Napalm Death – ‘Utilitarian’ Album Review

We simply will not acknowledge what we choose we need to ignore…” And with those words Napalm Death kick into the finest scene-setting opening they’ve crafted since ‘smear campaign’ – a slow, tormented, doomy number that, before things have even kicked into gear, indicate a production job destined to do Napalm Death’s fourteenth album (not including the covers disc) full, brutal justice. With seemingly ubiquitous extreme metal producer Russ Russel on board, the sound is simply mind blowing and such is the quality of what is on offer, both musically and production-wise that the uninitiated could be forgiven for thinking that Napalm Death is a new band, hungry and ready to take on the world such is the ferocity of the blistering ‘errors in the signals’, a song that is as sonically vicious as watching glass being slowly ground into someone’s face.

Moving swiftly on, an early highlight of the album arrives in the form of ‘everyday pox’, a gruelling sonic challenge to the listener with unhinged sax (courtesy of John Zorn) overlaying throat-ripping screams and the sort of brutal, syncopated riffs that have been the band’s stock-in-trade since they first belched out ‘Scum’ all those years ago. However, what the Napalm Death of 2012 have is a crystal clear production job that allows them to experiment with such elements whilst never compromising the key heaviness that fans have come to expect from the band and ‘everyday pox’ is as crushing an example of sonic terrorism as one could wish for, experimental elements notwithstanding. ‘Protection racket’ starts out as more traditional grind, with Barney sounding as furious as ever, his voice an inhuman blur of raging intensity set to the soundtrack of the apocalypse, and yet listen closely and the innate intelligence of Barney’s lyrics seep through once again providing firm evidence that, for all their sound and fury, Napalm Death are one of the most engaging and socially aware extreme metal bands on the planet and it explains why the band’s following is as insanely loyal as it is. With the song running the gamut of emotion, opening at a frantic pace and then slowing down in the mid-section to a tar-thick trawl through humanity’s dark underbelly, there is plenty of dynamic variety to prevent the album from becoming a forgettable blur of speed and each song is challenging and memorable in its own right. ‘The wolf I feed’ is a perfect example with some truly remarkable, punk-style vocals set to some of Napalm Death’s best music – a stinging, truly unhinged attack on the senses that will utterly blow you away the first time you hear it… and wouldn’t you be surprised if the band suddenly unleashed clean vocals??? Not at all – on ‘Utilitarian’ Napalm Death not only challenge the listener with their vicious, sonic barrage, but also themselves with many sharp refinements to their sound introduced across the album. Recalling the brutality of vintage Amebix coupled with Napalm Death’s trademark sonic scorched earth tactics, it is an adrenalin charged and unhinged racket that they make indeed, and fans will love every glorious minute of it.

‘Quarantined’ is a full-on assault upon the senses, a shattering, enervating experience destined to set the pit alight with its incendiary fury while, in contrast, ‘fall on their swords’ has a strong groove to it, not to mention the sudden atmospheric burst of choral-style singing, half-time drums and churning guitars in a manner that veers close indeed to Barney’s stated love of The Swans. Yet even with such diversity, the band maintain their turn-on-a-dime dynamic edge and the track rapidly segues back into more typically furious style with the band not missing a beat. It’s awe-inspiring and a massive rush that kick-starts the heart and has the blood pumping no matter how many times you replay the track. ‘Collision course’ sees Barney enunciating with scathing clarity despite his voice being a wounded howl of rage and then  ‘orders of magnitude’ sees that vicious punk sneer return with Barney once again sounding like a cross between Johnny Rotten and Jello Biafra on a verse that simply drips with opprobrium. ‘Think tank trials’ just about cracks the two minute barrier and yet due to the fact that it is at warp speed, the band still cram an album’s worth of ideas into one burst of blistering intensity. ‘Blank look about face’ is more groove orientated, almost taking on hints of Fear Factory with its juddering guitars; only it is a fear factory stripped of their technology and forced to operate at their most primal imbuing the sound with analogue warmth rather than FF’s more mechanistic attack . Things slow down for the intro to ‘leper colony’, a song of unremitting musical darkness that sees chunks of Barney’s steel-lined throat sprayed against the microphone, while the band approximate a pile-driver behind him. Once again, it’s not so much the intensity as the depth and complexity of song-writing that impresses, and once you get past the initial shock and awe of the band’s scorched earth approach it’s easy to find much to admire in both the band’s sheer technical proficiency and their ability to perform songs that are both brutal beyond question and yet possessed of a humanity that is absent from the icier trappings of black metal.

‘Nom de guerre’ opens with a feedback-strewn chant so openly filled with disgust it’s hard not to feel the flesh creep as its screamed out “an alias is how I’m known, a sideshow to the great unknown…” – it’s Napalm Death in full on punk mode and they’ve never sounded better than do on this brief (just over one minute) burst of politicised fury. ‘Analysis paralysis’ is more measured in its tightly coiled strike – the guitars forming a solid wall behind Barney’s proclamations, while the brilliantly titled ‘opposites repellent’ is a churning, spit-fuelled blast that is yet another prime candidate for song most likely to ignite the pit in a frenzy of flailing limbs and sweaty hair. Last track, ‘the gag reflex’ rounds out the album not a moment too soon, for while it is an amazing body of work it is also exhausting and Napalm Death confidently adhere to the old adage of ‘always leave them wanting more’ by closing proceedings with one of the best riffs of the album – a solid, brutal, bass-laden assault that sums up the Napalm Death experience in one beautifully brutal three-minute package, deadly in precision and searing in implementation.

With fourteen albums and no sign yet of slowing down, Napalm Death have once again delivered the goods in an album that channels all the frustration of riots on the streets of England, a Tory government, banker’s bonuses and corporate greed into an utterly compelling (not to mention thrilling) exercise in power. That Napalm Death have earned the right to be confident is axiomatic, but that the band should deliver so impressive an album is less obvious and it is clear that the years, the fans and the gigs – even the comfort of having the option to re-sign to Century Media, a label the band clearly think of as home – have done nothing to dull the band’s fervour. Barney’s lyrics remain as politically motivated and intelligently written as ever, and as always the onus is on the listener to listen first and discover second, rather than having the band spoon-feed all the answers. Indeed, Barney is very open in the fact that Napalm Death ask questions and then sit back to witness the result, rather than attempt to offer, quick-fix solutions to society’s problems. A band that genuinely champions the underdog, Napalm Death have crafted an album that sits comfortably amidst a back-catalogue littered with classics and which does nothing to diminish the fine name that Napalm Death have built up over the years. The world needs artists like Napalm Death to point out the bullshit and flaws inherent in society and once again the band have proved to be a ray of light in dark times encouraging emancipation through education and understanding. A mind-blowing, mindenhancing album, ‘Utilitarian’ is a fine beast indeed.

 

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