Record Bin: How Napalm Death dismantled and rebuilt metal on “Scum”

Authored By pitulah

It’s not easy to love Napalm Death-the name alone should tell you a good deal about the music. We’re entering grindcore territory here. But once the initial rhythmic shock passes, there is a sense that within these metal trappings and hardcore punk inclinations the band is able to more fully explore and disseminate their influences than you might think. Yes, this music is loud and fast, and the lyrics are barely-if ever-discernible, but there’s a reckless and chaotic feeling of innovation and creativity that’ll keep you coming back whether you understand what the song is about or not.

Incorporating aspects of both death metal and intransigent punk, Napalm Death formed in 1981 and quickly set themselves apart from other like-minded bands of the time. Originally conceived by Nicholas Bullen and Miles Ratledge when they were still teenagers in Meriden (located near Birmingham in the United Kingdom), the band was a logical extension and progression of their DIY fanzine writing and assorted allegiance to, and performances with, other local bands. They went through a handful of different names, including Civil Defence, The Mess, Evasion and Undead Hatred, before finally settling on Napalm Death.

Inspired by the bands affiliated with the early punk movement, particularly those associated with the late ’70s anarcho-punk aesthetic such as The Apostles and The Cravats, Napalm Death took the ferocity of punk music and churned it together with the early blistering rhythms of metal. The resulting explosion of sound and fury has reverberated all the way until our time, with countless bands taking and adjusting those primordial tones and making them their own.

The band went through a number of drastic roster changes in its first few years. The initial lineup consisted of founders Bullen and Ratledge, along with guitarist Simon Oppenheimer-though they’d add bassist Graham Robertson in early 1982. Oppenheimer would leave the band later that year and was replaced by Darryl Fedeski, who himself would vacate that position only a few short months later. At that point, Robertson switched to electric guitar, and Finbarr Quinn (ex-Curfew) was brought on to play bass. The band began touring under this lineup and recorded four demos between 1982 and 1983. One of these songs would constitute the band’s first published song, which found its way onto the “Bullsh*t Detector Volume 3” compilation released by Crass Records in 1984.

Over the next few years, the band would shift their roster, losing some members while gaining new musicians to fill in the musical kinks and recording quite a few demo tapes-which were subsequently sold through the mail and at their shows. Now a trio, consisting of Bullen, guitarist Justin Broadrick and drummer Mick Harris, the group recorded their seventh set of demo songs, titled “Scum,” which was initially set to form a split LP with English hardcore band Atavistic, but would later go on to be the A side to their official debut record of the same name. The B side songs would be recorded in the first half of 1987 with singer Lee Dorrian, guitarist Bill Steer, bassist Jim Whitely and drummer Mick Harris (with Harris being the only musician to play on both sides of the album).

“Scum” was a revelation of aggression and sociopolitical ideology. The songs were short, feral and aimed to rip the still-beating heart from your chest. Songs like “Control” and “As the Machine Rolls On” showed that the band could indeed form cohesive musical statements in a very small window of time. And though both sides were basically recorded with entirely different people, Harris notwithstanding, the record feels entirely unified, without any sort of cognizant break between either side. And speed was the connecting factor. Napalm Death was obsessed with it. The hyperspeed percussion, blistering riffs and unintelligible howling became the band’s trademark; and over these 28 tracks, they focused these rampaging sounds toward the listener, resulting in a new breed of kinetic metal aesthetics.

Some songs, such as “Instinct of Survival” and “Siege of Power,” gave the band room to expand their dynamic grindcore tendencies; these songs were far longer and, given their ability to hold and maintain a foreboding musical atmosphere, were treading new ground for a genre known for its abject brevity. Listening to “Scum,” you come to a realization that the band had a good deal more to offer than just subminute songs and unchecked hostility.

“Scum” is noisy and harsh and isn’t particularly easy to broach, but the rewards are as extensive as the songs are short. Each track, no matter the length, hides a series of completely developed rhythmic details. They might not be extremely intricate or elaborate, but they are fully formed and keep the album from ever feeling as though it’s fraying at the edges, ready to fall apart at the slightest tug. Some people may disparage these songs for sounding exactly the same or for rarely venturing farther than the boundaries set forth by their past work, but to lay these assumptions at Napalm Death’s door would be to oversimplify a meticulous work of manic energy.

These songs are built from the sweat and frustration of the band; they’re desperate, angry and prone to bursts of anarchic elation. But they are not directionless eruptions of unfiltered noise, nor are they simple-minded detours through a disordered industrial wasteland. The band charges through these songs with barely a moment taken to breathe. And although their more recent work has lacked that maniacal spark that lit the fuse on “Scum,” we can be grateful that this album exists at all. Briefly before our eyes and gone again, these songs serve as microscopic cathartic outbursts, and we are gladly carried along in their feverish wake.

Joshua Pickard covers local and national music, film and other aspects of pop culture. You can contact him on Facebook, Twitter or by email. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not or its employees.