The first and only time I played Napalm Death for my 85-year-old grandmother, she asked, “You call that noise music?” It’s something the band has clearly heard a time or two; they once named a greatest-hits collection Noise for Music’s Sake. But what the Lawrence Welk fans of the world might not know is that, beneath the group’s abrasive surface lies a powerful and innovative band sounding as fresh and vital in 2006 as it did two decades (and several member changes) ago, one that helped create the grindcore genre, even coining the term “blastbeat” to describe the maniacal percussive explosions, less about rhythm per se than sheer sonic violence, that act as genre staples.
Napalm Death remains at the forefront of contemporary metal, as its excellent 2005 album The Code is Red… Long Live the Code proves. The album marks the third entry in a recent series of critically acclaimed efforts by the band after several late ‘90s works that failed to draw quite the same levels of praise. Sitting in a tour-bus trailer behind the Key Club in Hollywood with outspoken and articulate singer Mark “Barney” Greenway before the band goes on to demolish the house, I begin the interview by asking if this trilogy constituted a “return to form”.
“I think we’ve always had a form,” he responds. “We’ve never really lost the form, as far as we were concerned. We did a few different kinds of albums in the ‘90s, they were slightly left-field, but they weren’t that far removed.” Greenway is referring to albums such as 1997’s Inside the Torn Apart and the next year’s Words from the Exit Wound, which drew some flak from the metal community for employing an unusually accessible sound (albeit one still too extreme to merit the band much more mainstream exposure than some token video appearances on MTV’s Headbanger’s Ball). “You’ve got to look at it in context,” he adds; “Those particular experimental albums were in themselves influential on the noisecore scene” of such young upstarts as the Dillinger Escape Plan. “There’s certain things at the time I thought were a bit strange, that caused debate in the band. With the benefit of hindsight, some stuff on there was really, really good.”
Nonetheless, Greenway agrees that, on the recent albums, “we’ve gone back to what we’re most known for and what we do best… We haven’t, strictly, returned to anything—we’ve taken the core things that have arguably always been there, and we’ve just developed it.” Pressed to define that core, Greenway offers this succinct definition of the Napalm Death sound: “We’re a fast hardcore band. That’s what we are essentially, that’s what we always were,” though “the metal influences” are what distinguish the band from more punk-oriented 1980s peers such as Discharge or the Crass. And, of course, the speed: early songs such as the legendary “You Suffer” (from 1987 debut Scum) ran as short as two seconds, their fleeting ephemerality serving as existential quandaries, answered in the negative by their ferocity.
That brevity has long since given way to more developed songwriting, but The Code is Red avoids inciting listener monotony over the course of its 45 minutes by varying its musical template, including abrasive grindcore but also heavy grooves, punk inflections, and the dirge-groan of closer “Morale”. Despite this variation, does genre ever feel confining? “Not really,” Greenway responds, “because we feel we’ve got enough ideas to evolve and move around. I think it’s a positive thing.” Having a diverse audience helps: Greenway counts not just metal fans, but punk and alternative rock devotees among the band’s fanbase. I try to push the point, wondering whether Greenway ever comes up with a killer melody but reluctantly throws it away on principle, for not fitting the “Napalm sound”. He looks at me with suspicion, as if I had just traded in my Backstreet Boys collection for my first Napalm album this afternoon: “Well, we don’t get anywhere near that kind of melody, for a start. It just doesn’t happen for us.”
One crucial component of the band’s project is its politics. Aggressively left-wing, Napalm Death has always staked out a defiant stance on its albums, advocating anti-fascism, environmentalism, social equality, and other progressive causes. But this political agenda often dwelled alongside more personal lyrics of angst and alienation on earlier albums, best seen in the title of the band’s 1994 album Fear, Emptiness, Despair. More recently, the political element has come to dominate the band’s lyrics; on The Code is Red, “Diplomatic Immunity” rages against “the cowboy killer” president and his “war through lies on demand”, while “Climate Controllers” reminds us, “Patriot—yes, it’s an act”, and other tracks follow suit. This greater political emphasis was not intentional, Greenway contends. “No, there’s never any great masterplan. It all depends how the world’s moving at the time, you always try to be topical and current. The world has transformed in some fairly significant and unsavory ways in the past few years, so it just depends on the time period.”
This begs the question, how do these unsavory times of Bush and Blair compare to those of Reagan and Thatcher, which gave birth to Napalm? “It’s slightly different in the sense that during the Cold War years, which were very ‘Us and Them’, there were more people willing to take as writ that, here’s the evil Russians over there and here’s the great West over here. Of course, when we look back at that we know it not to be a true depiction of the situation.” Greenway minces no words in characterizing the so-called Great Communicator: “Reagan was a fundamentalist Christian lunatic.”
That makes him pretty similar to the current Commander-in-Chief, but despite the global havoc wrought by the Bush administration internationally and the bigoted intolerance cultivated domestically, the singer sees hopeful signs of resistance. “Even though there is a lot of support for Bush, there’s a far greater desire for people to know what is behind what these people are doing. I think things are slightly more open. Having said that, they’re never open enough for me. I would like to see the CIA blown completely open. I’d like to see what these people have been doing.”
The penchant for secrecy and hypocrisy he sees as two more continuing parallels between Reagan and Bush. “During the Reagan era, when Just Say No and DARE were going, there were CIA-supported right-wing groups in Central America, funded by drugs, trying to overthrow legitimate leftwing governments, which were kept hidden from the American populace. Meanwhile, the current revelations of the Bush administration’s flagrantly unconstitutional abuse of power in the executive telephone taps lead Greenway to a straightforward conclusion: “I think there’s no question that Bush has got to be impeached… Clinton got blackballed by the Monica Lewinsky situation, the last thing on earth that you should be impeached for. But with Bush coming out on television and admitting that he did that, surely he has to go. There should be no question of that.”
He’s equally upfront on other topics, including abortion rights. “Blows to the Body”, on the 2002 album Order of the Leech, announced the band’s position: “Move those pious hands off that which isn’t yours”, it demanded, before asking the anti-choice movement a devastating question: “If, as you say, life is so sacred / Why is quality of life an afterthought?” When I ask Greenway whether Napalm Death could be classified as a feminist band, he replies without hesitation. “Yeah, I would say so. We speak for equality, that’s what we speak for—I wouldn’t say rather than feminism, but taking it a step beyond that. In our small scene, as in the great outside world, sexism is still rampant.” Feminism “is where we need to be, if we’re a so-called civilized society, as people like to bang on about.”
We briefly discuss the recent South Dakota legislation banning all abortions, which Greenway finds “deeply depressing”, and I press him about the pervasive misogyny of the death metal scene—something of which Napalm has never partaken, but which often marks the lyrics of tourmates like Cannibal Corpse. He agrees that misogynistic lyrics are unfortunate but defends his death metal peers. “The horror bands that do the horror thing, it’s pure fantasy, and when they talk about women or men being ripped apart, inasmuch as it’s something that I wouldn’t do, you have to accept a freedom of thought. And as long as those lyrics aren’t being used with a will to say, ‘We’re just writing about stupid bitches,’ which is clearly misogynist, it’s based on a fantasy aspect, which I don’t have too much of a problem with.” Fans, Greenway contends, are sufficiently sophisticated as to distinguish cartoonish lyrical violence from an endorsement of actual violence.
Do those fans appreciate Greenway’s political polemics? Not always. A recent comment on the band’s web site came from a fan who caught their Seattle show and enjoyed it, “other than the unnecessary comments from Barney about the US President and our foreign policy.” Such reactions are not unprecedented, and he takes them in stride. “I read that particular comment. This is the lack of an overall view of the situation. What people don’t realize is that what happens in this country, America being the biggest superpower in the world, is that whatever Bush does has a domino effect—that phrase they used to use in the ‘50s—on the rest of the world, so it’s my duty to point these things out, to speak out. Because I personally am affected as much as this guy is. With all due respect, it shows a lack of understanding, or a lack of the willingness to understand.”
Life on the road with Napalm is filled not with sordid debauchery, but rather extensive reading. After a few years of infrequent touring the band has returned to a road-warrior tour schedule as of late, and Greenway always comes equipped with stacks of books. “The way to deal with touring is, I look after myself. I’m a vegetarian, I don’t drink on the road, I don’t smoke… I just maintain a healthy lifestyle—lessens the element of fatigue. I read like crazy on the road.” Recent works read range from Carl Hiaasen’s darkly comic detective fiction to a lengthy history of the KGB, and Greenway makes sure to keep abreast of current events by digesting literature from both the left and the right. “It’s good to have an understanding of what the conservative commentators are saying. And quite frankly, some of those books are bordering on neofascism.” His voice picks up: “Ann Coulter. Some of that stuff is fucking brutal. She calls herself a good Christian, but fuck off!”
Other authors received more warmly by Greenway include Noam Chomsky, Gore Vidal, and even the oft-criticized Michael Moore. “People rag on Moore, even on the left, but if it wasn’t for that guy, the investigative voice that some of us would like wouldn’t be available,” he argues. But what about music? It can’t be all metal and hardcore, all the time on the tour-bus radio, can it? Indeed not: “I like Motown, I like Stevie Wonder. All sorts of stuff. Progressive rock… even Journey, Foreigner, the songs are great.” When I ask whether there’s some latent influence from this disparate roster awaiting discovery by musicologists studying Napalm Death, Greenway again looks at me like I’m demented. “Oh no, absolutely not, it would be ridiculous to even suggest that,” he insists, though he does give credit to other non-metal favorites like the Fall and the Swans in helping shape his general aesthetic.
By this point dinner is being served at the Key Club, and a person needs sustenance to storm the stage as passionately as Napalm Death does. Onstage, Greenway offers more vitriol toward the unconscionable activities of the president in between fierce, focused bursts of tightly played musical aggression. The crowd cheers, and I’m reminded of something he said in our interview: “I believe in peace, tolerance, equality. It’s pretty hard to argue against that, unless you’re a screaming bigot.” Sounds almost like Nick Lowe by way of Elvis Costello. Except that, unlike Napalm Death, those two never found an effective place for blastbeats in their songs.
// Notes from the Road
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