' holds-unbarred "Radikult", which fully realises (and celebrates) the original's sense of the absurd, including the infamous "kill a cop" rap segment and those priceless lyrics (altogether now: "we've been crossing the line / since 1989").

And that's (literally) only the half of it: there are a bunch of other distinguished names who've rolled up for remix duties, including cEVIN kEY from Skinny Puppy, Treponem Pal, Combichrist (we think their interpretation of "Destructos" here may have been the B-side to "Nevermore"), Skold, Mondkopf (even if his rather austere "Radikult" casts a pall slightly too leaden for our normally briskly dancing feet) and intriguingly a particularly strong contingent of French remixers, no doubt partly reflecting the provenance of the label. After several listens, which has frankly taken us quite a long time, we're not sure that there is a single duff track here: and many improve with each hearing. Nobody at all seems to have volunteered to remix "Blades For Baal" or "Beauty Meets Beast", which is a shame, but hopefully there'll be a sequel which can rectify this: we'd like to hear MA remixes from Jamie Ball, Sven Wittekind and Kevin Shields, for starters.

Some of you will remember past cults of the remix, like that 1990s obsession with all indie records ever being remixed, even if only by some bloke down the pub (or, even worse, Paul Oakenfold), as if to prove that we were all "down with" dance culture, whereas in fact dance culture was happening at raves deep in the countryside, was laughing at us, was unencumbered by the presence of any of us, and we were "down with" precisely nothing, save a fleeting grasp of the disappearing coat-tails of someone else's revolution. Well, "The Remixes" demonstrates how far things have, thankfully, moved on, and how remixes can improve original tracks, as well as bringing out new colours and flavours. In particular, the theatrical silliness of the original LP is cast in a new, much more sympathetic light: for example, the remixers have spotted how "Too Extreme", for example, has missed its true vocation as a camp Europop number. Moreover, whereas in the old days remixes were often indulgent, normally twice the length of the original track to justify filling out the grooves of a separate 12", many of the mixes here are significantly shorter than the lumbering original versions.

For all these reasons, "Illud Divinus Insanum (The Remixes)" is a riot, and frankly a work of some greatness: the proverbial silk purse from a sow's ear. Next time round, the Angel shouldn't bother releasing the studio LP at all, but hop straight to the remixes. We could dwell on the hundreds of records we could have been listening to, had we not been parcelling up three hours at a time to spend with this one, but we can't imagine how that would have been *nearly* as much fun.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Evans The Death "Telling Lies" (Fortuna Pop!): Manatee "Single Payer Class War" (Slumberland): Tha Connection "Strive" (DigiCrates): DJ Premier & Bumpy Knuckles "StOoDiOtYmE" (Gracie Productions / Works Of Mart): Irn Mnky "Inject The Beat" (Mr Diggs Recordings): Tex-Rec "Line" (Geysir Records): Michael Schwarz "Incarnation" (Darknet): Burial "Kindred" (Hyperdub)

Just like our 'singles round-ups' of old, we're not throwing all these 45s together and keeping it brief (well, you know, brief-ish) because they don't deserve their own, more lingering, reviews. We do it because we are flat out, but are in a hurry to let you know - just as fast as our fingers can type! - about some records that we think you might enjoy too.

Evans The Death, we assume, are long past that stage of regretting that they didn't go with one of the other potential band names, given that they are now on a first album deal with Fortuna Pop! and Slumberland: of all bands with "Death" in their name, they can at least count themselves amongst the most tuneful. The Death hail from Essex, and having served ample time in that lush county ourselves, we are hopefully well-placed to pronounce that with this 7" the Death have played themselves high into the list of the best Essex bands ever, currently behind only the Windmills, Catapult (I once passed up a chance to see them play, in Brentwood of all places, and could still kick myself for it), Grinder, Flyblown / Scalplock, the much-missed Get Laid Crew and Automatic Slim, and having edged ahead of, um... everyone else (Depeche Mode ? The Feedback ? Nitzer Ebb ? Crayola ? The Rosslyns ?) Hm... it's a short list. Like Nottingham, Essex (population 1,750,000) has really not pulled its weight when it comes to great music.

Anyway, "Telling Lies" is a big step forward from the thrilling if homely "Threads". Not least because of its classic-sounding chorus, it exudes the crossover potential of those bands from our childhood (Ash, Darling Buds, the Primitives) who were Peel outfits one minute, on Top Of The Pops the next. That doesn't necessarily mean we expect the Death on heavy MTV rotation any time soon, mind, because for every "Girl From Mars" or "Hit The Ground" or "Crash" you also got a "Heaven Knows", where another favourite band would cook up something that felt like a breakthrough but didn't even bruise the top 75. The only caveat to our otherwise unallayed positivity re: the Death is that "Telling Lies" does tread that scarily fine line, in common with This Many Boyfriends and a few other of today's fresher-faced combos, of sounding part-influenced by C86 (A to the C to the E) and part-influenced by Britpop (the horror, the horror; we still get flashbacks). Only time - or perhaps the LP, which we really need to get round to soon - will reveal how that tension is resolved: ultimately, it's a power struggle in which we can only trust that the forces of good will prevail.

Somewhat worringly, Oakland's Manatee are becoming one of our all-time favourite bands, despite the fact that we've only heard four songs by them, and that as far as we can tell they only existed for about an afternoon. For following their blinding Slumberland 7" single "Indecision" (unquestionably one of the greatest records of 2010 and one of the finest guitar-pop singles of recent years) comes a *flexi* (mmm, harking back to our recent observations on the hierarchy of formats) brilliantly entitled "Single Payer Class War" and boasting two different, but equally amazing numbers. While we had "Indecision" down as "delightfully feral, rooted in what sounds to us a very UK-inspired indie sound... all topped off by high in the mix wide-eyed vocals (with some rather splendid lyrics)", both tracks here start from a punkier place, even if we wouldn't call them punk per se: this is just (very) power(ful)-pop, adrenalin-charged, shot through with winning humour, and completely adorable. "Mr Super" is the lead, and it springs out of the blocks with the same zest as those other great paeans to superheroes, Milky Wimpshake's "Spidey" and of course Grinder's never-bettered "Spiderman". The second track, "Chased by Anderson Cooper", with singer Keith giving a very convincing impression of a man in genuine fear of the sometime CNN anchor-bloke, is even sprightlier, and raises a few chuckles along the way. We would all be blessed, you know, if Slumberland could see their way to uncovering more from the Manatee vault.

It was probably around the turn of the century that US hip-hop pretty much gave up the ghost, ushering in a new and seemingly endless era of cheesy consumerist careerism so depressing that any non-terrible LP (like the Craig G and Marley Marl set, Raekwon's Cuban Linx sequel, or last year's surprisingly good Wu-Tang outing) appears, by comparison with its feeble fashion-toting peers, a veritable masterwork. As to rap singles from across the pond, it seems that there are now only half-a-dozen every year that buck the trend: the new ones from Tha Connection and Bumpy Knuckles are probably the first two of those for 2012.

Tha Connection, aka Hus Tha KingPin and SmooVth, hail from Hempstead (in Long Island, and not therefore to be confused with Hemel Hempstead, or indeed Hampstead) and "Strive", for which they rope in fellow Strong Island resident and former P Brothers collaborator Roc Marciano, is compelling right from the get-go: "since birth / I've been cursed with the thirst / for dollars". The Roc himself delivered one of those half-dozen annual highlights ("Scarface Nigga", a chunk of the awesome Marcberg) in 2010, and easily as he breezes in, his gracious hosts' own verses are good enough that nobody gets upstaged. Keeping it Long Island, there's also a new EP outing for Bumpy Knuckles aka Freddie Foxxx. In teaming up with Premier (and not for the first time: Foxxx is another "Militia" man, for a start) he's in the company of the producer responsible for another of 2010's half-dozen ("Project Boy", with Orteeez), and "StOoDiOtYmE" is a smooth, confident tribute to those up and coming MCs hustling for time in the booth, Knuckles providing the kind of grittily-delivered verses for them aspire to while Premo's mellifluous piano provides textbook DJ support.

Switching back to the UK, we know it's tempting to survey the woeful hip-hop / pop hybrid clogging up the charts (can the Tinchy releasing a dismal single with Pixie Lott really be the same one who once rocked "Ice Rink" on white label ?) and reach for the revolver, but Huddersfield's Irn Mnky - no relation, we suspect, to the Iron Monkey who were once signed to Earache - is here to let us know there's no need to despair completely. Not only does "Inject The Beat" showcase premier lyrical fire from top-drawer guests Caps (Notts, obviously) and Bane (repping Leeds), who each deliver a tidily thunking opening 16 bars before returning later on to sign-off in style, but the Irn man also features - in amongst his formidable, late-90s French electro sounding production - some sky's-the-limit scratching from scratch king DJ esSDee, also of the LS. Uplifting stuff, but if only things like this came out on 12" nowadays: we would be running through walls to buy the vinyl.

Next comes more from two heavyweights of the dark, minimal continental techno which seems to have usurped much of our home-city acid stuff in our affections. Tuzla's Tex-Rec, aka Almir Memic, continues to be an ambassador for the true sound of the underground, and "Line" may be his best single since "Kill The Dream" for SWR in '10 ("a smiling assassin of an EP which seduces you with rhythmic patterns as sleek and glinting as the bonnet of a newly polished Countach while at the same time moving in for the kill with dancefloor-massacring intensity", if you remember).

"Line", however, is not quite the same hulking beast as cuts like "X.O.P." or that EP's title track: slightly more coy, it aims to insinuate itself with the listener by creeping up on you gently. So an initial flickering beat is joined by an ominous, sonorous chime. Then a ghostly wail, and some sound effects that could have come straight from Martin Hannett's soundboard (whatever the genre, the very best acts from it *always* seem to remind us of Joy Division somehow). There's a sinister hissing sound. Soon, a metronomic ticking, at a steady 126 bpm. Ghostly embers dance around at the back of the mix, a la Concrete DJz' "Solid State Refills". And all the while, the chime goes on. It's sleek, beautiful, music. And the Schwarz is back, too, with a single on Sydney's Darknet, the latest Kiel haul following his thunderous "Torsion" outing. Like the second half of last yr's "Ganimed", "Incarnation" has at its hub a markedly simple ringing synth: just two notes, captured and then repeated, tilted and infracted as drum fills and rolls well up beneath. Assured and controlled, it's the neatest possible companion to any trip out into the city evening dusk.

Finally, and staying on an instrumental tip (after all, half of both our top ten and top twenty singles of last year were shorn of vocals) comes "Kindred", at last now out on vinyl. While we've watched out for Burial's occasional releases ever since the first album landed, we've never considered ourselves great fans: at times we've been baffled by, and even envious (on behalf of all the underrated bands we love) of his critical popularity. But "Kindred" is - oh how we hate agreeing with basically the rest of the world on anything to do with music - an unbelievably good track, surely a landmark single: probably both Burial's finest release to date, and maybe even Hyperdub's.

"Kindred" is unmistakably Burial from word go, all fluttering needle, broken-flow vocals, crackling beats, d-step bass: but it twists and turns, never chases the hook, lets the warm chords strike out from the soundscape and create their own private moments of joy with the listener. The bassline is harder than usual, yet this rare club-friendly nod is offset by the arrangement, which is almost wilfully organic. He assembles and dismantles the constituent parts of the song, taking joy in interrogating, confirming and then confounding your preconceptions as the record halts, resumes, subsides again. It's the most ambitious single we've encountered since The Fall's seriously overlooked epic "The Chiselers" (which it even recalls in places).

Now, some of you will be sensing a weakness in our armour: you'll be thinking "ah, but you lot always bang on about punk and year zero, and now you're gushing over a 12-minute epic chock-full of themes and suites and concepts, therefore Burial is really modern-day prog, and certainly not punk, which means your endless verbal jousting about the superiority of the punk ethic over all that came before is once again proven totally unfounded". To which we say: um, good point, and normally at this stage we would create a distraction, or offer to go and buy you another pint, but as you're there and we're here and there isn't a bar in sight, I guess all we can say for now is this: to our mind, the problem with 'prog' (but it wasn't just with prog, of course, it was the whole mediocre shleck across all genres - dried-up rock, stale bubblegum pop, gruesome balladeers - that afflicted the 1970s, and the problem was never the *existence* of prog, but only any unhealthy idea that it was the pinnacle of all musical creation; but that aside) was more its increasing divergence from the disillusioned mood of a new society post-"who governs", and the perception that it was ivory tower art, while punk to the new generation ennobled them and reflected their own concerns and was rooted more in their own realities, *and* we would say, if pushed, that this is what Burial does: he makes art which may not expressly give a voice to 2012's myriad sociopolitical realities, but we can identify with his records because they *do* absolutely seem to reflect the life that many of us live, especially those of us in cities; fragmented, in need of a soundtrack, holding up a mirror to the way music is consumed now (on headphones, in all weathers, competing with traffic and sirens and other people's conversations and arguments), and that Burial's 'dance music that you can't dance to' is the perfect prescription for our transient lives, for all the time we spend on public transport flitting from one place to another. And by now you'll just be thinking that we've gone *waaay* too pretentious (although even now we'd still counter that this only scratches the surface, and anyway you should see some of the essays that proper critics have written about "Kindred") and again you're probably right, but then you did ask.

Although actually, if your comeback to this, however impertinent, is that at some point even we have to stop hiding behind thickly-wooded verbiage and accept that this kind of thing *can* turn into prog, then (holds up hands, like no-nonsense defender trying in vain to passively-agressively persuade referee not to dish out second yellow) you are right. For after "Kindred", and second track "Loner" (which takes a more straight-up, rushing 4/4 approach), comes "Ashtray Wasp", which literally throws everything but the kitchen sink into the mix. In doing so, while it's been the most lauded track of the three, for us it tips a little too much into a "progressive" kind of self-indulgence.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Terrorizer "Hordes Of Zombies" (Season Of Mist)

In 1989, Earache released Terrorizer's "World Downfall", the LP that defined the original high-falutin grindcore "sound", and alongside "Straight Outta Compton", "The Chronic" and "Original Gangsta" one of the essential California albums of all-time. With Oscar Garcia's staccato guttural vocal grunting and Pete Sandoval's sheer percussive velocity, interspersed with foot-tappin' guitar breakdowns from Jesse Pintado and David Vincent's high-in-the-mix bass this was - like Napalm's "Mentally Murdered" EP - grindcore you could *dance* to, if you were so minded: its ebbs, flows and grooves were worlds apart from the pained, trebly screamo-mathgrind nonsense that would later shuffle into vogue. As part of Lock-Up's warming and wholesome set at the Underworld last December they dedicated two tunes to the late Jesse Pintado (also, of course, ex-Napalm and Lock-Up): covers of Terrorizer's "Storm Of Stress" and the ever-brilliant "Fear of Napalm". It was both a generous tribute and a potent reminder of just how timeless that first Terrorizer album has become, more than a score of years later.

But when Pintado and Sandoval returned, without Garcia and Vincent, for Century Media album "Darker Days Ahead" in 2006 we were forced to lament that although "a thick, earthy, hulking mass of death metal" it was hardly "the grindcore classic we yearned for". As we later remarked, ostensibly whilst reviewing a Secret Shine record, you can tell that an album is in trouble if the best track on it is a re-work of an older tune by the same band, and the highlight of "Darker Days Ahead" was probably "Dead Shall Rise '06", a crashing if unenlightening re-take on the classic cut from "World Downfall" (and "Grindcrusher", lest we forget). See also Public Enemy's "Apocalypse '91", which arguably peaks with its Anthraxed-up re-rendering of "Bring The Noise".

A mere five and a half years later, Terrorizer have decided to roll out album number three, on label number three (Season Of Mist, of Marseilles). The sad death of Pintado on the cusp of "Darker Days Ahead"'s release means that Pete Sandoval is the only constant (although Morbid Angel mainman Vincent returns to the fold, at least for the purposes of this recording, to restore the 50% original member quota). Line-up 3.0 is completed by new guitarist Katina Culture (who played alongside Jesse Pintado in Resistant Culture for a while), as well as Resistant Culture singer Anthony Rezhawk, who made his bow for Terrorizer on "Darker Days Ahead".

* * * * *

To tackle the lows head-on, the over-clinical production is perhaps a little samey; the bass is somewhat hidden; the lyrics, while intelligent and worthy, break no new ground, and the vocals are a tad one-dimensional (although, unlike much of this ilk, you can at least hear the words). The only thing on "Hordes of Zombies" that truly leaps out at you is the drumming. The speed of the drumming. It's unrelenting: even when the guitars slow down for a while, Pete is hammering out 250+ beats per minute, his hands surely a mere blur, his famous footpedal going gaga. But the danceability and verve of the Terrorizer of yore has largely vanished.

Yet viewed on its own terms - a machine-like, head-down, album of eco-political songs played in death metal stylee and with turbocharged grindcore celerity - "Hordes" is still a compelling proposition. The admirable tunnel vision at play is typified by the fact that pretty much every track ends super-abruptly and, rather brilliantly, with *exactly* the same truncated chord: it's almost as if they glance at the studio clock and as soon as a song's over two minutes decide just to wrap it up immediately, regardless of where they'd got to. In terms of deviation from this unforgivingly austere template, Katina gets the occasional brief solo, and there are a couple of samples, but that's it. (If you strive *too* hard for musical diversity, mind, the danger is that you end up with that fairly remarkable last Morbid Angel LP, which is the Royal Variety Show by comparison, but which hardly makes for cohesive or even repeated listening).

So while "Hordes of Zombies" has received a fair pasting from certain quarters, we reckon you need to go for a "glass half full" approach here rather than wallow in Terrorizer's past glories and think that a record featuring half of the original line-up, and made over 22 years later, could really ever be expected to revisit them. There's a particularly strong run of tracks towards the middle and end of the record, and at times it even reminds us of one of the first bands who tried to marry death brutality with insane pace, the oft-overlooked Unseen Terror. (Should you ever wonder why we so often sport such sour demeanour and hangdog face, it's because there just aren't *enough* bands nowadays who manage to remind us of Unseen Terror). Which all makes this third Terrorizer outing pretty enjoyable: more sprightly and self-knowing than "Darker Days", and blooming - just a little - with each new listen.

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.

* * * * *

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".

* * * * *

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*.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Napalm Death "Analysis Paralysis" (Century Media)

There's something evocative, something tender, something *about* trees, in this case the stark monochrome woodland painted on the sleeve of this 7" single by Danish artist Frode Sylthe. Yet the only other sleeve art we can find which echoes this theme are the rich forest adorning Ripcord's "Poetic Justice" LP, and Shirley Souter's tree and stump drawings on Razorcuts' "The World Keeps Turning" set ("The World Keeps Turning" remains, fact fans, the only song title shared by Razorcuts and Napalm Death, unless you count that early Razors' pre-Sad Kaleidoscope demo, "Cock-Rock Alienation"). This is an artistic oversight by, um, all other bands, surely ?

And there's something evocative, something tender, something *about* holding new Napalm Death vinyl in your hand. Gosh, the last time we bought an ND 7" was back in 1989, when a trip to the same singles rack in NW1 which had yielded any number of Sarah 45s (and would later yield "A Smile Took Over") delivered up their fairly legendary "Mentally Murdered" single, the one that took them to a new level (one we sometimes feel, great as they are, that they could never hope to replicate). And we can laugh about it now, but at the time we really thought that there was a chance of Napalm breaking the top 40 with it. That's the kind of magical happening you contemplate when you're young and overwhelmed by a wonderful record, and insulate yourself completely from the reality that this was one band who never had a prayer of appearing on Top of the Pops.

"Analysis Paralysis" grabs you immediately with raw, rough n' ready descending chords. Danny Herrera's drums roll in with verve after four bars, ushering in a firestarting guitar riff from Mitch Harris before Barney Greenway hurls himself into the first verse: "if you're looking for the guilty ones", he growls, "we only need to look in the mirror" and with a smile as wide as the Thames Estuary you *know* that Napalm are BACK. Again. The four of them then propel a blistering, sprinting attack of traditional-ish grindcore that never relents over the course of its 3 1/2 minutes. So - just to be clear - there's no sign of Barney's recently stated influences of My Bloody Valentine and Joy Division, nor alas Shane's alleged longtime fondness for the Darling Buds. Closer to reality, nor is there any in-vogue mathgrind noodling or any concession to clean-lines metal production: Russ Russell, at the helm once again, keeps the guitars neatly fuzzy and Barney's vocal nicely frothing.

And the song is about a subject dear to our hearts, which is how - especially in the internet age - too many of us refuse to engage with critical debate. We don't need to apply critical thinking or supply evidence for our point of view: we can just hide behind our beliefs, however ill-informed, and in all probability harness plenty of "support" for them via a few minutes' concerted googling. Whatever your prejudice, there'll be a way to bolster it, so everything becomes polarised, context is dismissed, nuance is dead in the water and plenty of the correct answers in life (those that begin... "well, it's a little bit more complicated than that...") are sidelined. As an earlier incarnation of Napalm had it, you're "Blind To The Truth". Barney is as angry about all this as you might expect, braying - and this is where the trees come in, if you wondered - "will we ever see the wood for the trees / hating the truth, denying the hope / it might make us better men". And when he sings about "screaming at the wall", the Minor Threat reference can be no coincidence: as a big old-school hardcore fan we're sure that Barney was once down with them, too.

So, what more can we say, after listen after listen after listen ? It's plane to see that this is an absolute beech of a record. And that's no oak.

Thursday, March 08, 2012

Coldworker "The Doomsayer's Call" (Listenable): Slash Dementia "Wheels Of Babylon" (Torn Flesh)

Can it really be nearly four years since the last Coldworker album ? Little wonder that this, their third, begins with a rousing ditty called "The New Era", as the Orebro quintet mark a move from stateside corporate behemoth (sort of) Relapse to Listenable Records from sleepy coastal France, the label that gave us that hugely commanding "Corpus In Extremis" album from Coldworker's even less-prolific compatriots General Surgery in 2009. Reading between the lines, it seems that Coldworker's departure from Relapse was one of those which tend to get described in the football world as "by mutual consent", no doubt on the heels of a boardroom vote of confidence. Overall though, we're pleased to report that this is Relapse's loss, because once you get past the unfortunately prog rock-ish album title and cover art, there is much to admire about "The Doomsayer's Call".

While Coldworker's brand of deathgrind has p'raps matured a scintilla, it was always more measured and methodical than say, the definitive d/g album of last year, Lock-Up's outstanding "Necropolis Transparent": and you can understand why Coldworker founder Anders Jakobsson remains keen to maintain a respectable distance between his new band and the heady, full-on blastbeat barrage that was Nasum in full flight. Unusually, all five band members have a hand in both composing and lyric-writing duties, but "Doomsayer's Call" never sounds fragmented: it's more consistent than "Rotting Paradise" and in our minds, at least, there is no doubt that the lyrical references here to "realm of chaos" and "mental murder" are knowing glances to the great forbears of this kind of thing, Bolt-Thrower and Napalm Death, the very bands you're reminded of by the peaks of this album.

As others have observed, "The Doomsayer's Call" is not chock-full of memorable melodies as such (a shame, as one of the reasons the likes of "Chapel Of Ghouls" or "Homage For Satan" will echo into death metal posterity is precisely because they had hooks you can hum), but when Coldworker do hit their stride they can be as lean and savage as any of their peers. Proof comes via our favourite track here - and the longest - "Monochrome Existence": a bleak glimpse into a looming nuclear winter that boasts a riff of frankly elephantine proportions and which, much like GS's "Virulent Corpus Dispersement", operates very much as a centrepiece to the album.

Elsewhere, there's fun to be had with the DM stylings of "Fleshworld" (not a Wedding Present cover, mind); the way that "Pessimist" and "Murderous" scurry with considerable purpose between relentless higher-tempo drum bashing and heavy chordscapes that lash and pound; the punchy and belligerent "Living Is Suffering" and "Violent Society", which unsurprisingly tend to the punkier, less death-oriented side of the Coldworker sound; the rising drama of "The Reprobate", an examination of the art of manipulation that features guest vocals (and lyrics) from Misery Index's Jason Netherton; and the fierce, surging "The Glass Envelope", a study of the pernicious internet surveillance culture that Swedish society is struggling with more than most. Memo to Coldworker, though: it would be great not to have to wait until 2016 for the next record.

* * * * *

If you'd prefer something altogether faster and more direct, then hop over the border to Finland, which reinvented itself a grindcore hotbed in 2011 with terrific albums from Vaasa veterans Rotten Sound ("Cursed") and, spectacularly, the youthful vigour of the Lappeenranta's wondrous Death Toll 80k ("Harsh Realities"). Slash Dementia, despite presumably being named after the Carcass number, clearly have no truck with monolithic breakdowns, tinges of DM, occasional guitar solos or four-minute songs: these eight tracks from the Aanekoski-based quartet are a fair shout at combining the pace and hunger of DT80K (if sadly not their ripping Insect Warfare-ish moshes) with the fuzzy growl of RS even if, for now, the quality falls just short of either.

The EP begins with a Mr Cholmondeley-Warner sample (we confess that Finnish grindcore wasn't the first place we expected to hear that) before "Violence, Act 5" sets off at predictably breakneck pace, inevitably imploding around half-a-minute in. Next comes "Wheels", possibly the best song here, singer Lassi Pollari spewing out feverish bile ("you fucking piece of shit!") over a *crunching* riff which is a dead ringer for the twisted groove at the heart of Rotten Sound's "Power". Almost tremblingly austere, "Vaajaamattomaan Itsemurhaan" then builds a brief but thrillingly unrelenting 'wall of grind' before "Not Too Hard" brings something a bit more punkish, but just as razor-sharp, to the party: almost as much Sotatila, say, as traditional Scandinavian grind.

"Start Breathing" introduces a welcome two-speed approach: an initial machine-gun assault mutates into a groove-laden breakdown, following which Pollari's heartfelt growls ("when you stop breathing, you stop believing") as the guitars fall away are again reminiscent of "Cursed"'s more sanguine moments (think of Keijo Niinimaa's voice echoing into the void when "Scared" spluttered to a halt). After the murkier "Break Away" has turned "Start Breathing"' into a rockier sludge, injecting into it some not entirely welcome 'serious' axework, it's time for "Valheet" and "Do It Again" (sadly neither JD "Glass" tribute nor Korova Milkbar cover) to take it to the bridge: with plunging riffs and melodies, both songs feel at least as influenced by crust / hardcore as by grind. Still, whatever you call the noise Slash Dementia make, there's no doubt we have been landed with (yet another) new name to watch.

Saturday, March 03, 2012

Red Shoe Diaries "When I Find My Heart..." (Fika Recordings)

We can't help feel that over the years Nottingham has punched rather below its weight when it comes to *bands*. Great hip-hop, labels and e-zines yes, but never a convincing tradition of pop bands. So it's now the turn of Red Shoe Diaries to try and put Notts on the map with their new 10" extended play on Fika Recordings.

Fika, of course, being the tea and cake repping Anglo-Swedish label - spookily enough established at just the same time as Grindcore Karaoke - that gave us Horowitz's heavenly "Knitwear Generation" cassingle this time last year. Despite a little (thankfully halfhearted) criticism of their releasing cassettes, doing so remains an important statement, and the most cursory glance at the US hardcore scene for example will demonstrate that there are no shortage of new bands releasing new records on K7. We all have a preferred hierarchy of formats - our own is foil cylinder > wax cylinder > shellac 78s > flexi-disc > lathe-cut / 200g / 180g vinyl > cassette > compact disc > mp3 > 8-track cartridge - but the nub of this is that bands and labels should take control over every aspect of their oeuvre, and it's gratifying to see that, whether proffering vinyl or cassette, Fika set so much store in getting the package *right*.

As to Red Shoe Diaries, forza Nottingham! The songs here are charming tales (not always with happy endings) of unfulfilled dreams, of life changes, of the selfishness of adults, of broken hearts, of Paris, of a surfeit of wintry weather. Musically, the EP teems with bright, Saturday afternoon soul: the excellent lead track "The Love That You Read About" is typical, as its rushing, upbeat Butcher Boy-ish drive rubs up against some darker lyrical themes, while "Fossil Fuels" burns with the same natural energy (see what we did there ?) and humour as the Hermit Crabs' somewhat underrated offerings for Matinee Recordings. "Snowbird" parades a vibe midway between Kicker and "Casino Classics", driven by groovesome bass and interspersed with handclaps (and applause), before the piano-tinted "Ice and Snow" - also a download single, just to throw another format into the mix - deftly plays off girl / boy verses, recalling the gleaming melancholy of later California Snow Story. Matters conclude with the more reflective final track "Encyclopaedic Pain", which documents the moving-in thing with the same pathos, if not the plectrum-shattering scratchiness, of the Wedding Present's "Don't Laugh". It also includes our favourite line of the year so far.

And when we say "soul" - and God knows we've got into knots (and fights) about this before - what we mean is this: how we discovered Comet Gain (and perhaps how they once discovered Dexy's) and realised that "soul" was our preserve too, not just that of the cool kids. Or the way that McAlmont and Butler released "Yes!" and it was an instant confirmation that everything Suede had ever done had, indeed, been as terrible as we thought. And "When I Find My Heart..." kicks against the modern purveyors of 'glam-racket', mostly flighty indie boys with unhealthy Britpop fetishes, in just the same way. We can't hail it our favourite 10" of all-time: no record made by mere human beings, as opposed to deities, can compete with "Two Kan Guru", or "Slates", or plenty of those beautiful Sarah artefacts. It can, however, lay a fair claim to being the best 10" EP of grown-up pop since "So Said Kay", and that is not something we lightly say.