Slave To The Grind

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.

Posted by phil on April 21, 2004 9:40 AM

great article, phil.

how do you like later napalm death stuff (diatribes, order of the leech,...)?

the problem is: much of that ultra-grindcore stuff lacks variety, to my taste. i mean it's like with merzbow: i like that one track of his. too bad he keeps on making cover-versions of it all the time.

that's why my all-time favorite from that corner of music is CARCASS' "necroticism". i love that album because there's so much alternation in it but it still is pretty "radical" and raw.

Posted by: tomas at April 22, 2004 5:48 PM

I like latter-day Napalm Death a lot. Diatribes is one of my favorite metal albums, because it's so surprisingly experimental. "Cursed To Crawl" has that same dubby-noise-metal feel that God and Ice had.

I only have a few Merzbow discs, but they are all different from each other. My favorite is Dharma, on Hydra Head. There are some cool piano samples mixed in with the digital blare.

I was never a big Carcass fan; I should probably go back and check them out. Terrorizer put out a really underrated album on Earache in the late 80s/early 90s (can't remember the title, but it's their only one).

Posted by: phil at April 23, 2004 8:02 AM

phil -

you really should listen again to necroticism. the earlier carcass albums are nor as mature as the one i mentioned and the latter albums are admittedly not very good (too much "pop"). necroticism shows them on top of their game.

what's terrorizer?

Posted by: tomas at April 24, 2004 9:25 AM

Terrorizer was a band (maybe more of a project) that released one album, World Downfall, on Earache in about 1989. The lineup included David Vincent of Morbid Angel, Jesse Pintado who later joined Napalm Death, and two other guys. Really good death/grind record by folks who went on to bigger (but not always better) things. Still in print on Earache, I think.

Posted by: Phil Freeman at April 25, 2004 11:54 AM

Sorry to be late to the party, and nice job as always, Phil. Two points of contention, though: Shane Embury isn't on Scum at all; Jim Whiteley is the bassist on side two. Jim actually just recorded a guest appearance on ND's upcoming Leaders Not Followers II, a full-length covers album due in a short while from Century Media.

And Bill Steer's work with Carcass both preceded and coincided with his Napalm Death activities; Carcass's earliest demo, Flesh Ripping Sonic Torment (gotta love those titles) began to circulate around the same time that Scum was issued.

You can kick my ass at Extreme Metal Jeopardy ANY day of the week, Phil, but these are two bands I really, truly know. (I love yr Sunny Murray metaphor, though!)

Terrorizer's disc is indeed still in print... and one of the two other guys was Pete Sandoval! This was the band's sole album before Vincent and Sandoval moved to Florida and Pintado headed to the U.K. (Oscar Garcia, wherefore art thou?)

Posted by: Steve at May 12, 2004 5:46 PM

Just read the better part of a chapter from Albert Mudrian's forthcoming book, Choosing Death: The Improbable History of Death Metal and Grindcore... looks as if it might be quite good indeed. The section I read deals with Napalm Death's earliest taste of success, and can be viewed as a PDF file here:

Posted by: Steve at June 3, 2004 5:56 PM

Thanks for the corrections, Steve. Are you going to Ozzfest this year? My tickets just arrived in yesterday's mail...I'm gonna be out on the lawn with the trash. I can't wait...Black Sabbath, Judas Priest, Slayer, Slipknot, Superjoint Ritual, Dimmu Borgir, Lamb Of God, Atreyu...I will be in horns-in-the-air ecstasy.

Posted by: phil at June 4, 2004 7:05 AM

DEFINITELY planning to hit Ozzfest for the first time this year. Seems like five years or more since the fest fielded a compelling lineup... and you don't get much more compelling than intact versions of Sabbath (thank you, Bill Ward!), Priest and Slayer. Technical ecstasy, baby!

Posted by: Steve at June 4, 2004 8:33 AM

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