It’s no exaggeration to say that Napalm Death are one of the most important acts in popular music history. In fact, it’s an understatement, because if you were to tell the more general story of humanity’s relationship with sound, from the first times our ancestors became aware of the thrum of insects to when they mimicked the sound of birds and banged on rocks on up to the present day, that story would be incomplete if you didn’t include the Birmingham, England-based extreme metal institution in the timeline. When longtime bassist Shane Embury boldly declared in 1990 that the band’s music represented “the end of the line”—i.e., that he couldn’t imagine anyone else making more extreme music—it was hard to argue against Embury’s premise that Napalm Death had achieved a kind of ultimate pinnacle of what’s sonically possible, at least when human hands are generating the sound.
Universally credited as the band that invented the heavy metal sub-genre grindcore, Napalm Death popularized the use of “blast beat” tempos that are so sped up they induce a sensation of musical weightlessness, almost as if the music is slowing down rather than gaining momentum. It can’t be a coincidence that the band’s relentless whir aligned with the ascendance of digital technology, perhaps a reflection of a then-budding, likely unconscious awareness that the flow of sensory input was intensifying to the limits of what the mind could tolerate. Music, to keep pace, naturally followed in the same direction as all the other artificial stimuli that had begun to overwhelm our senses.
It may seem counter-intuitive, but Napalm Death’s ultra-harsh blur contains as much punk in its DNA (specifically the anarcho and crust-punk strains) as it does metal, not to mention the genetic imprint of noise acts like Swans. When the band released their full-length debut Scum in 1987, however, it was clear that their tolerance-testing hybrid of all three styles had gelled into a language of its own. Scum had an immediate seismic impact, so much so that its influence on metal, which reverberates far and wide to this day, would be impossible to measure. As journalist Malcolm Dome put it when reflecting on the album’s 20th anniversary in 2007, Napalm Death “really changed the way every one of us thought about music”.
Understandably, the band soon found themselves in the position of having to play catch-up with their innovations. Against all the odds, though, successive Napalm Death lineups were able to add new colors to the single-minded palette the band had initially created. Over a four-album stretch during the mid- to late ’90s, Napalm Death embraced an alt-metal strain of experimentation that bucked against grindcore purism as if flirting with the possibility of leaving the genre behind for good. Then, at the millennium turn, the band re-dedicated themselves to playing in a direct, fast/heavy style. This means that, for 20 years now, Napalm Death have favored consistency over progression, more focused on keeping within their parameters rather than giving audiences a new way of thinking about them.
It’s quite a surprise, then, that on Napalm Death’s 16th official studio album, Throes of Joy in the Jaws of Defeatism, the band finally find the middle ground between its classic, experimental and post-experimental periods. Shockingly, Throes of Joy sustains a balance between directness and exploration that the band have never quite seemed capable of in the past. “Fuck the Factoid”, vocalist Barney Greenway’s stinging diatribe against the “filthy fucking factoid epidemic” of bias and untruth in media, opens the album in a flurry of blast beats but then quickly delves into shades of melodic deathcore and even symphonic death metal with backup vocal chants that nest comfortably within a hummable guitar chord progression. Somehow, the band indulge in some rather unabashed melodicism without diluting their penchant for abrasion. (Though Greenway would be the first to admit that he’s less of a quote-unquote singer than a growler, it’s not for lack of open-mindedness, as he has long professed his love for bands like Journey and Dream Theater.)
Meanwhile, the main riff on “Backlash Just Because” grooves in a way that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on the band’s 1997 effort Inside the Torn Apart, perhaps the furthest that Napalm Death ever wandered from the grindcore pasture. Napalm Death has dabbled in groove several times in the past, but “Backlash Just Because” arguably marks the first time the band have managed to be funky at high velocity, recapturing the headbanging spirit of classic thrash acts like Sacred Reich and Voivod as those bands embraced a more polished, commercial sound in the early ’90s. At under three minutes, the song winds through several changes, demonstrating once again how epic Napalm Death can be, elongating time by covering lots of ground within a short song.
Similarly, after going full-throttle for a minute and 55 seconds on “That Curse of Being in Thrall”, a single pause proves crucial to the song’s payoff. The pause lasts for barely over a second before drummer Danny Herrera punctuates the air with a fill. Nevertheless, the band clear out what feels like a huge space to turn its momentum on a dime with a sneering guitar figure that lifts the song into a surprisingly grand climax. “Joie de Ne Pas Vivre” sees Napalm Death once again wearing their lifelong love affair with industrial noise on their collective sleeve, while the atmosphere-haunted “Invigorating Clutch” nods to the work of post-punk giants like Killing Joke. The band have touched on these references many times before, but haven’t necessarily integrated them with the same cohesiveness achieved with Throes of Joy as a whole.
The album’s variety and balance are all the more remarkable considering the band’s ranks have dwindled to just one songwriter (down from four in 1990 and three for the rest of that decade). This time, Embury penned all of the music, and yet still steered the band into its most dynamic release in over two decades. Longtime guitarist Mitch Harris, who took a permanent leave of absence from touring in 2015, returned to track 90% of the guitars here, but demurred on contributing songs, saving his ideas for his new Brave the Cold project, which release their raucously varied debut album Scarcity two weeks after Throes of Joy. Both titles enter the world in tandem like a pair of fraternal twins of grind.
Ever since Scum, Napalm Death has worn their Crass-inspired political outlook (quite literally) on their sleeve, railing against political tyranny, xenophobia and the brutality of capitalism. As a running thread Throes of Joy, Greenway targets the tide of fascist-styled populism that’s been steadily rising across the globe. In case the band name and caustic sonics had you fooled, Napalm Death have always, first and foremost, stood staunchly on humanitarian grounds. In effort to avoid being too didactic, Greenway has long favored an abstract approach that can be difficult to parse for meaning (such as on “Zero Gravitas Chamber”).
At its most discernible, Throes of Joy in the Jaws of Defeatism addresses the same injustices Greenway has decried for decades. “Families huddle on the roof racks / Boldly robbed in the night’s glare / Human prey for corporate fare / Contagion refined with a soulless poison / They negotiate in innocence with a greed that’s infectious,” he sings on “Contagion”. Overall, though, Greenway strives for artfulness over finger-wagging. Further statements about polarization and identity-based discrimination bob and weave in the music, veiled as they are in degrees of ambiguity.
Like the band as a whole, Greenway is putting a contemporary twist on ideas he’s expressed many times over. That said,
Throes of Joy touches raw nerves in a way that feels necessary given the way 2020 has unfolded. Extremity should never be confused as being synonymous with vitality. Once again, Napalm Death have shown us the difference.