It’s not often that an entire musical genre can be traced back to one album. But every grindcore band currently active (and there’s a shitload of ’em) owes its very existence to Napalm Death, specifically the 1987 album Scum. Not only the first ND release, it was also the first Earache Records product, and yes, the very first grindcore album.
Scum contains 28 tracks in just about as many minutes. Aside from album opener "Multinational Corporations," these tracks ("songs" seems generous) follow a pattern of lightning speed, ultra-repetitive guitar riffing and a drummer—Mick "The Human Tornado" Harris—who attacks the cymbals like nobody since Sunny Murray. The band’s lineup was in flux at the time, so each side of Scum features different musicians, Harris excepted. Side One features Justin Broadrick (later of Godflesh) on guitar, and Nick Bullen, who’d later partner up again with Harris in Scorn, on bass and vocals. Side Two showcases the "classic" early Napalm Death lineup: Bill Steer (later of Carcass) on guitar, Shane Embury (now the last surviving "original" member) on bass, and Lee Dorrian on vocals. This lineup would stick around for the second album, From Enslavement To Obliteration, before splitting up.
Since Napalm Death established the pattern (loud, fast, and very nearly out of control), grindcore has lingered as the wailing ultimate among post-hardcore extreme metal styles. Any genre that features two-second songs—again, a trick pioneered by Napalm with their Scum track "You Suffer (But Why?)"—has pretty much laid down a line nobody’s gonna cross anytime soon. Still, even within such a seemingly unpromising genre, there’s room for individual creativity. John Zorn was an early devotee, and two of his albums can be considered homages to grindcore: Naked City’s schizophrenic, spasmodic Torture Garden and the Ornette Coleman assault Spy Vs. Spy. (And, of course, he recruited Mick Harris to play in Pain Killer.) But such nods from the art scene weren’t, and aren’t, where the real action’s at. Two grindcore bands have lately been obsessing me, and each deserves a much wider audience—assuming innocent ears are ready for serious punishment.
Discordance Axis broke up in 2002, but they left behind three "full-length" albums and a fistful of collaborative singles, compilation tracks and EPs. All this material has been reissued by Hydra Head Records on a compilation (Original Sound Version 1992-1995) and as bonus tracks appended to their second album, Jouhou. DA were probably the most technically skilled band ever to take up the grindcore cudgel. Vocalist Jon Chang, who also wrote the reissues’ hilariously self-deprecating liner notes, had a distinctive high-pitched screech which alternated with the usual guttural, indecipherable barking to disorienting and powerful effect. Guitarist Rob Marton keeps the riffs coming fast and furious, but throws in almost-groovin’ mosh parts that last just long enough for the listener to notice them, but not long enough to actually get any pit action going. And drummer Dave Witte is simply terrifying. His utter command of the kit, and total impassivity in action, is pretty much unparalleled in any branch of punk, hardcore or metal. (They had no bassist.) DA albums usually have between 20 and 25 songs, nearly all ranging between 30 seconds and a minute, with the occasional three-minute epic padding them out.
The best way to understand DA, though, isn’t by listening to any of their CDs; it’s by watching Pikadourei, a live DVD. Shot on hand-held digital camcorders and using in-camera sound to capture the tunes, it’s edited with seizure-inducing quick cuts and plenty of digital stop-and-stutter, thus giving the ideal visual translation of the herky-jerky, roaring music. Chang catapults off the stage into the crowd at regular intervals, or simply collapses between songs, exhausted by the effort of vomiting out the lyrics. Marton stands impassively by his amps, and Witte crashes and rattles at the back. The set is only about 25 minutes long, if that, but it’s utterly exhausting. Another live document, 7.62mm, is also included on the disc. That one’s almost Merzbow-esque, because the raw video stock has been rubbed with magnets, burned, and the VCR kicked repeatedly during the duplication process, all to screw with the signal and make it very nearly unwatchable. Still, the energy of the form comes through.
Agoraphobic Nosebleed didn’t even bother trying to find a drummer who could play the relentless, spastic "blast beats" they wanted; they use a machine instead. But these are no Big Black-style whomps. ANB’s drum machine sounds like it was programmed with a random number generator—a typical track creates the impression of a guy trying to hold onto Neil Peart’s kit while falling down sixteen flights of stairs. They, too, have released numerous split singles and EPs, all exhibiting one of the blackest senses of humor in music. Their first full-length album, Frozen Corpse Stuffed With Dope, is just as berserk and hilarious as the title would indicate, but it’s also a staggeringly complex, meticulously assembled piece of audio art. I called it "the grindcore Paul’s Boutique," and I stand by that. It switches back and forth so quickly between guest vocalists (who shout their contributions into leader Scott Hull’s answering machine, only to have him leave the opening "Hi, it’s So-and-so, here goes" and closing "Call me when you get this message" parts on the final album) and spoken samples from anti-drug or serial-killer news broadcasts, all blanketed by the annihilating drum machine and chainsaw guitar, that the full experience of listening to its 38 songs in 33 minutes is really only recommended about once every couple of months. But it is recommended.
Sure, grindcore’s not for everybody. But nothing is. When your attention span has atrophied away to almost nothing, a 30-second burst of crashing drums, belt-sander riffs, and screeching, atonal vocals may be just what you need to make it through the day. It’s like shooting caffeine in your eyeball—sometimes, there’s no other option that’ll get the job done.
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