Almost every band has that album: you know, the critically and/or commercially reviled dud in an otherwise passable-to-radical back catalogue. Occasionally, a Decibel staffer or special guest will take to the Decibel site to bitch and moan at length as to why everybody’s full of shit and said dud is, in fact, The Shit. This time around, Greg Pratt defends not one but three Napalm Death albums.
So, after playing at lightspeed for a handful of albums that absolutely everyone into extreme music loved, Napalm Death decided to dip their toe into the realm of something a bit different with 1994’s Fear, Emptiness, Despair. It was met with shrugs (and a Mortal Kombat soundtrack placement), so the guys decided to go even further into the realm of mid-everything for no less than three albums.
As far as I can tell, everyone hates Diatribes and most people forget Inside the Torn Apart and Words from the Exit Wound exist, but now that the band has been on an incredible run of back-to-how-it-should-be for no less than five incredible albums, let’s take a look back at how-it-never-should-have-been for these three, because I’ve come to the conclusion that these albums are way better than any of us remember them being.
Diatribes was released as a double 10”, which is awesome; the 1996 album is marred by some truly outrageous “cyber” cover art, which made everyone talk about how the band was experimenting with industrial sounds. Eh? Didn’t hear it then, don’t hear it now, except maybe in some rigid grooves in the drums and unfortunate “trippy” vocal effects scattered throughout.
Here’s the thing with this album: it’s got groove, and the idea of Napalm Death grooving makes us all uncomfortable. But, you’re totally lying if you say opener “Greed Killing”—which, no doubt about it, grooves—isn’t an awesome song. And it’s not like there’s not grinding here: “Ripe for the Breaking” has blastbeats and weirdo acoustic parts. “Cursed to Crawl” kinda reminds me of Fear Factory, so that kinda sucks and is no fun at all, but I can still appreciate hearing the gods of grind do that weird bass breakdown thing that they do relentlessly throughout this song. “Just Rewards” has a sort of ’50s-pop-on-speed thing going on, and it’s pretty fun to listen to.
I’m not saying everything works (the “spooky cyborg vox” on“Cold Forgiveness,” for example, do not; “Take the Strain” is basically a bunch of Helmet riffs strung together, which only really sounds good when Helmet does it… oh, screw it, it’s actually sort of charming here), and the album drags on big time in the final third, but an alarming amount of the material not only works, it creates a cool vibe: it’s like you know these dudes can blast at any second but they keep this unsettling, tense mid-tempo thing happening, and, especially if you wipe away the context of the ’90s, it sounds kinda cool, which I why I maintain that this album has aged especially, and surprisingly, well.
Next up is 1997’s Inside the Torn Apart, which I think I listened to approximately two times in the ’90s, and I’m willing to wager your track record is on par with mine. This one kicks off with “Breed to Breathe,” which pretty much said, “This will sound like Diatribes” right outta the gate. And it does, although I always found the production here—and, by extension, the whole album—a tad easier to warm up to. Plus, late-album mood piece “The Lifeless Alarm” is actually pretty neat, showing how Napalm can experiment but not lose the plot too bad.
Still, most of what I said about Diatribes applies here; it’s not convincing anyone that it’s a grindcore album, and at the time no one liked it because of that. But, now, hey, I think it’s neat that a grindcore band released a bunch of mid-tempo albums that sound like no one else, ever before hitting an unexpected career high. Inside has less in the way of memorable songs than its predecessor, but when it’s playing in 2016, shit sounds good, for real.
Then we have 1998’s Words from the Exit Wound. If you’re keeping track here, you’ll realize that’s three albums in three years. Impressive? Part of the problem? Jury’s out (yeah, still, decades later; we’re metalheads, we take this stuff seriously), but here’s what you’ve forgotten about this album: opening track “The Infiltraitor” contains blastbeats, and so does second song “Repression out of the Uniform,” which also contains excellent, crazy ND screams, some ill-advised attempts at singing, and a bit of the groove found on the last couple albums.
But pound for pound, Words is way more of a return-to-form than any of us recall it being; granted, it’s nowhere near the brilliant streak the band is on now and it still operates mainly at a slower tempo, but it has way more life than the last couple, and that tentative feeling that is always hovering over the last two is gone. I still cringe every time the chorus of “None the Wiser?” pops up, but you can’t win ’em all. This album sounds rad today because history has shown us it was the sound of a beast emerging from a slumber.
Look, I get it: you didn’t sit around at any point in the last week of June 1992 and say “Utopia Banished was really good, but I sure hope they take the mid-tempo stuff and expand on it for the next batch of full-lengths, because they’re not that good at grindcore.” But let’s take a minute to appreciate that these albums sound like no one else before or since: the feeling is oppressive but mainly enjoyable to listen to, the grooves almost make it fun, and the occasional blasts and screams are an uncomfortable reminder of what the fuck is happening here (or at least, what little our mortal brains can comprehend of what’s happening here).
I don’t ever want them to do it again, but I think it’s sort of cool that Napalm Death once spent this much time crafting three records that seemed downright antagonistic towards their fanbase, then came back and released the best albums of their career. Maybe I’m having a midlife crisis, or maybe this is dad grindcore, but these albums have never sounded better than they do in 2016.