Napalm Death – Throes of Joy in the Jaws of Defeatism


Words and phrases such as ‘reliable’ and ‘underground heroes’ are terms we often hear in the same sentence as Napalm Death. After all, Scream Blast Repeat wouldn’t exist as a reviewer of extreme metal if not for the impact of these Birmingham legends. How many bands can claim to have invented their own genre of music that still influences nearly half of all metal bands on the planet?

We should start by acknowledging some of the landmarks in Napalm Death’s career that brought us to this point in 2020 with the release of their sixteenth studio album. Everybody knows about the impact of the band’s debut album in 1987 (Scum) and its successor (From Enslavement to Obliteration), which created the sub-genre of grindcore. In 1990 they ventured into death metal with the Scott Burns-produced, Harmony Corruption, and released one of the finest albums of the 90s with 1992’s Utopia Banished before embracing a more groove metal approach and undergoing the only difficult period of their career. In 2000 they came storming back with the furious Enemy of Music Business at the height of nu metal and created another high point in extreme metal with 2015’s Apex Predator – Easy Meat, which won the coveted album of the year in Terrorizer magazine. The reason this is important is because Napalm Death are under pressure to create another landmark album after five years away. We all wait with impatience for the new Gojira, Meshuggah and Mastodon releases, but Barney Greenway’s boys are just as important to the future of metal thirty-five years into their career.

Those who feared the band might slow down and embrace a more manageable groove need not worry. Napalm are as vicious as ever on opener, ‘Fuck the Factoids’, which will make you smirk because of the absurdity of how heavy it is. This is fucking brutal. Imagine the roar of the invading Ottomans if Leopold I and John III Sobieski had allowed them to smash through the gates at the siege of Vienna in 1683. The aggression may be synonymous from time immemorial, but the arsenal is pure mechanical warfare with drums imitating artillery guns and guitars venturing into a surprise black metal style. As if to remind people of their place among the most extreme bands of all time, they use the first four songs to dish out a merciless pummelling groups even half their age could not muster. ‘Backlash Just Because’ is metallic hardcore at its most vitriolic; ‘That Curse of Being in Thrall’ is pure grindcore; and ‘Contagion’ mixes a Killing Joke dissonance in a crossover onslaught with a surprise gothic refrain in the chorus. 

Those who write off the lads as one dimensional need to update their opinions by giving this album a listen. The most common criticism of Napalm Death is that the songs all sound the same. Perhaps that is the case on Scum but that was thirty-three years ago. At the midway point, things get experimental with ‘Joie De Ne Pas Vivre’ subsisting on a rumbling bass, d-beat drums and death metal vocals. It’s successor, ‘Invigorating Clutch’, continues the claustrophobic rage and takes you to places last explored by Celtic Frost’s Monotheist album in 2006. It’s not grindcore, but it’s fucking awesome.

Like all good bands, Napalm know how to structure an album with the listener paramount to the phasing of the songs. ‘Zero Gravitas Chamber’ is an octave-driven punk rock blast with metal aggression and ‘Fluxing of the Muscle’ is a low-tuned thrash workout that will shake you to the bones. No two songs are the same, yet all are coated in the foam of Barney Greenway’s furious vocal assault, none more so than ‘Acting in Gouged Faith’, which recalls Sepultura at their early 90s best.

What is already a strong album turns into a superb one with end track, ‘A Bellyful of Salt and Spleen’. Starting like something from the latest Code Orange album, it transforms into an industrial grind of bruising snare hits and crumbling bass, like Godflesh and Swans covering a Simple Minds track from the 1980s and taking the plight of refugees as its emotive topic. Barney gives us a sinister yet clean gothic performance over the surprise melodies from the ambient guitar textures. It’s an experimental risk and one they pull off with ease. Speed is not everything, not even to Napalm Death.

Critics and long-term fans will notice only one thing worthy of criticism. ‘Amoral’ is a bit too close to the Killing Joke sound and could be ‘War Dance’ if you close your eyes and imagine Jaz Coleman barking down the microphone. The fact they released it as a single is even more surprising given the quality of the other tracks on this album.

But if 2020 teaches us anything, it’s that Napalm Death are as vital as ever and just as innovative these days as they were in 1987.

JVB


Verdict


Release Date: 18/09/2020

Record Label: Century Media

Standout tracks: ): Fuck the Factoid, Invigorating Clutch, A Bellyful of Salt and Spleen

Suggested Further Listening: Killing Joke – Killing Joke (2003), Venom Prison – Samsara (2019), Celtic Frost – Monotheist (2006)