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Grind and Crush: Godflesh’s Streetcleaner and Terrorizer’s World Downfall Turn 25

So what is the first “extreme” album? Metalheads will likely point to Death’s Scream Bloody Gore or Bathory’s S/T, or maybe even Venom’s Welcome to Hell. Meanwhile, the crust-punk/powerviolence types might be likely to hold up the early documents of the wilder hardcore punk bands like Void and Siege . If any consensus is to be reached between the two camps, it’s probably Napalm Death’s 1987 debut Scum . Bands like Discharge, D.R.I., and Corrosion of Conformity had already been synthesizing punk and metal, but Scum took only the most savage aspects of both to reach a new alta vista of extremity. The guitar was an unrelenting buzzsaw, the drums a chaotic torrent of activity, and the vocals a contrast of growls and high-pitched barks moving further and further from the human element.

The early history of Napalm Death figures into the legacies of Terrorizer and Godflesh not only in an aesthetic way, but also in a fraternal way. Godflesh mastermind Justin Broadrick provided the guitar attack on Side A of Scum, while the late Jesse Pintado joined Napalm on their third major reboot shortly after Terrorizer disbanded. Godflesh and Terrorizer released their debuts on the same day in 1989, twenty five years ago today, and both albums continue to be pillars of two very different styles of metal.

California’s Terrorizer was a band so short-lived in their original inception that their debut was actually something of a reunion album. The story goes that Napalm bandmate Shane Embury was so enamored with the group’s demos that he begged the boss of Earache records to convince the by that point mostly inactive band to get together and record a full-length. So Terrorizer went east to Tampa and recorded and mixed World Downfall in about eight hours at the fabled Morrisound Recording studio. Given the rushed nature of the recording process, and the fact that Terrorizer was part of the early wave of American grindcore acts, one might predict the album would be a raw, spitball affair. Not the case. This was beefy crossover grind aimed at converting death metal-heads who may have been skeptical about the more unpolished sounds of a band like Assück.

The classic status of this album is assured just by looking at the lineup. There are no “secret weapons” here, three of the four members are extreme metal royalty, and vocalist Oscar Garcia deserves due consideration. David Vincent and Pete Sandoval, of course, could be found earlier that year on Morbid Angel’s landmark Altars of Madness, and the time spent in that band serves Sandoval especially well. His powerhouse drumming is the musical high point of World Downfall. Much like Dave Lombardo’s iconic work on Reign in Blood , Sandoval’s performance effortlessly brings together speed, dexterity, power and cohesion. It seems remarkable to consider he never used double bass until joining Morbid Angel when you hear the tight bursts he rolls through on “Enslaved by Propaganda” and “Storm of Stress.”

The late Jesse Pintado’s guitar playing may not match or even aim for the pyrotechnics of Trey Azagthoth, but it doesn’t need to. His thick, simple riffs are perfect for this material. Not until Scott Hull showed up would another grind guitarist play this heavy and catchy.
Garcia’s lyrics have the political bent of the more punk-influenced grindcore bands, but with a more bleak and pessimistic “metal” angle. They don’t exactly lay out a complete worldview for the undecided, but then, when you title your leadoff track “After World Obliteration,” you’re bound to be a little more Rustin Cohle than Paul Krugman. Garcia rarely gets specific with his gripes against the government, nor does he do himself a service when he does. Consider the ending couplet of “Corporation Pull-In”: “If they want an apartheid state / then take your shit and fuck off.” Deep, man. But the lyrics don’t need to factor in when enjoying World Downfall. The System does suck a lot of the time, and you can hold any of the reasons why in your head while you headbang and air-blast along with Pete and the rest.

If Terrorizer can make the post-apocalypse seem like a raging kegger party, Streetcleaner feels more like slow annihilation. Listening to this music makes me feel like I’m buried up to my neck watching storm clouds violently swirling on the horizon. Godflesh’s sound is that of contradictions being crushed together. It’s distorted and mechanical, but also organic. It’s repetitive, but also always shifting. It’s bleak and soul-destroying, but, if you’re perverse enough, you can dance to it.

Similar to the grindcore bands, Godflesh wanted to reach beyond metal for influences, but instead of hardcore punk, the band takes cues from industrial and no-wave groups like Killing Joke and, especially, Swans. The early, brutal guise of Swans frontman Michael Gira is a model for the Broadrick on display here. The vocals are hoarse, menacing bellows; the lyrics, terse commands and anti-slogans. “My life / Is expendable / What do you care? / Life is money”. But where early Swans mostly clanked and clubbed, Streetcleaner, instrumentally, proves capable of more. Broadrick’s guitar and G. Christian Green’s rumbling bass are plenty heavy, but always well-defined in the mix. The two are as likely to lock in on a pummeling riff as they are to play off each other and create interesting counterpoints.

The drum machine may be one of the most notorious aspects of the album’s sound, but it’s also one of the most essential. It’s like a high-tech cannon that never misfires, the pounding rhythms all punched expertly into place. It also gives Broadrick and Green the option to be man, machine or both.

On the album highlight “Christbait Rising,” Green bobs mightily with the beat while Broadrick fills the gaps with skronks and squeals. “Don’t hold me back, this is my own hell,” he yells, his voice echoing outward, as if facing the entrance to some huge vortex that’s causing the edges of temporality to fray. In 1989, there was no holding Godflesh back, their influence is palpable among post-metal flag-bearers like Neurosis and Pelican.

Godflesh tinkered with their sound following Streetcleaner, adding elements of techno, shoegaze, even a live drummer at one point. (Pffft, sellouts.) They would never again sound as unflinchingly brutal as they did on their first album, but this year’s impressive reunion album A World Lit Only By Fire shows Broadrick may be keen to re-enter the gnarled sonic world of this record.

Terrorizer, for their part, also tried a reunion. First, with Sandoval and Pintado on Darker Days Ahead, and now just Sandoval following the death of Pintado in 2006. I’ll give them an E for effort, but it would be hard to claim they’re recapturing any of their past glories. Luckily for them, and for Godflesh, sometimes a devastating first impression is all you really need to make.

—Jason Bailey

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