Friday, November 13, 2009

November 13: Napalm Death, "Scum"

Artist: Napalm Death
Album: Scum
Year: 1987
Label: Earache

Throughout nearly every major genre classification in music, there are countless sub-genres, and the further one explores and understands the larger category, the more one can see the nuances that separate individual sounds. In many cases, to the "average" listener, these small differences are invisible, and even more so, in the more aggressive genres, they are overlooked and/or misunderstood. Perhaps the epitome of this wide-ranging inability to hear difference lies within the heavy metal genre, where most people cannot get past the combination of volume and aggression. However, once one does this, smaller genres like thrash, death metal, grunge, and many others come quickly to light. Then of course, there is the acquired taste of one of the most unique sounds in all of music: "grindcore." Though the term itself is often interchanged with death metal, there are a number of subtleties that separate the two, and these differences can be traced back to the very beginnings of the grindcore sound. At that starting point in the mid-1980's, there is one band that defined the sound of grindcore, and they remain today as the "fathers" of the sound: Napalm Death. Easily some of the most brilliant musical experimenters ever, Napalm Death fused together hard rock, thrash, and a number of other genres, and their early records were truly like nothing else heard before. Due to the truly original nature of the album, as well as the immeasurable impact that it has had since, one cannot overstate the importance of Naplam Death's stunning 1987 debut, Scum.

The story behind the existence of Scum is rather odd, as the album was basically recorded by two completely separate bands of the same name. In August of 1986, Napalm Death recorded the first side of the album, as it was to be one half of a split release with the English thrash band, Atavistic. After Atavistic, Napalm Death when through a massive lineup change, and the second side of the record was recorded with this "new" lineup in May of 1987. In fact, the only musician to play on both sides of the record is drummer Mick Harris. The fact that Scum is still a completely cohesive album, and unless one is aware of the two lineups, it is not musically apparent. There is almost no explanation as to why this could occur, yet the fact remains that the entire record sounds as if it was recorded by the same band. The only difference one can even remotely detect is that the production and recording of the second side of Scum sounds slightly gritter, and a bit different then the "A" side. The songs found on Scum are like nothing heard before its time, in terms of both the music, as well as the short, to the point nature of the songs. With only three of the twenty-eight tracks passing the two-minute mark, and a dozen songs not even reaching one minute in length, one can clearly hear the strong influence of the punk ethos within the music of Napalm Death. In fact, Scum features the rather questionable "song," "You Suffer" which holds the Guinness Book Of World Records record for "shortest song" as it clocks in at exactly 1.316 seconds. While the songs are overall shorter than normal, the quality behind them is top-notch, as both sets of musicians are absolutely brilliant on every song.

The sound of Napalm Death is like no other band before them, as the songs are quick, harsh, and devoid of filler. While the bands' sound is completely unique, one is able to hear influence on their music from bands like Black Flag, Slayer, and perhaps most significantly, The Swans. Both Justin Broadrick (side A) and Bill Steer (side B) play their guitars with the same pulverizing power, and their use of heavy, speedy, driving chords is what gives the songs their signature "trudge." This mood that both guitarists are able to create is one of the most significant factors that sets the music of Napalm Death aside from the rest of the "heavy" genres. Whether it is Nik Napalm (side A) or Jim Whitely (side B) playing bass, both musicians find a way to make the sound some of the most imposing and overall menacing that one will find anywhere. Much like the guitar work, the bass playing brings a heavy "trudge" with it, and it is largely due tot he sound of the bass that the songs gain their uniquely dark and almost evil sound. Being the only consistent player on the album, Mick Harris' drumming is absolutely superb on every song. Playing harder and faster then nearly any other drummer in history, he finds a unique balance between sounding like he is trying to destroy his kit whilst simultaneously creating an odd sonic beauty within his playing. The fact that there are two different lineups on Scum, yet it is almost impossible to tell serves as a testament to the musicianship within the players, as well as the ability of Mich Harris to make the sides sound similar. However, none of the members found on either lineup that plays on Scum would make it much longer in the band, as by the time 1991 rolled around, an entirely different grouping of musicians would be in place.

While one can somewhat understand not being able to hear a difference in the music found by the separate lineups, it is almost incomprehensible that two separate vocalists can sound so similar. Yet on Scum, this is the case, as the vocal work from Nik Napalm (side A) sounds almost exactly like that of Lee Dorrian on the second side. Their gruff, deep screams and chants are almost identical, and this is perhaps the main reason why one is unable to detect the overall differences in the lineups. While there had been metal acts before Napalm Death that employed this sing-scream style, the vocals found on Scum truly re-wrote the approach and served as the blueprint for countless bands that came after. While it may be somewhat lost in the vocal delivery, the lyrics found on Scum are some of the finest ever found within the genre. The group takes aim at large corporations and the ways in which they destroy the poor, as well as the ways in which entities like television dull the mind. The former of these themes is apparent in the song titles, as well as lyrics like "...advertise the product you make, never give but always take...kill and lie for security, your shit on supermarket shelves to see..." On the latter of the major themes, the writing team of Broadrick and Napalm penned the brilliant lines, "...hide behind TV, hide behind should be living, but you only survive." Even more than two decades after the albums' release, it is stunning how relevant nearly all of the lyrics found on Scum remain.

Loud, aggressive, unrelenting, powerful, dark, and shocking are just a handful of words that accurately describe the music found on Napalm Death's Scum. The group tossed aside all of the traditional sounds and styles of nearly every genre, and formed an entire new sound that still serves as the blueprint for the genre to this day. The fact that the album was recorded by two completely different groups of core musicians makes the singularity of the album, as well as the overall impact of the record even more amazing. The flow of Scum is like no other album ever, as the opening track is very much like placing a quarter into a machine, as from that point on, the album jerks forward with a stunning force and does not let up until the album ends. While the band is as heavy and aggressive as any other in history, it is songs like the aforementioned "You Suffer" that shows that Napalm Death certainly had a sense of humor as well. Whether it is the fast paced, heavy guitar and bass playing, or the lightning-speed, precise drum work, every musician found on Scum plays perfectly, and the overall sound created remains a truly pivotal moment in music history. The vocal style that Napalm and Dorrian share also began a trend, and though countless other bands use the vocal technique, none perform it as well as one finds on this record. Though many people tend to pass over the "heaviest of heavy metal" due to not understanding the musical approach, the fact remains that the music is just as good and important as that of any other genre. Within this sound stand the fathers of the "grindcore" sound, Napalm Death, and their 1987 debut record, Scum, stands today as one of the most important and truly stunning albums ever released.

Standout tracks: "The Kill," "Siege Of Power," and "Life?"

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