By Rich Hobson
The gods of grindcore, Napalm Death’s near four-decade career has seen them grow into one of the most revered names in the global extreme metal canon. Which is all well and good, so long as you remember they aren’t strictly extreme metal. Rooted in the visceral hardcore punk scene of the 80s and having spent much of the 90s experimenting wildly with their sound (to mixed critical and fan reception), ND have never been one to sit comfortably in a pigeonhole. The band’s return to more staple fare at the turn of the new millennium may have reset the balance so far as their core fanbase is concerned, but even in this century they have continued to push boundaries and expand their musical palate to include wider ideas.
Which brings us neatly to ‘Throes of Joy in the Jaws of Defeatism’ – the band’s 16th studio album and first in five years since the subversively inclined ‘Apex Predator: Easy Meat’. Way back in February the band hinted towards probably their greatest degree of sonic experimentation since 1997’s ‘Inside The Torn Apart’ by releasing the 7” single ‘Logic Ravaged By Brute Force’, the title-track combining the cosmic, almost Voivod-ish guitars that had first appeared on Apex Predator’ with a decidedly uncharacteristic post-punk vocal that set the stage for Napalm to get good and weird on their next release. But while Throes does retain the experimental edge of its preceding release, it also maintains the absolute strangehold on grinding brutality that ND have perfected this century.
It doesn’t hurt none that the tides of metal in general have shifted enormously over the past 20-odd years of course, to a point where genre-crossover isn’t regarded with suspicion so much as championed as the ideal for bands to grow ever stronger. Fittingly, ND continue to pull in disparate influences and tones to strengthen the vicious threshing machine at their core. This means you can go pretty far into Throes without finding too much amiss in the band’s chaotic din – ‘Throes…’ is no ‘Diatribes’ nor ‘Fear, Emptiness, Despair’, so doesn’t represent a seismic shift in sound so much as a more subtle realigning of elements.
Rounding up to their fourth decade as a band (even if none of the current members were actually part of the original line-up), Napalm Death unleash fire and fury seldom seen in even the hungriest newcomers; just take the churning bass and all-out assault of ‘Backlash Just Because’, a track that is simultaneously ND at their most furious, but also par for the course for one of the most extreme bands on the planet. Similarly, early highlights ‘The Curse of Being in Thrall’ and ‘Contagion’ take full advantage of the band’s propensity for groove-inspired locked in heaviness, their riffs an undeniable force of slam-worthy mayhem whilst reaffirming components of the band’s sound that have been well-established over the past twenty years.
‘Contagion’ also stands out for how it bridges the new and old, however. While those grinding riffs are strong and present, the droning vocal behind the chorus is a decided shift from the usual rabid snarl vocalist Barney Greenway employs. This carries forward to the next few tracks; ‘Joie De Ne Pas Vivre’ feels like it emanates from grotty cavern, snarling and bubbling under the surface, while ‘Invigorating Clutch’ brings a sense of apocalyptic atmosphere to proceedings, the droning vocals sounding like demonic monks celebrating the end of the world. Proving once and for all that heaviness doesn’t just mean fast, the track has a steady riff that serves to highlight the pure menace the band are bringing to bear.
‘Amoral’ is about as close to the stand-alone ‘Logic Ravaged By Brute Force’ as Napalm get on ‘Throes…’, a three-minute-and-change track that incorporates elements of noise rock and post-punk to come out like the midway point between Ministry, Swans and Killing Joke. Despite coming as a late-stage shift in tone, the track still maintains a cohesiveness with everything else on the record and manages to branch out just enough that it could provide an ideal starting point for somebody not ready for the flaying fury found elsewhere in their catalogue (of course, they’ll be in for a shock should they skip to the next song; the title-track is pure bilious rage).
Opting to end on yet more oddness, ‘Throes of Joy in the Jaws of Defeatism’ closes with ‘A Bellyful of Salt and Spleen’ – a wall of noise that tonally doesn’t feel a million miles from the likes of fellow Brummies Godflesh or Anaal Nathrakh at their most industrialised. Interestingly – particularly with much of the record being written by bassist Shane Embury – the track also feels like a sonic cousin to the song ‘Benzo Fury’, closing track of Mutation’s ‘Error 500’ (a record that also featured Embury). A final wail of despair, ‘Bellyful…’ feels like the strongest tonal indicator of where Napalm see the world in 2020, fully utilising the industrialised noise and post-punk vocals to relay the horrors of the real world without cheap shocks or scares; just pure, abject terror.
The past 40 years has seen not just the birth but shaping of extreme music into a global force to be reckoned with. From grindcore to death metal, noise to thrash, each subgenre remains united in one commonality – to experiment and push boundaries like no other. But unlike so many other influential godfathers of such music, Napalm Death have never stayed purely within their lane, always willing to push harder and further than anybody else whilst ensuring they remain committed to their own inimitable sense of direction. While neither the most experimental record in their canon nor the heaviest, ‘Throes of Joy in the Jaws of Defeatism’ nonetheless continues this fine tradition with stunning results; showing that Napalm Death aren’t just the godfathers of extreme music, but titans atop it, a shining example to all others that nothing short of pure artistic vision will do.
- ‘Throes of Joy in the Jaws of Defeatism’ is released this Friday (18 September). You can get your copy HERE.
- Napalm Death are due to play three dates in Ireland in December – the Limelight in Belfast on Friday 11, the Voodoo Lounge in Dublin on Saturday 12 and Dolan’s Warehouse in Limerick on Sunday 13. These dates are obviously subject to any continuing restrictions on live events on both/either side of the Irish border.
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