Lucid Fairytale: The Fourth, Defiant Decade Of Napalm Death

“Napalm Death were a formative influence on my adolescence, a rebellious left-turn in mine and many others’ lives. Forced upon us by John Peel, they and their ilk – but they more than anyone – were met with initial incredulity and mirth, before the inherent logic of what they were doing and how they were doing it became utterly irresistible. At the point when all any self-respecting teenager wants is righteous noise to call their own, they were the answer to my prayers. They were my Sex Pistols, my Public Enemy. They defined what music could be, should be; they defined what it could and should say” - Ian Grant

* * * * *

As pink clouds bled rain into the Farringdon dusk, D’Alma and I huddled in consultation in the Hope, a pub so “old man” that even when you’re in there it feels like it’s been boarded up and dormant for years. As I teased out the embers of an early evening Carlsberg, and D’Alma kept it real with straightedge lime and soda, we found ourselves discussing Jools Holland for some reason.

JH couldn’t be all bad, I posited. Squeeze had some beezer tunes once, “The Tube” was usually good value, and he’d guested on (great) records by both Chas and Dave *and* Alternative TV. D’Alma countered, a little aggressively I thought for someone on softs, saying that why, in that case, had there never been a good band on “Later with Jools Holland”? I managed to muster that that Ice-T appeared on it once (in 1996, a subsequent Google search confirmed), as did the Fall (in 2005, apparently) so to be fair to Jools his show was averaging a worthwhile artist once every decade or so, not a bad hit-rate for a mainstream music programme these days. But D'Alma's point stood.

So, after the traditional diversion of my brother in arms trying and failing to pay for the next round on a card, conversation veered inevitably on to the groups who should be gracing “Later…” in 2015, with me generally trying to steer it to a certain Singaporean trio, or to the Fireworks, but the thought had already pricked my mind that the most striking omission from the list of bands who’d graced Jools’ show was in fact the combo who are probably (really) the greatest British group of the period it’s been running, a band who should, by rights, be lighting up TV channels pretty much on the permanent. And that we hadn’t even got round to ‘reviewing’ their new LP, which seemed a little discourteous given that I’d been listening to it virtually non-stop for three weeks. So when D’Alma headed into the sunset for the Clapham train, I dug out some old receipts and a torn-in-half betting slip (damn you, Torquay United) and began to scribble.

* * * * *

Back in 1988, I strolled down to Parrot Records from school and parted with the princely sum of £5.49 for a copy of second Napalm LP “From Enslavement… To Obliteration”, on the back of a positive Sounds review and my intrigue with their Peel Session output. At that time, the band had garnered a certain notoriety, but were still being routinely dismissed either as a joke, a Situationist prank, or at best as four youngsters from the Midlands who were gamely making the most of their 15 minutes of infamy. However, that record had a disconcertingly powerful impact on me and, I would wager, on hundreds of others.

I eagerly devoured these breakneck, utterly impassioned songs about countering racist ideology (“Unchallenged Hate”), subverting rock music cliché (“Cock-Rock Alienation”), saving the environment (“Make Way!”), being hopelessly lost and awkward in social situations (“Retreat To Nowhere”, “Social Sterility”), relationship dysfunction (“Emotional Suffocation”) and challenging everyday sexism (“It’s a M.A.N’s World”, “Inconceivable?”, “Evolved As One”… the first stirrings of the gender politics which the group continue to examine to the present day). In our record collection at the time, only the Field Mice visited that subject so sincerely and self-consciously.

But Napalm (est. 1982) were not – as many others were – merely preaching to an already-converted audience about how contemptible the various “isms” were. Lee Dorrian’s words often put himself under the microscope: with songs like “Inconceivable?” he was interested in how each of us might unthinkingly absorb or internalise sexist or racist attitudes. On top of this, he was mastering the extreme narrative discipline required by a lyric-writer who might only have 30 or so seconds to make his point (how those ringtone-length tunes always felt like elaborate little haikus to us).

Not that we should ignore the music that accompanied those words: it took time to attune to it, to work out where on Earth the riffs were coming from, and where the hell they were heading in such a hurry, but there was never any doubt that these boys could play. As then-guitarist Bill Steer once told the BBC, the big beasts of Van Halen et al wouldn’t have been able to go into a studio and play Napalm riffs straight off. Months of practice in rehearsal rooms and on chaotic stages were needed to hone this extraordinary sound. The recording quality on the album was a bit tinny – looking at the action photos of the band on the sleeve in some dank basement, banging this stuff out as if their lives depended on it, I was not surprised – but the ambition was MASSIVE. A statement had been made, and I was won over.

* * * * *

Ian mentioned Public Enemy back there, another unconstrained force of nature whose tracks burst from the John Peel show listings not too long before Napalm Death’s little vignettes did the same. And, just like the P.E., Napalm have transitioned from being “angry young men” to “angry elder statesmen”: still touring, still releasing new records, still sounding frankly livid most of the time. But it must be remembered that this longevity is – in itself – quite a surprise.

When I first cradled that LP in my hands way back in the ‘80s, it’s fair to say I would not have been expecting still to be buying new albums by Napalm Death over 25 years later. Even then, at an age where virtually everything was ephemeral and all life lived in the moment, I was all-too aware that Napalm were in particular danger of being flotsam and jetsam caught up by the zeitgeist, thrust into the spotlight and then discarded into critical oblivion when the next big thing came along.

Indeed, after a fashion, that’s what happened - they lost their shock value, overhauled their line-up for the zillionth time (with Steer and Dorrian decamping to concentrate on Carcass and Cathedral respectively), and went to the States and indulged their death metal side for a while; and much of the fan base moved on. Though even when they were in Florida, recording Floridian death metal, they kept the lyrical emphasis on social consciousness, rather than the blood and guts of their American contemporaries who they were, to be fair, otherwise largely aping. Indeed, the DM incarnation would revisit a number of the band’s earlier tunes, including “Unchallenged Hate” and “Social Sterility”. And the band’s live sets never stopped including favourites from their ever-startling debut album, “Scum”.

But although we did move on, we didn’t forget completely. We discerned that, after a couple of death metal-ish albums, Napalm had entered what is now known by some as their “experimental” phase, although that seems a bit too grand a label, because from this distance it seems that they were mainly experimenting with commerciality (the next three LPs wrestled, unconvincingly at times, with incorporating nu-metal stylings, at the time that their label, Earache, was flirting - just as clumsily - with Columbia Records, as documented in Albert Mudrian’s excellent book). They were accomplished records, and if Napalm were doing nu-metal they were doing it 100x better than anybody else, but despite a couple of blistering singles (the not dissimilar “Greed Killing” and “Breed To Breathe”), no touchpaper was being lit any more.

Eventually, around the turn of the century, it would take a parting of the waves with Earache, and a conscious decision to change the game, for Napalm to turn themselves around. So for 2000’s “Enemy Of The Music Business”, the flashier branding and clean production were sacrificed. The band readopted their classic original logo, the song titles were punched out on the sleeve by typewriter, and the lyrics got more bitter and caustic than ever before. But, most noticeably of all, the music became fast, ferocious and frightening again, as this fabulous band rediscovered their edge. (And, by and large, ‘new model Napalm’ has flourished ever since, aided by something else you could never have predicted in 1988: a pretty stable core line-up which has starred Shane Embury (bass), Barney Greenway (machine-gun growl), Danny Herrera (drums) and Mitch Harris (guitar) for well over 20 consecutive years now, if you ignore the strange and short-lived vocalist “swap deal” with Extreme Noise Terror in the mid-90s).

By this point, after experimenting with university, work, drugs, relationships – or whatever it is grown-ups were meant to do – we clocked that these heroes from our adolescence were positively BURNING with the same passion and principle they once had, and that now they were no longer under such intense scrutiny / ridicule, we could embrace them on their own terms again.

* * * * *

And with every year that’s passed, and with every new long-player, we’d notice little clues and hints that Napalm Death weren’t *just* churning out great records, but had made a mark of sorts on the wider cultural milieu, had achieved a status that certainly wasn’t limited to The Grindcore Few. The fact that ex-members of the band had gone on to invent industrial dubstep, or perfect “found sound” collage and installation art. The collaborations, from Gunshot to John Zorn to Jello Biafra. A guest appearance on Skins; being the muse for artists like Mark Titchener; literally taking on a Keith Harrison sculpture in Bexhill (as Ian recounts in the article we quote above), after the V&A had baulked at the prospect; being used as preview music on Match of the Day (crisp magnate Lineker looked *very* bemused after listening to ace “Scum” cut “Common Enemy”).

For basically, once our generation hit our 30s and 40s, we found that some of that generation were in the media and had got busy resetting its narrative. Suddenly, you could always find a nod to Napalm if you looked for one. There are parallels with Talulah Gosh, once maligned beyond belief but who ended up getting OBEs and winning Turner Prizes. Napalm haven’t yet achieved either, but in a just world (and given their somewhat unshakeable commitment to humanitarian issues, animal welfare and endless benefit gigs) I wouldn’t put either beyond them. Indeed, as I type this up, I read that Barney has penned an open letter to the president of Indonesia about pardoning a Death Row prisoner, on the totally logical basis that the president of Indonesia happens to be a self-professed longtime fan of Napalm Death (although, a bit like Dave Cameron with the Smiths, one feels he can’t have been concentrating too hard on their lyrics).

There is also a solid kernel for a lively pub discussion as to whether Napalm, at least ‘til the mid to late 90s, were actually a cracking *singles* band: “Mentally Murdered” (obviously – the 12” is up there with “Splashdown!” or “Shopping Parade” as one of the best EPs ever), “Mass Appeal Madness”, “Suffer The Children”, “The World Keeps Turning”, “Breed To Breathe”, even the emotional rollercoaster of “Hung”… sadly, in the 21st century the flow of singles dried up rather, with the “Analysis Paralysis” 7” being the only new one to kiss our turntable.

All of which means that the answer to the question, “what was the last great British rock album?” is, normally, the last Napalm Death album. So until recently, it was “Utilitarian”. Or, before that, “Time Waits For No Slave”. Or, before that, “Smear Campaign”. Or, before that, “The Code Is Red… Long Live The Code”. But, right now, it’s “Apex Predator – Easy Meat”. Studio album fifteen.

* * * * *

Even by Napalm’s somewhat exacting standards the title track, which begins the LP, is extremely unsettling. Part-chant, part “Evolved As One”-style blunderbuss, part Mark Stewart-like rant, part extended drum-solo, it is not what you would expect from one of Britain’s more energetic outfits. And then, it pulls up… and the next few tracks unleash a veritable torrent of hi-tensile fury. The ‘transition’ from the title tune into the eighty-five brutally unsubtle seconds of “Smash A Single Digit” is a bit like someone switching the Dansette from 33pm to 3,000 rpm and possibly the most dramatic change of pace ever encountered between album tracks, as if John Beck had just usurped Helenio Herrera in a pitchside coup and switched Inter from catenaccio to a frantic long-ball 2-3-5. That track, and “Metaphorically Screw You” which follows it, whip up the pace and lay solid foundations for what’s to come.

After five tracks of non-stop speed, which also include a riff from Mitch on “Timeless Flogging” as gnarled and gnawing as Nobby Stiles ‘putting it about’ in the middle third, we get another enthralling diversion. I’m not normally one for calling on all members of Parliament and the Royal Family to be kidnapped until they agree to change the national anthem of this sceptr’d isle, but in the case of the wirier, mid-paced, Swans-ish dirge “Your Slum Landlord…” (the best ever song about slum landlords that isn’t by the Wolfhounds) we believe that such drastic measures would be fully justified. Hell, that’s an anthem we might even stand up to listen to.

And it’s followed by a serious candidate for the strongest tune here. “Cesspits” is another example of why ND are worth their weight in the gold stuff (er, gold). There are easily enough hooks, riffs and musical passages on this track to fill three different songs, but the band aren’t satisfied by merely repeating the deeply satisfying opening mosh, the slower, more angular “verse” and then a passage of pure speed that follows: they insist on shoehorning in every possible segment of sonic scree that they can. Indeed, the best is saved for last as a completely virgin breakdown riff appears with 40 seconds to go and drives the song to a satisfyingly brutal conclusion. “Bloodless Coup” has a hard act to follow, but with its nods to hardcore punk and the nostalgic world of “Leaders Not Followers” it, too, flies by like a dream. Along with the incredibly venomous “Stunt Your Growth” (the climactic final bars of which feature the boys shouting “G-M-O!” like an eco-conscious Oi! band), it’s one of the punchiest things here.

So what are the ‘takeaways’ from “Apex Predator”? The sheer ferocity of Barney’s vocals, for one. But also the lyrical theme of the album, which contrasts multinationals’ corporate marketing in the West with their treatment of workers in the East. The theme is driven to near-destruction in the dangerously smouldering “Stubborn Stains”, in which Barney homes in on systems of industrialised slave labour (the album is dedicated, amongst others, to the victims of the Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh) and ponders the real cost of cheap T-shirts over a relentless backdrop of guitars. Rage at the trade practices of multi-nationals, and their seeming immunity from meaningful sanction, is a theme that goes back to the band’s very earliest days - check out the “Scum” cover art, or “Multi-National Corporations” the song – but was eloquently revisited more recently by the Union Carbide-savaging “No Impediment To Triumph (Bhopal)”. There are no playful Cardiacs cover versions here.

But there are legion other highlights. Shane’s “How The Years Condemn” is an exception to the overt politics, a song about putting family and friends first that opens in seeming confusion, with feedback and practice-noise knocking about at the back of the mix, but once it gets into gear it’s straightforward and honest, a raging storm of experience, a song which the younger band wouldn’t have been able to write, which musically would have fitted perfectly on their 14th set, “Utilitarian”.

The thunderous “Hierarchies”, another standout Embury composition, combines one of the most addictive riffs on the record (a little reminiscent of those on the last Carcass set) with a strangely successful chorus which consists of what the metal fraternity call “clean vocals” but the man in the street would tend to identify as “actual singing”. It also has the only guitar solo on the LP (the sleeve notes are almost apologetic about this, at pains to point out that it’s only a “token” guitar solo, but to be fair, it’s easily missed – for it seems that Bloke Out Of Corrupt Moral Altar made his way down to the studio to provide a solo that lasts just under eight seconds).

And then comes the icing on the cake. Leading into the last tune – a typically obscure cover version, of a long-forgotten Swedish crust-punk outfit called G-ANX - there’s a beautiful, lilting piano instrumental. We weren’t quite sure what it was doing there at first, especially when it inevitably gave way to the usual both-barrels barrage of grind. But then we realised. It had to be an olive branch for Jools, Napalm’s way of saying “if you put us on your show, this is the bit you can join in with”. We can only dream that he will finally take the hint.

* * * * *

And with that, this fanzine shuffled up from its seat, stowed its empty glass on the bar and sidled out into the night.

It’s true, as the JBs reminded us back in those halcyon days, that there are eight million stories. But the rise and rise of Napalm Death remains perhaps our favourite fairytale of all.


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