Napalm Death are one of the most important bands to come out of the UK metal scene, period. Like Black Sabbath and Judas Priest, they hail from Birmingham, one of the ugliest, most crushed-under cities in the country’s post-industrial West Midlands. Though they started out as a hardcore punk duo, they were calling themselves Napalm Death as early as 1982, and gigging and recording demo tapes. It took them until 1986 to get anything like a steady lineup, but they had a solid live reputation nonetheless, which got them signed to fledgling label Earache Records. Their first album, 1987’s Scum, was the third Earache release, following the Accüsed’s The Return Of Martha Splatterhead and a split LP between Heresy and Concrete Sox. In its own way, Scum was a split LP, too; it had two completely different lineups on its two sides, with the only constant being drummer Mick Harris.
Napalm Death got a reputation for being one of the fastest and most extreme bands on Earth; their music drew from punk, hardcore, and thrash, but took only the most aggressive elements of these styles and turned it all into a blasting blur, over which vocalist Nik Bullen (soon succeeded by Lee Dorrian) barked slogans. Dorrian was gone soon, too, but his replacement, Mark “Barney” Greenway, would head up a lineup — guitarist Mitch Harris, bassist Shane Embury, and drummer Danny Herrera — that has remained steady up to the present day. (From 1989 to 2004, Jesse Pintado was the band’s second guitarist; he died in 2006.)
Throughout all the lineup shifts and label jumps (from Earache to Spitfire to their current home, Century Media), one thing has remained constant with Napalm Death since the 1980s: they’ve always been rabidly political, never wasting their fans’ time with gory murder fantasies or kitsch Satanism. In fact, the opposite is almost certainly true; Napalm Death have undoubtedly awakened many a previously apathetic metal fan over the years.
Stylistically, they’ve gone through numerous changes, while always remaining essentially themselves. The most sonically radical and fascinating period in their history was the mid-1990s, beginning with 1994’s Fear, Emptiness, Despair and ending four albums later with 1998’s Words From The Exit Wound. On these releases, they played around with dub production techniques, clean singing, and melodic death metal riffs, never coming close to “mainstream” palatability, but infuriating plenty of fans in the process. Fortunately for the new fan, it’s easy to pick these “experimental” records out without even listening to them, as the band switched from a spiky, hand-drawn logo to a slicker digital font. In 2000, when the old logo came back, it was a gesture to fans that the weirdness was over, and raw, hyper-aggressive death-grind was once again the order of the day.
In the 21st Century, Napalm Death are doing a lot of the best work of their career. They’ve got the same kind of power, consolidated through long-standing musical relationships, that Motörhead (who’ve had the same lineup since 1992) have established. You know what a Napalm Death record is going to sound like, but there’s still plenty of room for surprise and unexpected pleasures, which makes every one an event to be excited about.
A brief note: This ranking includes only their full-length studio releases. They’ve got a few live CDs out, but none of them are really necessary, as they’re not exactly a band given to onstage improvisation, and Barney’s not one for David Lee Roth-esque stage banter. It also omits their many, many EPs (three early ones are compiled on Death By Manipulation) and the covers album Leaders Not Followers Vol. 2.
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