Music Critic Ben Forsdick reviews Napalm Death’s enjoyable new album arguing that the fathers of grindcore have not lost their touch, releasing a record which is sure to please fans
Formed in 1982, the Midlands’ Napalm Death were the spiritual torch-bearers for grindcore; a genre to which many of the ugliest of today’s metal bands belong. Cattle Decapitation, Pig Destroyer and Agoraphobic Nosebleed have redefined the genre over the past few decades, but none are as vital as the pioneers themselves. Note how the aforementioned bands are all American. Grindcore excelled in the States throughout the 2000s, so it is easy to forget the genre’s stylistic origins lie on British soil. Having said this, the hardcore scene in D.C. during the early ‘80s influenced the British scene hugely. Closer to home were UK bands like Stoke’s Discharge, one of many groups to first allude to, and eventually establish, the genre of crust punk. The ferocity with which these bands were approaching their craft was in part what led to the sound of Napalm Death’s debut record Scum. The record was unique in multiple ways, not least due to side A and side B being recorded by almost entirely different lineups. Side B in particular foreshadowed much of what was to happen in extreme metal during the ‘90s. This album may in turn be regarded as a moment of conception for grindcore. The Napalm Death we hear on that debut record are a very different prospect to the Napalm Death we are greeted with in 2020. The band have seen many lineup changes over the past few decades. In particular, original guitarist Bill Steer subsequently founded the Liverpool based group Carcass, who were significant contributors to the more melodic side of ‘90s death metal. So, perhaps It will come to the surprise of nobody that Napalm death features no original members.
Nonetheless, this album’s lineup is a familiar one. All four musicians have been present since the early ‘90s and the band have been astoundingly prolific since. These past five years mark the longest period between Napalm Death albums, a good effort for a band who released their debut in 1987. The last time we heard from the four-piece was with the record Apex Predator – Easy Meat. It was not the most inspiring of records but nonetheless, displayed exactly why Napalm Death are so highly commended. It was just as forceful as any album in the genre today and proved that there was longevity to the band’s sound. Five years later, the group have returned. Prior to this album’s full release, the singles suggested that Napalm death may be progressing their sound once more. Until this album dropped in full, it was unclear what direction the band were going to take. Some singles sounded slower and more melodic, while others sounded like standard Napalm Death. The good news is that the balance achieved on Throes of Joy in the Jaws of Defeatism results in a decent listen for a band this far into their career. There is enough experimentation so as to ensure that the group do not sound like a parody of themselves, even if these experiments do not always pay off. Similarly, the old-school fans will be appeased. For a great deal of this album, Napalm death sound exactly like they always have.
The first leg of this album is suitably savage and would comfortably work intermingled within Apex Predator – Easy Meat. ‘F*** the Factoid’ and ‘Backlash Just Because’ kick the album off with multi-phased, blast-beat driven juggernauts over which frontman Barney Greenway’s vocals terrorize. His vocals have changed little over the years and still sound as brutal as ever. Drummer Danny Herrera’s performance on these tracks is terrifyingly quick, and it is easy to get lost within the chaos of his drumming. In particular, ‘F*** the Factoid’ peculiarly sees the ride cymbal panned hard left. At first this sounds odd but over time becomes an enjoyable mixing quirk that is symptomatic of one of this record’s commendable assets. The way this record is mixed, in particular how much space is used within the stereo field, results in an album that sounds full and thick. This style is less desirable on the latter half of the album when things slow down, but during this first leg, it sounds excellent.
‘Contagion’ is one of the most instantly enjoyable moments on the album with another visceral and distorted riff that leads to the one-word chorus delivered by Greenway, who sounds like a preacher bellowing out the word ‘contagion’ to the masses. ‘Joie De Ne Pas Vivre’ is another straightforward and raging track, as is ‘That Curse of Being in Thrall’. These tracks are Napalm Death performing business as usual and even 33 years after Scum, they still leave the listener on the edge of their seat.
The latter half of this record is where the quality drops and this is in part due to greater experimentation stunting the album’s progression. That is not to say that there is a nosedive in quality. It is more a change of pace and lack of consistency that result in this record coming across as top heavy. ‘Fluxing of the Muscle’ juxtaposes an unusually clean guitar riff with Greenway’s guttural vocals and this blend is a cumbersome one. In general, the production could do with the occasional lift and would benefit from injected heaviness at certain times. ‘A Bellyful of Salt and Spleen’ is perhaps the least enjoyable track, closing the album with a slow burner that is a dissatisfying way to leave what was a mostly positive collection of tracks. ‘Amoral’ is the better attempt at a grander, hard rock inspired song. The riffs are heavier, and the songwriting is far better in terms of construction. However, the track is surprisingly melodic, and this approach is not what works best for Napalm Death. It is a valiant effort, but they do seem to be more at home as a grindcore band than anything else.
While the experiments heard on this record are not always the most palatable, that does not mean that the only tracks worthy of merit are those who simply force their way into the listeners’ minds. ‘Invigorating Clutch’ is a slower and brooding track that is surprisingly enjoyable as a groove metal inspired cut. The title track also lands a strange moment of near spoken word over the tightest of instrumentals. What results if a physical track and one full of tension that is begging to be released. Then there is ‘Zero Gravitas Chamber’, a track so fast that Greenway’s vocals sound like they are tripping over themselves as he tries to keep up. However, it is still wildly entertaining and subsequently mirrors the entertainment that this album brings for most of its runtime.
Throes of Joy in the Jaws of Defeatism is not a reinvention of the wheel. To expect such from Napalm Death would be unfair anyway. There is the odd new idea that will leave listeners scratching their heads; but it is difficult to deny this album’s enjoyability factor. It is good fun, worth the listen and that first leg goes harder than you may expect for a band who are 33 years into album releases.
Throws of Joy in the Face of Defeatism is available now via Century Media Records
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