Monday, March 26, 2012

Grindcore Finds Happiness In Napalm

Never mind that the Birmingham-based Napalm Death (Napalm) weathered a few lineup changes in the first decade after being founded in 1981. They are still one of the most consistent bands in metal history, the style that originally laid the grindcore groundwork in the 80s.

Their new album Utilitarian is no exception. The godfathers of grindcore make extreme sound easy.

Utilitarian does represent a slight shift in anarchy-tinged themes for Napalm, paying attention to the ethical theory frequently contributed to by Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill — the concept that that people are faced with two choices, and the one that leads to greater happiness is the best.

That's not to say frontman Mark "Barney" Greenway (since 1990) and the band are necessarily subscribing to or paying literal homage to the philosophy. The always thoughtful singer says it isn't as easy as all that. There's plenty to think about in regard to this outing.

He likes the idea that good actions promote good consequences, but not if someone is willing to achieve their happiness at the expense of others. Rather, he says, being independent without joining movements or philosophies that put you in a box can be its own form of low-level protest.

Utilitarian is gut-wrenching intensity broadening the definition of grindcore. 

While Greenway says Napalm has its own sound and it always comes together quickly, Utilitarian clearly broadens the style by changing up some arrangements. Most of that is for the best, even if it sounds overproduced in spots.

As a result, there are plenty of call outs on the album right from the start. The atmospheric qualities of the first instrumental (with a few spoken words), Circumspect, is the perfect lead into the classic and avaricious intensity of Errors In The Signals, which suggests adopting philosophies can be its own sort of disfigurement (much like Everyday Pox does). It's brilliant as a three-chord punk powerhouse.

But where the album really shines all the more is in the band's insistence that grindcore doesn't have to be limited. After 15 albums, Napalm is still full of surprises. There are the John Zorn sax passages on Everyday Pox, the clean vocals on The Wolf I Need, and snarls of lyrical simplicity that open up complexity of meaning on tracks like Quarantined. Mitch Harris leads some of the songs with higher-pitched wails, adding even more contrast than the throaty Greenway delivers on his own.

Utilitarian carries an exploratory warning of sorts against conformity.

There's not a bad track on the album, even if the overproduction is sometimes noticeable around Danny Herrera's drum work, especially when it overpowers Greenway's vocals, Harris' frantic guitar, or Shane Embury's basslines. But that's not the only place where production calls misfired a bit.

Harris directed the first video for the album. While it's easy to undertsand what the band wanted to do (highlight their 80s roots), the low-budget effects distract from one of the best songs on the album. Close your eyes for awhile while playing it, and you'll immediately get what I mean.

Regardless, Analysis Paralysis is one of my favorite tracks because Greenway so eloquently nails down  why looking for the failings of others really draws more attention to our own. He's right. Equations and discord divide but never unite. Figuring out where other people are wrong doesn't make you more right.

But even more compelling than any of the call outs is the album as a whole. Greenway clearly has something to say, almost as a reaction to the various movements that recently circled the globe. Here's the first part of a track-by-track analysis of Napalm's work. (You can find the restart 2 on their site).

With 19 tracks (counting three bonus songs), it's an ambitious album that makes a great case for anti-conforminty. Even the songs that Greenway didn't write fall right into place on an album that never fails to represent. I especially like Collision Course, written by Embury.

Utilitarian By Napalm Death Smacks Down 8.6 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

There has been some resistance to elevating this album above others in Napalm Death's long history, especially Scum. But when you add up the thought behind it, the reactive timing, and the sheer range of style, it's easy to recognize it for what it is.

Utilitarian is a provocative assembly of tracks that preserves Napalm's ambiance, revisits the finer moments of Diatribes at a faster pace, adds in plenty of newness to keep things fresh, and creates an album that sounds better and better with every listen.

Utilitarian by Napalm Death is available on iTunes, which includes the bonus Aim Without An Aim. You can pick up the CD from Barnes & Noble, which includes the bonus track Everything In Mono. Utilitarian is also on Amazon (also with Everything In Mono). The third bonus track is Standardization, which only appears on the LP. You can also join Napalm Death on Facebook as part of their Occupy Napalm campaign. It's the easiest way for them to keep up on scattered tour dates.
blog comments powered by Disqus