Even after exerting an indelible influence on the entire world of heavy music for more than 30 years, there is still no band on Earth that sounds like Napalm Death. Not just the undisputed Gods of Grind, but an enduring benchmark for invention and fearlessness in heavy and experimental music of all kinds, the Birmingham legends are still hurtling forward at full pelt.
Although the name Napalm Death has existed since 1981, as the band’s first line-up plundered the post- and anarcho-punk scenes for inspiration, it was 1987’s seminal Scum album that would ensure their place in the grand pantheon of heaviness. A visceral dismantling of conventions, it effectively kick-started the entire grindcore scene, gaining Napalm Death something approaching household name status for their insane speeds, animalistic screams and uncompromising political stance. From that moment, the band became synonymous with both proudly-held ethical principles and the relentless pursuit of new ways to terrorise people with riffs and noise.
By the early ‘90s, Napalm Death had coalesced around a steady line-up of vocalist Barney Greenway, bassist Shane Embury, drummer Danny Herrera and guitarists Mitch Harris and Jesse Pintado. Renowned for both unrelenting tour schedules and a steady stream of consistently well-received albums, they have powered forward ever since, weathering transient trends, media indifference and industry skullduggery along the way. Despite the sad passing of Pintado in 2006, the 21st century has seen Napalm Death continue to refine and redefine their still epoch-wrecking sound, with instant classic albums like Smear Campaign (2006) and Utilitarian (2012) adding further flesh to the bones of this ongoing legend. While many veteran bands are content to repeat themselves or to wallow in nostalgia, these noise-hungry stalwarts seem to have gained fresh impetus and momentum in recent times, as showcased on 2015’s Apex Predator – Easy Meat: a self-evident creative high point for all involved, it received some of the most ecstatic reviews in Napalm history, while further cementing the band’s reputation for ferocious originality.
“One thing I’ve learned over the years is what you don’t do to Napalm Death is round the edges off,” says Greenway. “You don’t stop playing fast as fuck. You just don’t do it. But what we do better now is amalgamate all the different things, so there’s metal and punk and hardcore, but also the alternative stuff. We take from all kinds of bands that nobody would even guess! Then there’s the obvious stuff like Coil, Swans and Einstürzende Neubaten, that’s all chucked in and amalgamated too.”
Five years on from Apex Predator – Easy Meat, Napalm Death have somehow pieced together an even more brutal and mind-expanding explosion of righteous noise. Once again recorded in collaboration with esteemed studio guru Russ Russell, Throes Of Joy In The Jaws Of Defeatism is the band’s 16th studio album and it’s very obviously another skull-shattering high point in a vast and varied catalogue.
“It’s a big mixed bag but it’s still mad and in-your-face, obviously!” says Embury. “We actually started working on it in 2017. Mitch hasn’t inputted musically this time, he decided not to, but we got him over and got his riffing arm to record the guitars. John [Cooke, Napalm Death live guitarist] played a bit of stuff too. But it leant on me to write all the songs, really. In a weird way it was easy. I had lots of different concepts and ideas, and it’s just the logical step on from the last record. Some songs were arranged, but some were written totally on the fly. But I really wanted to push those shrill, discordant bits through. We’ve taken what Napalm Death has always been about and pushed it with a bit of indie noise, alternative noise, down-tuned stuff, and even some basic punk rock.”
“This album’s one step on from Apex Predator – Easy Meat”, notes Greenway. “It’s about not just picking different aspects of different eras of the band – it’s about welding it all together, so even parts that you might pick out are built from two or three different ideas. That’s a testament to Shane’s songwriting, and to Mitch’s before that. We were trying to layer the album, so there’s a lot of noise on the spectrum. We know at its core that Napalm Death is fast, furious, confrontational and all of that. But that doesn’t mean we’re going to make the same album twice, because what’s the fucking point in that?”
From its opening seconds to its crushing conclusion, Throes Of Joy In The Jaws Of Defeatism is a bewildering and endlessly exhilarating barrage of sound. Napalm Death have always pushed the boundaries of extreme music, occupying a unique spot where countless genres meet, but on these new songs the band have a tapped a rich new vein of inspiration. Fans of the band’s straightforwardly savage material will certainly have no complaints with the neck-flaying likes of Fuck The Factoid and Zero Gravitas Chamber or the deathly might of Contagion and Fluxing Of The Muscle but it’s mutant curveballs like the mid-paced Amoral - a crunching post-punk monolith that Shane Embury notes was intend to salute “the sound of pre-Scum Napalm” – the hypnotic lava-tsunami of the closing A Bellyful Of Salt & Spleen and the ominous post-punk electro-evisceration of Joie De Ne Pas Vivre that will have the most jaws hitting floors. Yet another testament to this band’s devotion to musical freedom, Throes Of Joy In The Jaws Of Defeatism is quite unlike anything else you will hear in 2020. Or in any other year, for that matter.
“We’ve got stuff that’s got no guitars on it at all – it’s just bass!” says Greenway. “That takes its cues from stuff like the first The Young Gods album. Me and Shane are like little kids. We’ll listen to something we haven’t heard for ages, and we’ll both point at the stereo and start talking about engineering something like that. So some of it is derivative, but we approach it with our own twisted minds.”
“It’s extreme and brutal, but there’s a lot of freedom in what we’re doing,” Embury avows. “We know we can do something left-field and get away with it. People seem to be a bit more receptive to it nowadays, but we just throw it out there and it’s always got the Napalm feel. There’s some nice tension building on this record. It’s a weird one, because it took so long to put together, but I don’t think that anyone who’s into Napalm will be disappointed.”
As with everything Napalm Death have recorded since the early ‘90s, Throes Of Joy In The Jaws Of Defeatism digs deeply and insightfully into all manner of historical and contemporary horrors and injustices. In keeping with the furious gait of the music, these new songs are both a heartfelt and considered reaction to the madness erupting all around us in 2020 but also a plea for humanity and compassion to prevail over selfishness and fear.
“The theme is basically the other – the treatment of the other, the perception of the other and the reaction to the other. There are many reference points at the moment, not just the Black Lives Matter movement but the general treatment of people who are Afro-Caribbean or South East Asian, the treatment of transgender people, and this fear that they can somehow cause huge trauma merely by their biological differences.”
“It’s also about emigration and migration,” he continues. “The world wouldn’t be as it is in many positive ways without migration. The world we know wouldn’t exist. But people are invaders – they’re the other, and we don’t want to understand. So we keep them out with walls and barbed wire, and we deny them food, assistance or anything else, because ‘We inhabit this patch of land and you’re not worthy of what we have.’ That’s really problematic and you can see the consequences everywhere, whether its nationalism and protectionism or people being conditioned to believe that there’s only one way to live.”
There’s no mistaking the sound of a band with multiple axes to grind, but Napalm Death have never been inclined to follow a path of prosaic polemic. Instead, Greenway and Embury’s lyrics are thought-provoking and often shrouded in metaphor and opaque reference. Once you’ve covered Dead Kennedys’ Nazi Punks Fuck Off, as the band memorably did back in 1993, there seems little need for further clarification or new songs aimed directly at today’s aggressors.
“No, we don’t need to go near Trump, because that general situation is there and has been there for a long time,” says Greenway. “It goes back further and deeper than Trump. But we always try to steer away from the obvious anyway. It would be easy to write a song directly about him and I’m glad there are people out there doing it, but we use figurative reference and pathos and we try to work all of that in there. My influences, like Jello Biafra, MDC and Crass, they never said, ‘Let’s write another song about nuclear war!’ because it’s been done a thousand times. Yeah, Napalm Death is protest music but we’re still creative, and that’s really important.”
Nearly 40 years on from the coining of that now legendary moniker, Napalm Death are poised to release one of their finest and most devastating records to date. Living proof that giving a shit and making a racket are the keys to heavy music longevity, the original and best Gods of Grind are still utterly unique and absolutely guaranteed to rattle your teeth out of your skull. When the madness of a global pandemic finally subsides, you know they will be ready to bring their ever-vital extremity to the people once again.
“We try not to get on the hamster wheel too much but we’ll definitely be touring, it’s definitely happening,” Greenway concludes. “We’ve spoken about trying different things online, but there’s not really anything else we can do until lockdown is lifted. Napalm Death is a sweatbox experience. Shane and I always say this – you just feel like it’s more of a fuckin’ experience. As long as you’re in the moment with us, then you get that from gigs like that. So we’ll be back as soon as we can be!”