Let's wrap up my 2020 coverage at Apocalypse Later with an album I'd have reviewed in September had I not been suffering technical difficulties at the time. It's the new one from Napalm Death, amazingly their sixteenth original studio album, something that I simply wouldn't have believed when I bought Scum in 1987. Of course, that pioneering debut led to quite the career, even though no musician on it lasted past 1991, names like Lee Dorrian, Bill Steer and Mick Harris now known as much for their work after they left as before.
I'd have reviewed this anyway, but I'm doing so now because it was received particularly well and made a strong showing in the end of year lists, topping Decibel's list and coming second at Consequence of Sound. It sounds really good to me too, better than the band last time I saw them live (which I see now was as long ago as 2006, just after Smear Campaign came out). It feels fresh, surprisingly so for an outfit technically celebrating their fortieth anniversary this year (and their thirtieth in this line-up). I haven't heard much from their last couple of decades but what I have heard wasn't this fresh.
Much of that is surely due to the fact that they continue to experiment with their sound. The heart of this is still grindcore heavily infused with death metal, but there's a lot more here than that. It's very punky, hearkening back to the band's roots in the anarcho-punk scene of the day, long before the idea of grindcore had been conjured up. There's a lot of early Discharge here, especially in the way Barney handles the vocals, not in style but in rhythm, intonation and meter. I first noticed this on Contagion and Zero Gravitas Chamber but the intro to the title track underlines it. It's like he's shouting poetry rather than singing and how the words and their syllables sound is important as what they say.
There are also journeys into lands other than grindcore and death. There are other sounds in songs at the beginning of the album, but that becomes impossible to miss once we get to Joie de na pas Vivre, an experimental piece that mixes black metal and industrial. That's followed by Invigorating Clutch, a nod to avant garde Celtic Frost; it's slower but utterly relentless. Because the styles they explore to a deep degree are already present in earlier songs, they don't feel out of place. The only song that does is the last one, the most overtly industrial piece here, A Bellyful of Salt and Spleen, which wisely ends the album. It would have been awkward anywhere else.
I love the sound of this album. I remember listening to Scum in 1987 and struggling to keep up with a pace that exceeded anything I'd heard before. It's easier nowadays, of course, with decades of extreme metal to train my ears, but this is as clear and melodic as I've ever heard grindcore without losing any power whatsoever. It's purple faced angry even as it embraces subtleties and textures. Amoral is like a ruthless punk take on a Depeche Mode song, but it's a highlight here, even if the vehemence and pace of the title track that follows it underlines how different it really was.
Perhaps the best way to describe this is to suggest that I like grindcore not so much for the music but because that music provides an experience. If the best and fastest thrash cleans me out, leaving me as spiritually refreshed as if I'd spent a day meditating in a sauna, then grindcore does that in blitzkrieg fashion, a more jagged and punctuated route to the same goal. This, however, I'm listening to for the music. It's fascinating to hear this sort of versatility at this sort of speed and it bodes very well for an iconic band entering its fifth decade.