Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Napalm Death, Dazzle Me

Genre music releases seem to come out cyclically. I couldn’t tell you exactly what that cycle is, but we seem to be back ‘in’ one after the first several months of this year being very dry… at least for the heavier more subversive stuff. Thank goodness for itunes, though. Much as I hate Apple’s customer service (I’ve had nightmare ipod repair stories), living in a cultural wasteland as I do, I don’t have a brick-and-mortar corner record store to go dig up older music to round out my collection while waiting for new releases. But with itunes I can poke around and almost always find something worth getting.
In any case the dry spell ended a month or two ago, and in the last week or so I picked up six CDs all worth the money. I want to ‘blog specifically about Napalm Death’s Time Waits For No Slave, But in my inimitable style I’m going to wax pedantic with history and observation before I actually the probably-important-only-to-me point.

‘Napalm Death are utterly badass’. That descriptor doesn’t come that easily from me. I’ve been into heavy music for a long, LONG time. I’m something of an old dude. Throughout its history metal has progressively gotten heavier. As with any art form with legs, the repeat audience wants more. More of everything. In the same way that horror movies have gotten more graphic since the good ol’ days of Universal’s dominance pre-WW2, or literature has pushed the bounds of good taste (and social criticism) since the breathy days of Wuthering Heights, heavy music has pushed onto the next frontier and the next with each passing year. There is also a sort of endpost that tends to be reached where the art form doesn’t go any further and all that seems to happen is that a lot of the other artists just catch up to the pioneer who took it there in the first place. I’m really generalizing. Obviously in any creative sphere there are artists who work in ‘traditional’ spaces or keep to the old(er) ways.

With heavy music, the subgenres of grindcore, black metal, noise/drone (the metal version), and mathcore came into existence years ago, but there’s never been anything created since then that has really been more extreme. There are just a lot more bands doing it now in proportion to metal as a whole. There’s only so fast you can play, only so guttural you can make your vocals, only so dense a wall of sound, and only so disjointed you can make your song structures. The signature sound of each of these styles is practically unlistenable to an untrained, mainstream pair of ears, but the best bands or musicians in each of these styles have learned that you need to mix in tempo changes, and references to other styles to keep the music interesting, i.e. Dillinger Escape Plan puts jazzy interludes into some of their craziest, most angular songs or Immortal having a thrash-based middle eight breaking up a hyperblasting number. It makes for a more dynamic, ‘cooler’ listening experience if you give the listener something of a rest, making the return to the ‘intense parts’ almost cathartic. This need to breathe and change is also one of the reasons why grindcore songs, arguably the most extreme music form, tend to be so short. Many of the tunes just blur by in a minute or two.

Back in the day, when I was growing up and banging my head, I would, like many fans, move onto the next heavier or more extreme thing when it came out. In hindsight, there really wasn’t anything literally heavier than Black Sabbath’s albums Master of Reality and Sabotage until Metallica (and the other thrash bands) came along. Venom, before thrash, was heavy in its way, but they also were just plain sucky. Metallica, Anthrax, and Megadeth opened a floodgate. Forget the Hetfield of now, and go back and listen to Metallica’s Kill ‘Em All. Those are harsh, barked vocals, and rhythm playing far faster than almost any mainstream release of the day. And it took some getting used to. I liked Metallica from the get-go, but it was largely for the music… which was just an extreme extension of what I was already listening to. The vocals were quite unlike metal up to that point. But they caught on. With me and the rest of the heavy music fanbase.

Nowadays Metallica’s early albums are good, but almost quaint sounding. The roots of the most extreme metal styles are almost all there, but the speed, vocal violence, and production punch have all gone through the roof in the years following. Thrash, as the style has come to be known (through a number of name changes I’m not interested in going into for this post), was a fusion of punk sensibility, political bent, and speed with metal’s attitude and musicianship. Thrash is still considered, along with the basic genres death metal and black metal, to be one of the ‘extreme metal’ forms.
Grindcore, like thrash, has roots in punk, specifically hardcore. While it developed in a different way, grind has so much in common musically with death metal that it has been absorbed by it for the purposes of discussion, marketing, etc. Parallel evolution in a sense, grindcore is pretty much considered the most extreme version of death metal, though its lyrical content still hews to the political and social commentary of its punk and hardcore lineage.
When it was first starting to hit the metal venues (and record store merch racks) I had no interest in grindcore. I even saw Napalm Death, considered amongst the masters and originators of the style, in concert and was decidedly unimpressed… I’m not sure whether they actually had a good show because my ears were not up to the task of deciphering the style. It was just, as it would be to 99.9% of the population, a blur of speedy noise. But gradually, as the years have gone by, driven by acclaim by critics, a desire to push boundaries, and awesome album covers, I’ve grown accustomed to and even appreciate the more extreme forms of metal. This may seem odd to today’s extreme metalhead, who has grown up on Opeth, Lamb of God, or Dimmu Borgir, to name three bands who can be found in any popular music store, and that all play music far harder than anything I could’ve bought when I was a teen.
So I’ve been buying grindcore albums for awhile now. Not tons of ‘em, mind you. It isn’t a style that incorporates a lot of variety. But I have a few bands I go to for a guaranteed good listen when I’m in the mood for utter metal extremity.

But perhaps because of my bad experience in concert all those years ago I never put Napalm Death into the buying list. Which is retarded really. Even bands I’ve always liked have had live performances that pale next to their studio albums. I read a review (in Terrorizer I think) that was just jizzing about Napalm Death’s latest. And something about that review made my conscious brain rebel against the dislike of Napalm Death that had been imprinted on my cerebral cortex. I read a few other columns and everyone and their grandmother was all about this album. In fact, apparently the last few Napalm Death albums had represented some return to form for the band (not one I was aware of, shunning their work), and the latest was the greatest.

So I bit. In the years following that ill-fated show, I’d purchased albums by Nasum, Gadget, Cephalic Carnage… all grind staples. I was ready to reacquaint with whatever blastbeats and throat-shredding Barney Greenway and ND was ready to throw, but the album exceeded my expectations. Most of the better grindcore bands have incorporated a somewhat modern development mentioned above, the incorporation of ,dynamics, into the songs. This could be speed or tempo changes, or incorporation of another style (something the critics usually call ‘groove’). In the case of this particular album, the dynamic injected is thrash. Which is actually cool and very resonant with me, since the thrash heyday is when I first heard Napalm Death. Almost every song on the album either cuts the grindcore blasting liberally with thrash sections or is completely a thrash song but with grind aspects. AND Barney’s got a lot of different vocal deliveries going on too. Most of it is still harsh, but there’s a lot of variety. The whole thing just smacks of veterans who know exactly what they are doing, and I don’t mean that in the phoned-in performance sense. I mean it all clicks together and they make it sound easy. I’ll point a finger particularly at Barney’s vocals and the drumming. Grindcore drummers have one of the most punishing jobs in all of music. Like drummers for black metal and death metal bands, they need to be machines. But this guy, again, makes it seem easy. Within the grind style, the songs go so fast that it is hard to discern a lot of musical creativity. Skill yes. It takes a lot of skill, and stamina, to play what they play. But creativity in the ‘jazz drumfill’ sense doesn’t really get all that apparent in grindcore. It may be partially due to the thrash bits, but the drumming on this album is definitely a clinic for wannabe extreme metal drummers.

I’m not saying this album is going to make someone a fan of grindcore, or as some people might qualify this thing, death metal (its on the less extreme end of grindcore). But what a great listen if you are already attuned to extreme music. I would challenge anyone not to bang their head when the tempo changes hit in this CD. I’m over my Napalm Death embargo.

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