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Napalm Death has been called the end of music. The English band has gone to the lead in taking music to its furthest illogical extreme. The group was among the first to add voltage and thundering rhythms to speed in order to create monstrous sixty-second bursts of sound.
With all the subtlety of B-52s over Haiphong, Napalm Death has inspired a generation of stagedivers and would-be headbangers. To save music writers the hassle, the band has even come up with a label for what it does: "grindcore."
But in recent years the proud progenitors of grindcore have begun to change their pulverizing ways. Some say they've slipped into the lame but lucrative nether regions of death metal--a form that revels in gore and Satanic imagery. It's the aural equivalent of a slasher flick.
Subtle variations in metal music may be a laugh to some, but in the world of loud guitars and high hair, such differences are significant. "We aren't a death-metal band," says co-founder and bassist Shane Embury. "We don't write stupid lyrics, which is what death metal is about. I mean, I don't think many people can really relate to Satan hacking off people's heads, you know."
Embury is talking from New Orleans, where the band is halfway through a grindcore tour that also features label mates Nocturnus and Godflesh. Embury insists the band has gotten serious.
"We got a little tired of people pointing their fingers at us and saying we can't play. So we broke out of the verse-chorus-I'm-a-guitar-god solo mode. Just because a lot of our early stuff were sixty-second speed things didn't mean that we set out to be the most technical band in the universe. We're so tired of this argument. At this point, we are really past the point of giving a shit what people think."
It is true that the band's latest record Harmony Corruption has longer songs and more serious lyrics. Some of the subjects addressed include drugs ("Mindsnare") and ecology ("Unfit Earth"). Napalm Death has also experimented with tempos. Although the songs are still a long way from being ballads--these guys will always be speed junkies--there are tunes on Harmony Corruption that crank along at something less than the ripping pace the band nearly invented.
Napalm's not going soft on us, is it?
"You can tell on this record that we can play," Embury says. "It's studio-ized more than we like, but the essence of Napalm is still there. The guitars are still up and the vocals are still raw."
Turning up the guitars has become a way of life with this band. Formed in Birmingham, England, in 1982, the band has been through several personnel shifts before settling on the current line-up of bassist Embury, drummer Mick Harris, U.S.-born guitarists Jesse Pintado and Mitch Harris and vocalist Barney Greenway.
Napalm Death's first record Scum is an angry 28-cut slugfest that rips by at a blinding pace. Some of the tunes lasted a mere, but brutal, ten seconds. The band's unharnessed energy attracted the attention of Britain's snooty rock press and the group became underground heroes. Album sales took off in 1988 when Napalm's second full record (there are also EPs), From Enslavement to Obliteration, knocked Sonic Youth's Daydream Nation from the top of the British indie chart. Harmony Corruption has also seen that top spot, and it is the first Napalm Death record to be widely distributed in the U.S.
The band is currently working on two new records that carry the working titles Death by Manipulation and Utopia: Banished. Although it's a gamble, both new records will continue in the direction Harmony Corruption pointed: longer songs, more involved arrangements, a lot of vocal variations and more socially aware lyrics. Despite some obvious maturing, the band has stayed true to itself and the metal genre it invented.
"The new stuff will be a mixture of the old and the new Napalm. People who are expecting us to become a total death-metal band are going to have a shock. The new ones will be more grindcore than ever."
Napalm Death will perform at Asylum on Wednesday, April 17. Showtime is 9 p.m. "I don't think many people can really relate to Satan hacking off people's heads."
"The guitars are still up and the vocals are still raw.