“Some of the sounds that we use are deliberately designed to annoy people, no question,” admits Napalm Death’s long-serving vocalist Mark ‘Barney’ Greenway. Trust him. Since the band’s 1987 debut album ‘Scum’ revealed an unholy and previously unimagined cacophony of scuzzy speed grindcore to the world, these guys have proved they can annoy.
Luckily for fans – but not innocent bystanders – the Birmingham-based band serves up copious amounts of sheer terror and abrasive noise on this 16th album. But despite its caustic title and the cover sticker declaring it contains “tenderised chunks of a weakling”, there is actually a whole lot more smart, melodic and technical music-making than annoyances – sprinkled with more than just a pinch of black (country) humour.
Less than three years after the group confounded critics with the excellent return to form ‘Utilitarian’, it's now the turn of ‘Easy Meat’ to reveal a band continuing to enjoy itself. With the hyperactive, punishing drumming of Danny Herrera propelling the group, the rest of the guys are free to punish at will over its 14 tracks. Which is precisely what they do on the riff-heavy ‘Stunt Your Growth’ as Mitch Harris’ escalating chords trigger a frenzied, if catchy, chaos that lasts less than two minutes. It is the album’s strongest and most concise track, which shows no signs of the band slowing down.
“I don’t want something more refined or less extreme, I want something more extreme,” Barney declares of the band’s present thinking. “Sometimes we'll be in the studio and someone will say ‘Isn’t that a bit noisy?’ and I'll say ‘F*cking hell, what do you mean? Turn it up! Let’s go and throw a microphone through the speaker!’ So that’s our attitude. The age of the band should never come into it. Just because you’re older, it doesn’t mean you lose the urge to make something challenging.”
Yet the challenge at times for Barney is to turn back the clock with his voice. Yes, some studio trickery helps, but time is inevitably catching up with the stocky frontman. However, his drone-like chanting that opens the album shows him trying to work around the problem constructively – with some truly massive choruses on hand to back him up. Check out ‘Hierarchies’ and ‘Dear Slum Landlord…’ for concise statements of dark, hellish intent.
Meanwhile, ‘How The Years Condemn’ almost explodes out of the speakers with ugly squelches of guitar feedback and Herrera’s lockstep drums until an unruly barrelhouse bassline from Shane Embury and a Barney roar breaks the deadlock: “We are not invincible / Nor are we indestructible / There are choices / Points of return,” he growls.
This is the cautionary, if familiar, tale of excess penned by Embury who while hospitalised reflected on his life, recalling: “I had to make a choice, which was either to carry on down the same path of selfish destruction as I had seen some of my friends embark on – or stay around for the people I loved and who loved me. Yes, it’s a familiar story, no doubt. But it was an awakening for me which I very much needed. And shortly after I was blessed with the birth of my daughter so I am glad I made the right decision.”
Lurking beneath all the near-death experiences, blistering pace, ear-shredding riffs and verbal assaults is something far more profound – a sense of humour. Even the song titles expose the band’s funny bone, with ‘Metaphorically Screw You’ and ‘Stubborn Stains’ raising more than a few eyebrows. But while these songs could appear slapstick at first, they yield distinctly unfunny results. On the former, Barney rages over a double-time beat:
“All you can eat, on all you can feast
All that can be really cheaply played
All a noise of nothing but scheming
You are deftly swayed, vigorously splayed”
And on the latter, he mocks:
“I am the invisible smear on your sorely tempting price tag
And as perishable as your product, I can just be thrown away.”
Which leads to a rather pertinent critique of our customer-is-always-right worldview, Barney explains. “I see the world as a see-saw,” he says. “There are countries in the world that relentlessly consume and then there are other countries that are the f*cking dumping ground, and the common perception is that they have less value.”
Cue a rant about the Primark factory that collapsed in Bangladesh last year, clearly chaffing at more than the company’s itchy £3 T-shirts. “People think that slavery is a thing of the past,” Barney adds. “But there are slave conditions all over the world, where people are working under threat of death. Slavery is far from gone.”
Ultimately, ‘Easy Meat’ is full of heavy topics set to heavy music, ground up with plenty of warped humour. It’s a perverse and challenging listen that makes very few compromises. But the album is also both intensely lyrical and supremely musical – and it plays out in a way that is designed to be perversely uncomfortable for the ears. Within those provocative contradictions, the band continues to prove its relevance.
Words: Geoff Cowart
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(Interview quotes from press materials)