[11 April 2005]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
As great as it is to have metal artists challenge their listeners by continuing to develop their sound well into their career, it’s also just as good to have the old reliable, veteran acts around, the ones who faithfully adhere to their trademark sound with every release. Many staunch metal fans are intimidated by change (message board reactions to recent, and otherwise good, albums by Swedish notables In Flames and Soilwork are enough of a good example), so when a likeable band continues along its own merry way, churning out the same old shtick time and again, the hardcore fans are always happy. However, every so often, those unwavering bands tend to dig themselves into a rut, and when that happens, while people still profess to admiring the band, whenever a new album comes out, it’s largely ignored by casual listeners.
One of the most influential bands in metal history, not only did Napalm Death co-create the “grindcore” subgenre during the late 1980s, with its insanely fast tempos and aggressive vocals, but it also splintered into two other equally important bands: Cathedral, Godflesh, and the stupendous Carcass, who took that original sound and melded it with the more technically dexterous death metal style, with often astounding results. The rest of the world seems to be slowly catching up to the original grindcore sound, as the Napalm Death influence starts to creep into the increasingly popular metalcore sound, led by the likes of Converge and The Dillinger Escape Plan. There’s not a contemporary metal fan who doesn’t appreciate the work of Napalm Death, but ask any of them if they have any of their recent albums, and you’ll likely hear, “no”.
The band’s move to the huge metal label Century Media couldn’t have come at a more perfect time; not only is Napalm Death back at a label who knows how to promote a band well, but during a time of such political strife as now, they have plenty of reasons to get mad as hell. Their surprisingly fun 2004 covers album Leaders Not Followers Part 2 announced to the metal world that the flame had been re-ignited, and on their 13th album The Code Is Red… Long Live the Code, the quartet of vocalist Barney Greenway, bassist Shane Embury, guitarist Mitch Harris, and drummer Danny Herrera have proven, most authoritatively, that Napalm Death is back to being relevant once again.
Their most focused album in years, The Code Is Red… contains the usual explosions of grind/death cacophony, but underneath it all is a subtle hint of old-fashioned hardcore, the resulting album remarkably rich in tone, one that doesn’t grow tiresome over half an hour. Sure, you get the relentlessly fast tracks such as “Right You Are” and “Breathing”, but more often than not, the band employs plenty of tempo shifts, from some downright groovy riffs that resemble Anthrax (“The Great and the Good”), to the midtempo stomp of Black Flag (“All Hail the Grey Dawn”), to a very cool excursion into simpler, much slower fare in the thunderous, ominous “Morale”, which morphs into the discordant, oddly ambient instrumental “Our Pain Is Their Power”. As Greenway hilariously wrote in his liner notes for Leaders Not Followers Part 2, he “always feels a bit lost after two and a half minutes”, so when you have a Napalm Death album that has three tracks that run longer than four minutes, you know you’re in for a refreshing change.
Most enjoyable are Greenway’s lyrics. Granted, most of the time, it sounds like he’s trying to regurgitate into the microphone (something every death metal band keeps trying to copy), but here, once you delve into his actual lyrics, it’s easy to be impressed by his eloquence and wit. The current state of American politics is the central theme, and Greenway is quick to attack both sides, condemning the lack of passion from the left wing, saying, “Their silence is deafening/From the retreats of tamed apologists.” “All Hail the Grey Dawn” examines the growing chasm between the upper and working classes: “You’re either a have-it-all or a have not/And when you have it all there’s a license to spin the line: ‘All this could be yours’”. “Diplomatic Immunity” focuses on President Bush’s war in Iraq (“It was war through lies on demand”), while the blistering title track blasts American Homeland Security, accusing the government of “suffocat[ing] diversity”, climaxing with the stirring, very perceptive line, “They’ll take us up to fever pitch and watch intolerance spread/And you’ll be none the wiser with a paranoid mindset.”
Featuring guest vocal cameos by Jello Biafra, Hatebreed’s Jamey Jasta, and Carcass’s Jeff Walker, The Code Is Red… Long Live the Code embraces both the metal and hardcore sides of the fence, and combines the two sounds as skillfully as any younger band has done this past year. Impassioned, vehement, and slickly produced by Russ Russel, this album is a welcome return to form by one of underground metal’s most venerable bands. Although this is one angry record, you can’t help but be delighted that Napalm Death are back on track.