Although not quite an absence of Guns ‘n’ Roses-esque proportions, Godflesh have been absent for far too long. This year’s mighty fine ‘Decline and fall’ EP notwithstanding, it has been thirteen long years since the release of the well-received ‘Hymns’ which was released in 2001 and which turned out to be both the debut and swansong of Swans drummer Ted Parsons. A year later and founding bassist Green was gone and Justin Broadrick was undergoing a personal-life crisis that resulted, eventually, in a complete melt-down on the eve of an American tour and the dissolution of the band. It was an ignoble end to one of the most original and thrillingly visceral bands that the UK produced and although Broadrick continued to produce inventive and challenging music under a variety of different guises, Godflesh remained a much-missed entity.
Reforming in 2010 for a few live dates, the return of Godflesh was a slow affair. Tantalisingly hinting at a new album all the way back in 2012, it took a further year before the first fruits of the band’s reunion came to light in the form of the excellent, if depressingly brief, ‘decline and fall’ EP and a further six months for ‘A world lit only by fire’. With both sound and aesthetic harking back to ‘streetcleaner’, the organic drums and professional recording-studio environment of ‘hymns’ is long gone in favour of a stripped-down and unerringly brutal sound that relentlessly eschews melody in favour of jackhammer beats and grinding layers of guitar powered by Justin’s trusty eight-string monstrosity. The opening track, ‘new dark ages’ predictably rises out of a heat haze of feedback and tinny, programmed drums, hauling itself from the mire to become a grinding, atonal trudge through the recesses of Justin’s mind. Lyrically minimal, musically primal, it’s remarkable to see that, despite over a decade’s worth of imitators having joined the fray, Godflesh still sound as crushingly individual as ever. Boasting a better, stronger production than ‘Streetcleaner’, the album pounds away at the senses with its arcing feedback and propulsive percussion, flatly refusing to offer even the slightest concession to mainstream concerns in the process. Erupting from the speakers, ‘Deadend’ is a hammer-blow to the skull with its barked vocals and vicious wall of guitars. It is a simply devastating assault that, on the right system and played at suitably high volume, will leave newcomers and fans alike reeling physically from the sonic shock.
Industrial in the purest sense, Godflesh always sounded a million miles from the stadium-tuned rage of nine inch nails and Ministry, the uniquely grubby sounds crafted by the band mirrored only in the grinding soundscapes of early Swans. A pitch black combination of relentless nihilism, inhuman vocals and down-tuned guitars, all of which are set against an unholy backdrop of tinny synth drums and evilly distorted bass, Godflesh’s atonal aesthetic is a refreshing step away from the endless cavalcade of pre-packaged heavy metal acts, laying down a fearsome challenge to any who might be brave enough to follow in the band’s footsteps. As down-at-heel as the grubbiest Birmingham estate, such music could only be crafted as a result of a lifetime staring out at a skyline dominated by industrial pollution, soot-blackened high-rise buildings and rust-coated gas storage units and as the seven minute long trudge of ‘carrion’ pours from the speakers like industrial waste, the listener is faced with a picture of overwhelming bleakness. It is a truly punishing sound that the band have crafted and the result is unquestionably one of the finest, if most unforgiving, releases of Godflesh’s career. With the militant futurism of ‘imperator’ and the epic, concluding white-out of ‘forgive our fathers’, choosing a highlight is something of an arbitrary process as the music varies little except in degrees of intensity and the overall result is the kind of hypnotic effect often achieved by truly deadly creatures – coming face to face with a weaving and about-to-strike cobra for instance – the listener rendered numb and paralysed with shock and sensory overload.
‘A world lit only by fire’ is not an album to love. As irredeemably cold and mechanistic as an industrial meat packing factory, the music is built around clanking, repetitive rhythms and Broadrick’s commanding bark. Melody is almost entirely absent and differentiating between songs is often only a matter of measuring the depth of hatred and the comparative volume of the guitars on every given track. Long gone are the comparatively restrained dub workouts as is the real-instrument experimentation of ‘hymns’, in their place a succession of furiously retro workouts overloaded with distortion and spite and utterly unencumbered by any form of technological or musical progress from the last decade. As punishing as black metal, as relentlessly heavy as death metal and shorn of the dubious humanity of either, the music of Godflesh is neither for the weak nor the timid, and newcomers should approach with caution. However, for long-time fans of the band who lamented the band’s latter-day sonic explorations or for those committed to finding the heaviest music ever made, ‘a world lit only be fire’ is a sure contender for album of the year with its unhinged grind, misanthropic world view and unerringly dense production. It is a welcome return from a band whose untimely demise was a most unwelcome shock and clearly the creative union of Green and Broadrick has once more worked its unholy magic. Deeply disturbing and unarguably one of Godflesh’s most disturbingly compelling releases, ‘a world lit only by fire’ sees the band reclaiming their crown with ease.