Let’s ruminate on GRIND: Napalm Death and Extreme Noise Terror

Grindcore is another funny one in metal circles. Much like thrash, the rise of grindcore was either championed by punks playing death metal, or by death metallers playing punk. In both cases the results were simplistic extreme music taken to its most absurd conclusion: micro songs playing at lightning fast tempos. The lyrics, again, reflected the clientele of the various artists involved, either focusing on gore or politics and not much in between. Since this is a subgenre of a subgenre that grew directly out of hardcore punk the lines are sometimes blurred about which artist fit under which ‘core’ suffix, but essentially grindcore was a yet harder faster take on punk initially. Or, if you like, a form of hardcore punk that grinds. And people act like metallers obsession with subcategories is something new. Much like punk, in the extreme metal world this incredibly simplistic music splattered across various scenes, gave renewed energy to the young death metal movement further divorcing it from thrash, and inspired a host of primitive black metal artists into creating a dirty version of this otherwise regal take on extreme metal.

It does not matter how many chimerical albums the current Napalm Death lineup release, they will always be remembered for their first two albums, and 1988’s ‘From Enslavement to Obliteration’ remains a classic to this day. The title track, ‘Unchallenged Hatred’, and ‘Dead’, remain staples of their live set, and it is this sound, solidified in this release, that remains the defining grindcore album. It is something of a curse for this artist that their two most memorable albums, this and 1987’s ‘Scum’ remain their most well remembered. And they were written by some pretty volatile lineups, with bassist Shane Embury remaining the only current member on these recordings.

So what is it about ‘From Enslavement to Obliteration’ that is so special? Is it the shear cheek of this music? Some twenty seven songs that clock in at around just half an hour in length? Is it the fact that at some points this music is so simple that it comes across as a parody of musical components that we recognise but are distorted to simplistic absurdity? All the building blocks are familiar. There’s a thrash riff here, a two power chord punk riff there, there’s even some screaming guitar solos in parts. The vocals range from a guttural death metal growl to a high end screech, that give the illusion of a dual vocal attack at times. But they are packed together so tightly into tracks that rarely play beyond two minutes in length, played to such speed and intensity, and in such quick succession, and in the most charring and abrasive way possible, that one cannot help but fall in love with this primal aggression.

There have been many competent and even interesting grind bands since, but it is not an overstatement to say that this second offering from Napalm Death really was a comprehensive statement of what grindcore was capable of. Lyrics, again, are two or three line slogans, blurted out in chaotic, incomprehensible rants along with the rise and fall of the colliding riffs. It is as if a death metaller, a punk, a thrasher, and a hippie got together and created music so impatient and rushed that the result was an accident of circumstance and timing that it even came together as recognisable music at all. Which is pretty much what Napalm Death were at the time.

Extreme Noise Terror’s 1989 offering ‘A Holocaust in Your Head’ technically never sat within the grindcore lexicon. Its position here next to Napalm Death is simply because of the influence this album had. Napalm death at this time were the true hybrid of punk and metal, other contemporaries playing grindcore at this time sat much more comfortably within the metal side of this subculture, whilst Extreme Noise Terror approached this music very much from the punk side. They took the aggression of hardcore punk, the spiky rawness of crust punk such as Amebix, stuck it in a sonic blender and produced one classic that would be remembered for years to come.

‘A Holocaust in Your Head’ is quintessentially socially conscience extreme punk music, made by aggressive hippies. Drums only rarely play a full blown blast-beat (whereas ‘From Enslavement to Obliteration’ is almost nothing but blast-beats), preferring instead a hyper fast D-beat. Vocals call to mind Doom and Discharge as much as they do guttural death metal growls. The dual vocal attack is there in full, which makes one feel attacked from all sides by anger compelling one to take action against whatever social ill the particular track is about. And some of the lyrics are even comprehensible at times, as if these artists really did have an interest in getting their message across to those too lazy to read the lyric sheets. And the lyrics, again, solely focus on social issues, politics, and protest. But there is something so chaotically dirty about this album that it fits well within the grindcore movement and is much loved by extreme metal fans the world over.

The riffs, rather than utilising thrash metal, achieve the same level of intensity by channelling the likes of Discharge and the Exploited played to the very limits of speed before the music would fall into complete incoherence. Simple powerchords make up the bulk of the riffs, completely atonal, and never broken up by the indulgence of even the most primitive of solos, punk to the core.

Whatever the inherent value of this music, grindcore was to prove to be a step too far into specificity, a style so limiting that only a few brave musicians were able to develop pure grindcore into something interesting enough to appeal beyond the novelty. The splatter of colour that it left on the musical landscape of extreme punk and metal around the world gave this music new drive, new impetus, a new soul, but with artists such as these, the arms race for speed and aggression had reached it conclusion before the close of the 1980s, and new avenues would have to be explored in order to achieve this. And one such route would be to combine this music with more precision and technicality, affording musicians new creative spaces to explore at the outer most limits of what contemporary music could achieve in terms of stimulating the human imagination. In doing this however, they could no longer call themselves children of punk with a clear conscience.

In terms of the most appealing of these two releases this may be another David and Goliath incident, and you know that Napalm Death’s work is going to come out on top. I love ‘A Holocaust in Your Head’, but so abrasive, noisy, and simple is this music that once the novelty has worn off there is no take home message. ‘From Enslavement to Obliteration’ suffers from many of the same short comings, but the musicianship is more precise, more fluid, the guile and cheek of its delivery more overstated, that I simply cannot help but be charmed by this music.

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