Napalm Death has a history of chaos. So much so that its lineup almost completely changed between the A-side and B-side of its debut album, Scum. The band has none of its founding members, yet it has managed to exist for just over 30 years and boasts a catalogue of 15 studio albums.
“Once it would have been very easy to say, ‘Ah, you know, that’s it. We’ve done enough. You know, we’ll just finish it there,’” says lead singer Mark “Barney” Greenway. “But we just always, when things seemed to be not as good, we always seemed to pull something out of the fire that motivated us to move further.”
Originally from Birmingham, UK, Greenway has been screaming, shouting and growling for Napalm Death for roughly 22 of his 43 years. Despite his tenure, Greenway never seriously considered a career as a vocalist when he started. And to hear him tell it, Napalm Death didn’t put a lot of consideration into him either.
“Lee (Dorrian) left, the singer before me, and I was just the first choice because I use to hang around with them and I kinda use to roadie for them and stuff. And they just asked me. I don’t think they really thought about it that much to be honest…I would have probably only given it a couple of years and some good times and, yeah, something to say that I’ve done. But I never expected it to last this long. I never had any agenda to be a musician. That’s what people should understand, I really didn’t. Yeah, I had a band, but I couldn’t really say I was that serious a musician. I was just moving along on the tide of excitement of being in a band, you know. So when I joined Napalm it was a shock really. But I made the most of it, did the best I could and I think, hopefully, it turned out to be something I was pretty capable at.”
Napalm Death has long been cited with creating, or at least defining, gindcore. The combination of hardcore punk and death metal makes for songs that are brutal, loud and whiplash fast. In fact, the band holds the Guinness record for shortest song. But the limitations of the genre often snares band in a monotonous cycle. Napalm Death has certainly had its lulls over the years, but the band has, for the most part, managed to keep its sound fresh over the years by knocking down the same boarders it’s credited with forging.
“When we make albums we don’t tick a load of boxes as to how we should or shouldn’t sound,” says Greenway. “We just really do what feels right at the time, you know, and that does include just trying to make an album that stands out. You know it would be very easy for us to do another album of 20-second songs. We could write one of those in a week and, yeah, it’d be pretty ok. But what’s the point, you know, if you’ve got other ideas that are not going to dilute the thing that made the band so special in the first place, as in the fast and furious and chaotic sound? So if we can expand upon that, then what’s the problem?”
Napalm Death has started to incorporate largely unorthodox (for grindcore) elements into its music, including the vocals of Dutch operatic rock singer Anneke van Giersbergen on Smear Campaign and a jazz saxophone on Utilitarian. Such experimentation has caused criticism in the past, but since the band switched labels to Century Media and particularly since releasing The Code is Red…Long Live the Code the band has enjoyed near unanimous praise in spite of its bold tinkering.
“I have to pinch myself sometimes. It’s a wonder as to why there’s no, like, negative reviews. But I haven’t seen any at all, which is fucking strange. We’ve always written the way we’ve ever written. I just think that perhaps since 2000, we did Enemy of the Music Business, all our albums, instead of being ever more furious then they have been at any other time, apart from the early days, I don’t think people like that. When you mix that with the, like you were saying, like, the sax stuff we had on the last album, like the ambient influences and whatever else, it just makes something that sticks out.”
Utilitarian, released February of this year, may consist of slower, three-minute songs, but Napalm Death’s sound has matured rather than mellowed. Instead of the typical wall of noise, the band brings a surprisingly nuanced musical arsenal to the table without blunting its extreme metal edge. Anyone who may think Napalm Death has grown soft only needs to see the band live.
Sharing a bill with Speed Wolf, Exhumed and Municipal Waste, Napalm Death was the highlight of the show at the Zydeco. Monday night shows are generally anathema to professional touring bands, especially when you don’t start playing until nearly 10 pm. But Napalm Death proved to have enough drawing power to lure metal heads out of their holes. The range of fans was impressive, from peach fuzzed young’uns to old school aficionados that could be mistaken for ZZ Top members. Everyone was out and head banging for Napalm Death’s set.
Regardless of how fast or hard the band might play in the studio, everything played live is a little harder and faster. It’s easy to forget that the band’s members are all in their mid-40s when they’re on stage. Greenway in particular is a complete blur as he runs, jumps, and epileptically thrashes. That much energy sent the audience in to waves of violence that smashed against the foot of the stage. It didn’t feel like a Monday night show.
The band pulled out a couple of surprises in the set list, playing “Scum” and “You Suffer” (a 1.3-second song, which they played twice for kicks) as well as a cover of Dead Kennedys’ “Nazi Punks Fuck Off.” The audience was nearly spent once Municipal Waste took the stage around 11:30 pm. Most of the older fans bailed out as the younger fans pushed to the front.
Napalm Death may have started out as a band your parent wouldn’t let you listen to, but now that the band has spanned a generation, it’s becoming the band your parents are still listening to. The tempo may not be quite as fast, but Napalm Death is harder and heavier than ever in their old age. And they’ve got no plans of stopping. “After how ever many years, twenty-something years, it’s the unspoken thing that’s hard to explain,” says Greenway.
“It just seems to work. You know, we’re all different people at the end of the day. I mean, there’s times where we don’t always agree on stuff. But you have to kinda get past that and understand what are the plus points of your particular band. For us it just seems to work.”