It can be difficult to write about a group like Napalm Death. They are often one of the first grindcore bands people of a certain generation ran into, both being pushed by John Peel as well as managing to secure major label backing during the brief window where death metal and its adjacent styles and performers were able to aspire to such things. As a result, a certain stripe of more kvlt-oriented underground extreme music listener might feel as though they graduated from Napalm Death to some of the other underground heroes, groups like Fuck the Facts and Discordance Axis and the like. But any astute listener to Napalm Death eventually finds that their status is one that's well-warranted; not only are the songs and performances gold-plated, managing to retain a sharp sense of hookiness even as they pinball between hardcore, death metal, grind, and the always-present affection for prog and avant-garde/experimental rock, but there is always a shifting element at work. Not unlike Cannibal Corpse, Napalm Death are a band that only appears to have stood still over the decades if you aren't actually paying attention to what they do. Each record is a pivot, albeit a slight one, but with adjustments which add up over time. You would be hard-pressed, playing Throes of Joy in the Jaws of Defeatism back to back against Scum, to get an uninitiated listener to guess that they are the same band (ignoring the historical fact that, membership-wise, they aren't).

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Throes of Joy in the Jaws of Defeatism arises from a condensation of the experiments the band has been carrying out on their sound since the release of Smear Campaign in 2006, an album which saw them undertake their second experimental period albeit a more subtle and controlled one than the obvious shifts in the late 1990s. It was on Smear Campaign that they first entertained the idea of gothic metal vocals, those iconic low baritone and haunting trembling highs; meanwhile, on Utilitarian six years later, the group would include saxophone on a single track, a seeming move toward them testing the water of incorporating their always outspoken love of experimental and progressive music from Throbbing Gristle, Cardiacs, Sonic Youth, to even Dream Theater.

Apex Predator - Easy Meat, their following record, showed the band's first serious move towards progressive metal textures and playing grindcore/death metal, fusing their 1990s experiments with the teases of baritone gothic vocals and the avant-rock textures of saxophone. While those earlier experimentations were carried out by the band bringing in an outsider more well known for the style or element they were considering, Apex Predator - Easy Meat saw the group assimilating these details and gestures purely on their own. Their growing comfort in foregrounding the Sonic Youth and Cardiacs inspirations produced the first Napalm Death record in over a decade that felt truly modern. They were no longer a legacy band producing strong material but suddenly a fierce and vivacious band actively engaging with the genre space again.

That Throes of Joy in the Jaws of Defeatism comes a full five years after the resolute triumph of Predator, itself one of the best records of the band's body of work, adds to the sense of vivacity and life that the band has. That time gap has not only allowed these songs to mature and ripen, taking on bolder moves and flavors (some of which are the boldest the band has ever shown), it has also allowed the group to avoid the kind of constancy of exposure that can sometimes make their peers in groups like Cannibal Corpse seem less engaged with the modern shape of music than they truly are. Persistence can help move records and entertain, but it carries with it the burden of association, of listeners slotting you more often with the big moments and records of that constant span, while some temporal separation allows statements and records and periods to stand on their own a bit more. This dynamic can create a frankly unfair and disheartening atmosphere for those bands that truly do plug away at it over decades and continuously produce compelling work only to be written off by some more interested in new names rather than quality material.

Thankfully, Napalm Death sidestep this issue entirely; that five-year gap seems to have been enough to refresh the name, to allow us all to approach their new record with fresh and ready ears. It should be taken very seriously that so many names, of which I'm adding my own, have said that this is not only one of the best records of the year but also perhaps the best of the band's career.

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On the first track, Napalm Death whips out black metal-laced riffs, that chromatically shifting static minor chord shape we associate so deeply with the style, only for the very next track to feature tricksy celestial-gazing Voivodian riffs, which themselves give way on the next track to more traditional hardcore riffing. There is a quiet but confident sense of ambition across the disc. When the grinding industrialisms and post-Killing Joke cyberpunk gothic elements emerge, it feels less like a shock and more like an indication that Napalm Death absolutely do not take their position at the top of the heap in the world of grindcore for granted. These jaunts into varied territory not only give a broadly progressive flavor to the disc, almost like a peak-era Cephalic Carnage record, but never feel forced or like an inappropriate show of youth. There is care and consideration, from the doom metal passages to the Swans-influenced soundscaping, from the explicit prog metal to the blistering hardcore and grind, that belies a deep and rich sincerity to it. What's more, it is precisely the age and esteem of Napalm Death that allows them to nod so directly to various groups that they've had their eye on over the course of their career, from Neurosis to Sonic Youth, and have it feel more like a celebration of the breadth of extreme, experimental and underground music rather than mere aping. There is, unsurprisingly, a joy that bleeds through here, bursting beneath every note.

All of this without touching on the incredible pacing of the record, which sprints through 50 minutes of high-energy material without once feeling like a chore or sandpaper to the nerves (in the bad way; we all love extreme metal and can likely think of a few records where this has been said as a keening positive, but you know what I mean). The engineering and mixing is likewise immaculate, knowing well when to pivot between broad and transparent mixes that allow each fiber of each instrument to ring out and when to collapse into a shrapnel burst of sound in true hardcore/grind fashion. Barney's vocals sound absolutely feral here, having both greater overall expressive range and substantially more bite than I recalled him having, a mighty feat given the long and well-earned pedigree he has as one of the best vocalists in the field.

Still, for those who decried Cattle Decapitation's likewise turn toward the progressive and polish with last year's superb Death Atlas, those who prefer their grind lofi and gritty, it is hard to imagine there is much here that will satisfy. Napalm Death have walked those roads; hell, they helped pave them. Their ambitions are elsewhere now. For anyone looking merely for fucking excellent modern extreme metal, this is a mighty contender not just for album of the year. It might be Napalm Death's very best ever.

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Throes of Joy in the Jaws of Defeatism released September 18th via Century Media Records.


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