Five Crucial Napalm Death Albums (That Aren’t “Scum”)
Napalm Death are an institution in extreme music. Like Metallica and thrash metal or Cannibal Corpse and death metal, Napalm Death are the face of grindcore. Maybe they’re not the premier grindcore band, but they are that genre’s most important. Yet, depending on whom you ask, Napalm Death aren’t always cited as the genre’s first band. Sometimes Repulsion is claimed to be the world’s first grind band: “Repulsion are the first guys to do it. They invented the sound [of grindcore],” says Jon Chang of Discordance Axis; sometimes it’s Repulsion and Siege together; sometimes it’s both and more, as when Jon Wiederhorn and Katherine Turman declare in Louder Than Hell: The Definitive Oral History of Metal that Napalm Death’s debut LP Scum “was influenced by Repulsion, Massachusetts band Siege, and Florida’s Terrorizer.” And while the West Midlands, England band might not be the inventors of the genre and/or its first, Mick Harris, Napalm Death’s second drummer and first to play on a Napalm Death record, is said to have invented blast beats (although that may have have been Repulsion’s Dave “Grave” Hollingshead) and coined the term “grindcore.”
But whatever your opinion of Napalm Death’s music, you have to concede their shadow-casting influence on both extreme music in general and grindcore in specific. (They even caught the attention of Jim Carrey.) And it goes beyond forming in 1981 and Scum and simply existing longer than pretty much any other grindcore act. Indeed, it’s Napalm Death’s expansion of what a grindcore band is “supposed” to do and sound like, as well as making it OK for those bands to evolve and experiment within a narrow space whose wiggle room is “practically nil.” Of course, the band’s tinkering over four decades has been fascinating and has yielded results both fun (1997’s awkwardly-titled Inside the Torn Apart) and questionable (1998’s [also] awkwardly-titled Words from the Exit Wound). And sometimes they wandered too far and lost the thread: on a song like “Cold Forgiveness,” from 1996’s groove- and alt-metal-oriented Diatribes, the band simulates what’d it be like if Faith No More made a half-assed attempt at metalcore. In other words, they’ve been on an intriguing journey.
And it’s been a prolific journey at that—sixteen studio LPs of original material, three compilations, and two cover albums (and two dozen EPs, and a half dozen live albums, and…). Finding a way into their abundant catalog, then, might be, let’s say, challenging. Hence, this column. To be clear: for the sake of length and simplicity, I’m sticking to the sixteen albums of original material. (Also, using a compilation would kinda be cheating—you could just grab the superb Noise For Music’s Sake two-disc set from 2003 and call it a day in terms of getting a pretty good overview of Napalm Death and their evolution. It’s that good.) Below you’ll find my five picks for where to start.
From Enslavement to Obliteration (September 1988)
Recorded in just six days, Napalm Death’s second album, and the first with a stable line-up throughout (including the first appearance of longtime bassist and songwriter, Shane Embury), 1988’s From Enslavement to Obliteration is the band’s true debut. While Scum is their first record, it’s closer to a long split between two bands than a proper full-length (and the first half was much closer to hardcore and crust than grindcore, anyway). From Enslavement to Obliteration, however, is Napalm Death’s first true grind album through and through. There are still some trace elements of hardcore (“Unchallenged Hate,” “Cock-Rock Alienation,” and “Display to Me…”), sure, but this is the first genre-defining release of grindcore: 22 songs in 29 minutes (or 27 songs in 34 minutes, if you’re including The Curse 7" that was tacked on later), nearly constant unintelligible vocals from Lee Dorrian—delivered in both guttural, rabid grunting and demonic shrieking—and lyrics railing against capitalism, sexism, racism, and fame worship.
And while most of Dorrian’s lyrics lack nuance (e.g., “Making idols out of assholes / Raunchy, hunky, machismo-type fools / Who cares if they’ve got no brains? / Just give us tits and tools”), they’re a perfect fit for the brute force assault of Napalm Death’s music. (Curiously, there are also a few rays of hope that burst through the clouds: “A feeling of truth / Reality in you / When it is reached, you can reach it in others / This is the liberation, this is the unity” and “The only way to overcome your fears / Is to look them in the eye.”) Apart from “The Curse”—which suggests an alternate reality where Napalm Death became an alt-metal act that could’ve played Lollapalooza, something they’d spend the latter half of the ’90s exploring to its (il)logical endpoint—From Enslavement to Oblivion is a bit one-dimensional and gets stale by its (short) runtime. In that regard, the album is an important record, both for the band and for grindcore, but it isn’t a great one. Their first great record came in the summer of 1992.
Utopia Banished (June 1992)
Having lost British guitarist Bill Steer and gained two American guitarists in his place—Mitch Harris and Jesse Pintado—Napalm Death emerged as a quintet on their third album, 1990’s Harmony Corruption. Recorded at Morrisound Recordings in Tampa with Scott Burns, the band pivoted to a death metal sound. Unfortunately, the songwriting wasn’t particularly inspired, and the result was largely pedestrian ’90s (Florida) death metal. And while Napalm Death improved with the addition of longtime vocalist Mark “Barney” Greenway, he spent half of the record barking Embury’s pseudo-philosophical word salad like, “Confusion in recognition / Pessimistic thoughts invade / Shared amounts to achieve a goal / Roles reversed could summon change.” He’d rightly move away from such silliness as a lyricist on future records. The other half of the album’s lyrics, thankfully, were written by Greenway himself, a succinct and pithy writer. His criticism of drug abuse (Its powers of deception / Seems to null all daily strain / But just another fix / Grip on reality fades out day by day”) and defense of extreme music (“Just a noise, your shallow view / An opinion I find misconstrued / There’s probably more thought in what we do / Than a large part of what appeals to you”) are excellent throughout. Where Greenway truly excels as a writer, though, is when he channels what would become one of his two lifelong muses, organized religion: “At one with your god / Your sole intent / Your treasured place assured / For a substantial rent.”
The band improved on the follow-up, Utopia Banished, which they recorded back home in the UK with fellow Brit Colin Richardson, a producer and engineer who’d work with the band throughout the decade. The resulting work is a superior version of Harmony Corruption—which is to say, what Harmony Corruption should’ve been. Utopia Banished’s songwriting is notably improved—those duties being shared more or less equally between Embury, Pintado, and Harris—within the death metal paradigm. That said, shades of the deathgrind sound they’d later develop and perfect in the 2000s begins to creep in here with “Dementia Access” and “Exile.” Elsewhere, the band’s late-’90s experimentalism outside of grindcore (and, really, extreme music in general) starts here with the shoegaze-esque “Contemptuous.”
The performances are more confident here than on Harmony Corruption, too, especially with the addition of longtime drummer, Danny Herrera, who’s more precise and more fluid than his predecessor. But it’s Greenway who really elevates the album. Here, his phlegmy bark has been bent and molded into an agile attack dog capable of impressive staccato runs (“Distorting The Medium”), locking into the pocket of a song’s groove (“I Abstain”), and sometimes both in the same song (“Cause and Effect, (Part II)”). He’d continue to improve and hone his skills over the next three decades with increasingly impressive results.
If that wasn’t enough, Greenway rightfully emerges as the band’s chief lyricist, writing the eight of the album’s fourteen lyric sets. His economic style continues to be his best tool for criticism, both political (“Imperialism feeds off you / Not patrons, but patronized / Open your eyes”) and social (“Superior species with inferior ideas / We overload our bodies and minds / Respect this earth while commiting suicide”). Interestingly, the only aspect of Utopia Banished that’s inferior to its processor is the absence of Greenway’s critique of religion. (He’d write an entire record on the subject fourteen years later—see below.) Utopia Banished may not exactly resemble the spastic tantrum deathgrind that Napalm Death play now—that blueprint was created on 2000’s Enemy of the Music Business, and refined on subsequent records—but it is the band’s best record from a decade where the inconsistent quality of their output was compelling and baffling in roughly equal measure.
Enemy of the Music Business (September 2000)
Consistency is something Napalm Death finally discovered with Enemy of the Music Business. It’s here that the Napalm Death we know today—whose songs generally open with a pre-heart-attack-EKG riff, which then explodes into galloping hardcore-esque grind, and then back again—was (re)born. The influences of death metal, groove metal, alt-metal, nu-metal, and goth/death rock from their ’90s sonic wandering were almost entirely excised (and then occasionally brought back later—see below) in favor of the limb-flailing whirling dervish grindcore (and/or deathgrind) blueprint that they’ve used to some degree for every album since.
The same goes for their unbridled anger. Here, the band’s rage is focused almost entirely on the titular subject. Stemming from their messy split with longtime label Earache, the record is a diatribe against greed, manipulation, corporatism, and discouraging creativity, which might explain why the songwriting and performances are that of a reinvigorated band. This is particularly true of Greenway, who spends the entire record sounding like he’s trying to purge all the pent-up suffering he’s experienced because of the music industry. To wit, here’s a sampling of the insults he hurls at the industry over the album’s runtime: “opportunist scum,” “devourer, plunderer, deceptor,” “cash-whores,” “corporate fuck,” “leeching clique,” “preening, idle rich,” and “cultural slime.”
And the trio of songwriters—Embury, Harris, and Pintado—all show up with A+ material in between clenched fists. Embury’s mathcore-esque “Taste The Poison” is dangerously tumultuous; Pintado’s “Constitutional Hell” is a gleefully nightmarish bullet train; and Harris’ “Volume of Neglect” is a paranoid sprint complete with a neat schizophrenic riff. The gnarly groove of “Thanks for Nothing” and the tornadic insanity of “Blunt Against the Cutting Edge” are also highlights. It’s (controlled) chaos start to finish—there’s no filler here—all held together by expert playing, particularly Herrera’s clinician performances (although his career peak is on 2012’s Utilitarian).
Greenway matches his bandmates with his most feral vocals to date paired with top-form lyricism. He rants about other bands’ lack of integrity: “A real cutting edge is the scourge of the norm / For all the angst, you’re tantrum-fueled dolls.” He seethes at the industry tearing him down: “We stepped back and watched while you violated / Our effects, our spirits, our souls.” He throws out scalpel-sharp barbs: “The rats on this earth have nothing on you / An insult to those which crawl the sewers.” The album’s best song, musically and lyrically, though, leans heavily political. “C.S. (Conservative Shithead) Part 2”—a sequel to Scum highlight “C.S.”—starts out as a criticism of right-wing posturing by fans: “The Antichrist shifts to the right / He wears his ‘X’ and reviles mine / Music to righteous ears.” Then the song shifts to the overtly political, and it’s these lines that are—sadly, infuriatingly—more relevant now than twenty years ago: “Moved out of step, seeking distorted views / Slack-brained sound bites serve his public slop,” Greenway barks, “Decries our values in decline / But should we starve, then that’s just fine.”
Perhaps the album’s only downside is Russ Russell’s brittle and dated production, his first time working with Napalm Death. He’s produced or co-produced every record of theirs that followed, and his work steadily improved. To wit, he’s been behind the boards for the band’s best-sounding albums of their career. Minor gripe aside, Enemy of the Music Business is an outstanding grind record from Napalm Death two decades into their career, as well as a landmark of the genre. It’s a blistering set—this is probably Napalm Death’s angriest album, which is really saying something—and it remains among their very best. As such, it’s a fine place to start for newcomers.
Smear Campaign (September 2006)
But you’d be (slightly) better off beginning with Napalm Death’s twelfth studio effort, 2006’s fantastic and unflinching Smear Campaign. Another singularly-focused album from the band, Smear Campaign is one long diatribe against religion. As extreme music’s favorite punching bag, this is certainly well-worn territory. Despite that, Greenway’s gift for razor-sharp criticism in the form of bumper-sticker cogency gives freshness to this tired concept: “Moral yardstick beats us senseless”; “Better an outcast than a forced sycophant.” It’s not just trenchant gibes, though. Greenway also gets to the heart of the absurdity of religious claims (“Miracle workers, these false orators / Set back life itself with fairy tale laws”), as well as religion’s ability to bulldoze individuality (“They’ll try to flail you / With a blast of righteous air / They’ll try to break your stride / Until you really walk the path of the damned”).
And twin songwriters Harris and Embury contribute several of the band’s best-ever riffs. (Pintado left in 2004, and died in 2006. Napalm Death has been a quartet ever since.) Beyond that, their compositions and arrangements are the smartest of the band’s career. Take “Deaf and Dumbstruck (Intelligent Design),” the best microcosm of the album. It demonstrates the excellent songwriting skills that Harris and Embury developed. At the outset the song gallops atop a groove metal riff while Greenway growls, “Roll out a yarn incessantly / Tracing the thread to where? / Deaf and dumbstruck / Plugging up holes with dead air”—in other words, you’re so sure of what you believe that you’ll plow through any possible criticism. Then the song suddenly spirals downward, as if sucked down a toilet, while Greenway barks, “Gone deaf and dumbstruck / More piety to dumbfound us,” mirroring the loss of thought and control through endlessly force-fed repetition. Elsewhere, the band sometimes slow things down from cocaine-fueled sprints and slide into a mid-tempo groove to highlight a point, as on “Fatalist” for the lines, “Any fool starting afresh would surely ditch this / After two thousand years of schism / Only irreligious hearts can do the saving.” They’re both brilliant decisions, and the whole album is like that.
Most notably, though, is Greenway who continued (and continues) to improve as a vocalist. Here he uses his shriek more than ever before. In “Sink Fast,” he uses three different vocal styles in three-and-a-half minutes—a growl, a shriek, and clean (!) vocals. Whether or not his jumping back-n-forth between a growl and a shriek was influenced by 2000s American metal, the band is better for it. It’s the singing that’s probably most surprising, however. The album’s title track has some echo-y bellows straight from ’80s death rock. Meanwhile, “Persona Non Grata” employs a vocoder, adding an extra dimension of alienation to Greenway’s vocal and to the lyrics, “This is knowing your place beneath the ivory towers / Not a going concern but a lowly beast of burden.”
Speaking of borrowing from the past, it’s on Smear Campaign that Harris and Embury allowed themselves to borrow from their hit-or-miss ’90s experimentalism. Despite the varying quality and success of the resulting material from their time spent sound-fiddling throughout the ’90s, it was time well spent. By trial and error, they learned how to put songs together beyond FUCK YEAH BLAST BEATS and SIQQ BROOTAL RIFFS BRUH. The (relatively speaking) mid-tempo ragers “Identity Crisis” and “Shattered Existence” together have a handful of neat groove metal riffing. “Eyes Right Out,” meanwhile, also has a slick main riff and a fun metalcore-esque breakdown. The result is their career studio peak, and that’s unlikely to change.
Apex Predator – Easy Meat (January 2015)
But that doesn’t mean Napalm Death’s recent releases aren’t worth checking out. Indeed, 2015’s Apex Predator – Easy Meat, the band’s fifteenth studio effort, is their most experimental this century and the most interesting record in their entire catalog. And it’s also a particularly virulent album at that. Much like Enemy of the Music Business and Smear Campaign, Napalm Death, and Greenway in particular, are at their best when their focused on a single thing that’s really fucking pissing them off. In this case it’s the ills of capitalism, something that the band have been ranting about since their inception. Here, it’s not just a song or two, though. Inspired by the 2013 Rana Plaza building collapse, it’s an album-length harangue about the disastrous (“Basic subsistence hinges around this fundamental biology / Jaw-dropping concessions to cabals viewing anything natural as commodity”) and deleterious (“I am the invisible smear on your sorely-tempting price tag / And as perishable as your product, I can just be thrown away”) effects on people of corporations choosing consumerism and chasing profit over anything else. Greenway’s always had a way with clever sloganeering in his lyrics, and he’s saved a few of his best for this outing: “There’s no sum when you’re not a part”; “For I am a product inferior to inferior product / I am snarled in the links of your supply chains”; “Tongue-lashed ’til you’re fucking swayed.”
As for the rest of the band, while Harris and Embury again brought back some of their ’90s experimentalism here—the goth rock-esque title track; the groove metal-tinged “Hierarchies,” complete with something approaching a hook—there’s still plenty Napalm Death’s trademark tornado-with-limbs deathgrind here (“Timeless Flogging,” and “Bloodless Coup”). And despite the band members all being in their late forties when this record was written and recorded, Napalm Death are as spritely and agile as ever. The musicianship is impressive throughout—particularly on the batshit insane “Smash A Single Digit” and “Stunt Your Growth,” two of the band’s most ferocious songs—with “Cesspits” being the best representation of this. The song is half mid-tempo stomper, half light speed tantrum, and the band smoothly toggles between them. Greenway steals the show, though, effortlessly leaping from goth rock singing to barking to shrieking. He’s still one of the most versatile vocalists in extreme music, and his performance on “Cesspits” sounds like his personalities are battling for control of his body, like James McAvoy’s mesmerizing turn in Glass and Split.
And while Apex Predator – Easy Meat’s forty-minute runtime is the band’s shortest since Inside the Torn Apart, it’s a record that requires a bit of patience. Indeed, the record discloses this at the outset by opening with the industrial-tinged title track, which sounds like Napalm Death doing an early ’80s Killing Joke impression, and features Greenway’s over-enunciated goth rock vocals. Similarly, the continued use of traditional verse-chorus-verse structures for “Hierarchies” and “How The Years Condemn” suggests that Napalm Death aren’t quite done tinkering with their sound. But patience is rewarded here, if only because this is Russ Russell’s best production and engineering with the band to date. The mix is clear and vibrant, intense and crunchy. You can hear every abrasive note, every cymbal crash, every glob of spit from Greenway’s gargling-phlegm growl.
But Napalm Death will always be outside the norm, and gleefully so. Perhaps, then, it’s for the best that Napalm Death aren’t comfortable settling into place. Sure, they’ll always “maintain the extremity” of their sound and avoid polishing off the edges of it, as Greenway put it in 2020, but they wouldn’t be nearly as captivating as they’ve been for four decades if they didn’t paint outside the lines and test the boundaries of grindcore (and extreme music) once in a while. After all, testing boundaries is what extreme music is for.
You can pick up From Enslavement to Oblivion over at the BrooklynVegan webshop in a limited gold vinyl variant.