The Guide to Getting into Napalm Death
The long-running pioneers have repeatedly reinvented their sound over the last three decades, from grind to death metal and back again.
Photo by Martyn Goodacre / Getty Images
When a band is included in the Guinness Book of World Records, it’s easy to view them as a bit of a novelty. These types of honors are generally given out to artists that try something absurd, like playing with giant drumsticks or cranking the decibels to be the loudest band in the world, but for Napalm Death, their honor came organically. Though they hold the record for the shortest song ever recorded with “You Suffer,” there’s more to the band than this 1.316 seconds-long song would indicate. Over the course of their 16 albums and 14 EPs, Napalm Death has proven that they’re sprawlingly ambitious, even if, on the surface, that seems antithetical to their entire ethos.
As one of grindcore’s forebears, Napalm Death was pegged as the world’s most extreme band before they even nailed down a stable lineup. Famously, only drummer Mick Harris played on both the A and B sides of the band’s 1987 debut, Scum, and no founding members even made it to the B side. But, as a result, those constantly shifting ranks, there was no single voice driving the band. By never achieving any kind of status quo, they granted themselves a bit of freedom by never having anything to uphold.
As an outsider, it’s easy to look at Napalm Death’s output and derisively say all their music sounds the same, but that’s not only reductive, it’s patently false. After defining grindcore on their first two albums, the introduction of vocalist Mark “Barney” Greenway and guitarists Mitch Harris and Jesse Pintado, along with bassist Shane Embury, saw Napalm Death move away from their classic sound as soon as they perfected it. In the early 90s, they moved into the world of death metal, adding guitar solos, more technical riffs, and a slightly more discernible vocal styling courtesy of Greenway.
Similarly, in the middle of that decade, the band released four consecutive albums that alienated their fans all the more. Starting with 1994’s Fear, Emptiness, Despair and ending with 1998’s Words from the Exit Wound, these albums were bereft of the band’s signature speed and, in its place, was the kind of groove-oriented sound that had come into vogue. These albums often get pegged as being a kind of nu-metal precursor, but in a modern light, they show the band’s ability to adapt, taking what was happening in the larger metal scene and finding a way to make it work for them.
Despite having a handful of early albums that are rightly hailed as classics, Napalm Death proved to have one of the strongest second acts in metal. After returning to their classic sound in the 2000s, the band released some of their very best material within the last decade. With an increased focus on melody, atmosphere, and avant-garde experimentation, Napalm Death showed an outright refusal to coast, expanding their sound at a time when most bands would revert to playing the hits.
So how does a new listener make inroads into such a dense discography, and into a band that still has “You Suffer” get used as a punchline? It’s by embracing the band’s full scope, from the second-long songs to their moodier pieces—and all the leftist politics in-between—knowing that, no matter what era, there’s something worthwhile to be found.
Napalm Death as Grindcore Pioneers
Like so many albums that became building blocks for entire genres, Scum is more important than it is enjoyable. While plenty of bands were upping their tempos in the 80s, be they Siege, Extreme Noise Terror, Discharge, or G.I.S.M., none had the reach of Napalm Death. This was due in large part to BBC DJ John Peel championing the band early on, helping get Scum to number seven on the UK indie charts, and allowing for the band’s second album, From Enslavement to Obliteration, to go to number one on that same chart just a year later.
While Scum has some standout tracks, it’s ultimately two different groups of kids trying to push the limits of punk and metal to their logical endpoints. On the A-side, songs like “Scum” and “Siege of Power” show rudimentary versions of things that would become the band’s hallmarks, such as that grossly distorted bass tone and a frantic and a D-beat adjacent gallop that, 30 years on, still feels potent. Then, of course, there are the blisteringly short tracks like “You Suffer” and “The Kill,” which, brief as they may be, feel complete.
The B-side lineup achieved similar feats, with songs like “Life?,” “Success?,” and “M.A.D.” seeing the band utilize a dual-vocal approach, with Harris offsetting Lee Dorrian’s guttural vocals with some piercing background shrieks. This back-and-forth vocal styling paid dividends on From Enslavement to Obliteration, as the recording not only sounded better—you could actually hear the instruments independent from one another on this record—and the band had become more deliberate in their attacks. Listening to songs like “Its a MANS World,” “Lucid Fairytale,” and “Practice What You Preach,” a sharper Napalm Death had come to the fore, one that could still see Harris rocket them into a chaotic whirlwind, but he was becoming capable of pulling back and letting the band catch a groove every now and again.
Playlist: “The Kill” / “Scum” / “You Suffer” / “Siege of Power” / “Its A MANS World” / “Lucid Fairytale” / “Practice What You Preach” / “Inconceivable” / “Worlds Apart” / “Mentally Murdered” / “Musclehead”
Napalm Death Metal
Though Dorrian’s output with Napalm Death was scant, it’s considered by many fans to be the pinnacle of the band’s output. While Greenway often gets pegged as the catalyst for the band’s shift to death metal, the roots of that sound were already present on From Enslavement to Obliteration. “Unchallenged Hate” and “Display to Me” ebb toward death metal riffing and drum grooves, but it would be 1989’s Mentally Murdered EP that cemented the band’s fascination with this new flavor of extreme metal. With songs like “Rise Above” and “Cause and Effect,” Dorrian was singing in his lowest tones and the band was matching it, as Harris threw in slower double bass sections and the riffs started to show the band’s technical ability.
Mentally Murdered would be Dorrian’s last recording with Napalm Death, and when Greenway entered, it allowed the band to ditch grindcore without a second thought. 1990’s Harmony Corruption was a shock to fans, as the band went from releasing records that packed 27 songs into just a over half an hour, to writing ten that spanned nearly 40 minutes. There is a good bit of fat on Harmony Corruption, as even some of the best songs feel bloated, but “Suffer The Children” and “Extremity Retained” see the band settling into this new approach. 1992’s Utopia Banished would have a leg up on Harmony Corruption in nearly every respect. The recording fit the band a little better, and Harris ceded the drum throne to Danny Herrera. Though Harris was instrumental in establishing the band’s sound, as well as that of grindcore itself, his nickname of the “Human Tornado” was always apt, and on Harmony Corruption, his penchant for never settling into a beat made the album chaotic in an unflattering, jumbled way.
On Utopia Banished, Napalm Death showed just how powerful they could be within this new scene, as songs like “I Abstain” and “Dementia Access” showed that this death metal shift was something that they could actually make work. But it would be songs like “Judicial Slime,” and the aptly titled “Idiosyncratic,” that showed Napalm Death’s interest in pushing beyond the walls of extreme metal. Clearly, the band had grown tired of being pigeonholed, and they were looking for new ways to pummel their audiences.
Playlist: “Unchallenged Hate” / “Display to Me” / “Rise Above” / “Walls of Confinement” / “Cause and Effect” / “Suffer The Children” / “Extremity Retained” / “I Abstain” / “Dementia Access” / “Idiosyncratic” / “Judicial Slime”
The mid-90s were a strange time for metal. Death metal had exploded, cracking into the mainstream and quickly becoming a style that, outside of a handful of bands, was becoming increasingly rote. Simultaneous to that was the rise of groove metal, a genre that, along with Rage Against The Machine, would serve as the basis of nu-metal. It was a time that was both creatively rich and wildly confusing, seeing old bands toy with new ideas and sometimes shit the bed in the process. Napalm Death’s mid-90s material is often regarded as being full of unlistenable turds, but that’s a bit of an exaggeration. 1994’s Fear, Emptiness, Despair is the weakest of the four albums in the band’s wilderness period, and while they each sound a bit dated, they aren’t as bad as they’re made out to be.
Perhaps the atrocious cover art is to be blamed, but a listen through 1996’s Diatribes shows Napalm Death were retaining their heaviness while becoming a bit more palatable. “Greed Killing” had all the trappings of a song that could have found mainstream success—well, save for Greenway’s vocals—and creatively, they’re swinging for the fences. “Ripe for the Breaking” and “Dogma” take classic Napalm Death moves and twist them until they feel fresh, and on 1997’s Inside the Torn Apart and 1998’s Words from the Exit Wound, Napalm Death sounds even better. Songs like “Breed to Breathe,” “Reflect on Conflict,” and “The Infiltrator” hit hard even now, sounding like the type of thing bands like Code Orange have spent a few years ripping off.
Playlist: “Twist the Knife (Slowly)” / “More Than Meets the Eye” / “Greed Killing” / “Ripe For the Breaking” / “My Own Worst Enemy” / “Dogma” / “Breed to Breathe” / “Reflect on Conflict” / “Drown in the Zero” / “Prelude” / “The Infiltrator” / “Cleanse Impure” / “Clutching at Barbs”
How Napalm Death Got Their Grind Back
While conventional wisdom would suggest that, after their four albums of pure experimentation, Napalm Death would return to their roots, but that’s not entirely true. While 2000’s Enemy of the Music Business, 2002’s Order of the Leech, and 2005’s The Code is Red…Long Live the Code, were returns to a more aggressive sound, grindcore had evolved past Napalm Death in their years away from the style. Not only that, the band underwent lineup changes for the first time in a decade. Enemy of the Music Business was the last album with Pintado playing guitar and the band’s first away from Earache Records. It’s an album of pure venom spit in the direction of their former label, and while the songs are all fine, few leave a lasting impression. The same could be said of Order of the Leech, which sees Mitch Harris playing all the guitar parts after Pintado’s departure and trying to figure out how to make that work, while The Code Is Red is the moment they start to settle back into their groove.
After this three-album run of decent-yet-forgettable material, Napalm Death came back energized, releasing a run of albums that rivals their early work. 2006’s Smear Campaign showed Napalm Death was able to grind alongside bands half their age, but it also showed they were willing to take chances again. “When All Is Said and Done” is their version of a straightforward rock song, incorporating the kinds of elements that got them panned back in the 90s, but with a production style that suits them a little better here. Similarly, songs like “Sink Fast, Let Go” and “In Defence” show the band was still capable of going for the gut, having learned how to write songs that went in a million different directions but never spun out of control.
2009’s Time Waits for No Slave is the most punishing of the band’s material from this period, but it’s also the most consistent. Here, Napalm Death offers up a masterful piece of modern grindcore, writing songs that, from a compositional standpoint, are entirely alien from their early days. Opening with “Strong-Arm,” the record shows the band at peak form, writing truly chaotic songs that, even when they pull back a bit, are still fully consuming. There’s not a bum track in the bunch, making it not only one of their most cohesive albums, but possibly their best. 2012’s Utilitarian and 2015’s Apex Predator, Easy Meat are no different, as the band keeps their feet planted in the grind scene but are more confident about wandering outside of it, making albums that are more versatile than ever before without needing to worry about being called sellouts ever again.
Playlist: “Thanks for Nothing” / “Out of Sight, Out of Mind” / “Silence is Deafening” / “Sink Fast, Let Go” / “When All Is Said and Done” / “In Deference” / “Strong-Arm” / “Work to Rule” / “On the Brink of Extinction” / “Errors in the Signals” / “Analysis Paralysis” / “Will By Mouth” / “Smash a Single Digit” / “How the Years Condemn”
Napalm Death as Experimental Art-rock
Despite the fact the band was so prone to changing up their sound, even then they have a batch of songs that don’t cleanly fit into any of these previous sections. Be they the songs from their 90s period that feel truly singular, or “Everyday Pox,” their collaboration with longtime fan John Zorn, there’s a lot that stands out. This is the side of Napalm Death that rarely gets talked about and almost never gets the credit they’re due. Songs like “Smear Campaign” and “Atheist Runt” are Swans-influenced pieces that show an ability to slow down and stretch out, while songs like “Time Waits for No Slave,” with its strange, chanted chorus, shows their ability to still go way out on a limb. It’s these tracks that make Napalm Death so engaging and, even now, peerless. They’re willing to step aside from the pack and fully commit to those moves, in a way so few bands are ever willing to.
Playlist: “Contemptuous” / “Indispose” / “Just Rewards” / “Lifeless Alarm” / “Morale” / “Smear Campaign” / “Atheist Runt” / “Time Waits for No Slave” / “Everyday Pox” / “Fall on their Swords” / “Apex Predator - Easy Meat” / “Dear Slum Landlord…” / “Caste as Waste”