Rank and Defile: Shane Embury Orders Napalm Death’s Albums from Worst to Best

The following piece is taken from The Napalm Death Special Issue of Decibel, which is exclusively available here in extremely limited quantities, and features a rare Napalm Death flexi disc. 

For me, it really is a hard one to put all the albums we have done in an order from worst to best, as I am proud of everything we have done and look back over the years with fondness and pride to have come as far as we have. This is a retrospective on where we all were at the time emotionally and musically, so I guess it’s numbered accordingly. —Shane Embury

Fear, Emptiness, Despair
Earache/Columbia (1994)

During the rehearsals for this record, I felt that the band was splitting into two camps: Barney—who at the time was living in London and writing for metal magazines as well as being in Napalm—and the rest of us who lived together in our house in Sparkhill, Birmingham. We were jamming our ideas and taking to the Birmingham night life, soaking it in musically, sonically and socially. There was a divide. Maybe because of the distance, the musical camaraderie wasn’t there—it’s hard to say.

We had decided that we would concentrate on the slower/more mid-paced elements of the band as opposed to just playing blast. We felt in the that past some of those classic mid-tempo riffs just came and went and more could have been made of them. We had given it our all on Utopia Banished and felt that that album was under-appreciated. [By 1993] Earache had gotten involved with Columbia Records; Barney was not a fan of this album’s direction and was quite vocal about it, which really bummed us out at the time. Barn also had a tough experience laying down his vocals—the recording process was disjointed and very stressful. We all felt pressure in the studio, the expectancy of being licensed to a major label as well.

It would have been easy to just repeat ourselves, but this was a very difficult record, which was mixed and remixed with the first mix being hated by Dig of Earache with its Skinny Puppy-esque percussion samples in there.

I don’t think we achieved completely what we intended, although I was very happy that we had taken a step forward and followed our hearts. Too many corporate cooks spoiling the broth from the beginning till the end—it’s interesting that it’s become a cult favorite.

Words from the Exit Wound
Earache (1998)

This was the last album we did for Earache Records and it was also time for parting ways with our management company. Although management were much needed in the early ’90s, by the time we came to this record, they had exhausted their enthusiasm, our royalties and our creativity. I feel we are to blame as well, as we should have woken up earlier. This was certainly a presence that overshadowed the writing for this album. The musical climate was changing, but it was also a turning point in us moving towards rediscovering our roots.

Barney and I were loving the band Nasum at the time. Seemed right to kick up a gear, and this album certainly ignited that resurgence a little. This was the last album we used Colin Richardson, a great producer but ultimately someone who took too long getting sounds for us. I think on this album it killed the vibe a little. I know it killed Danny’s vibe, and no doubt some of my comments also were a bit controlling, which was a bad habit of mine at the time.

This album completed the trilogy, which started with Diatribes. It’s weird looking back, really, and realizing that on a lot of our album sessions there were new tensions and preexisting ones creeping in and surrounding us—but that’s life, I guess, and the experience of challenge. 

I still think tracks like “Next of Kin to Chaos,” “The Infiltrator,” “Repression out of Uniform” and “Cleanse Impure” are amazing songs and need to come back into our live set at some point. 

We had very little tour budget from the label to promote this record, and if it were not for my friendship with Nick Barker and Cradle of Filth, we would have not been able to tour Europe on this record. Times were certainly hard—a reality check of huge proportions, but inspiring. To coin a phrase, extreme conditions…

Order of the Leech
FETO (2002)

After the success of the Enemy album, we had found our groove again, but it was not without hindrance. The late and great Jesse Pintado’s illness was escalating; he was becoming a very stressful presence while we were getting the record together and he wasn’t contributing musically as much as we would have loved. We were deeply worried about him and we sent him home to his family. 

The sound on this record, especially the drums, is a bit too mechanical, although working with Simon Efemey and Russ Russell again was amazing and sanity-saving. I did have the feeling of, “Will we get through this one and come out the other side?” and, “What does the future hold?” At times, it all seemed uncertain. Barney came and recorded the vocals in the studio and delivered as ever, but only myself and Mitch were there at the end of this album to mix with Simon and Russ. With it being licensed to three different labels across the world, it never got a great push. It seemed to come and go without much of a fuss, which was a buzzkill.

Earache (1996)

This was the first record we had recorded in Birmingham since the band had recorded Scum at Rich Bitch Studios. Framework Studios was a rough-and-tumble place where we brought Colin Richardson to produce; it’s amazing we got the sounds we did. Barney was hardly around for the recording or the direction in rehearsals, and myself, Mitch and Jesse were forging ahead with what we wanted to do. I think Barn even felt distant from the music but always delivered his very best. He didn’t like all of the songs, but his opinions have changed in hindsight. I think it is fair to say all of us had our own opinion on what was good!

In some ways, we had total freedom to create the music we wanted but were unresponsive to outside opinions—blinkered perhaps—but still driven. The production is very clean on this album—too clean. I think if we would have started the album with the [Greed Killing] song “Antibody” maybe the album would have been perceived differently. There were some great reviews, which didn’t really translate into great attendance on tour. The mid-’90s were the times of nu metal and black metal. And we felt out of place, but we were trying to do something different with Diatribes. It certainly shocked some fans, but we were so immersed in it all that we couldn’t understand the reactions. 

Inside the Torn Apart
Earache (1997)

Recorded again at Framework, the title of this record directly refers to the unrest within the Napalm Death camp that had started around the Fear, Emptiness, Despair album and continued on into this album. As many people know, we had to let Barney go from the band prior to the record. It’s a pity we couldn’t have worked it out. In retrospect, I think we could have, but, apart from Danny, the other three of us were quite stubborn and let it all get too personal.

In many ways, Barney’s absence gave us even more freedom to make the music we wanted to—oblivious in some ways to what was really important and what should have been important.

Phil Vane of Extreme Noise Terror joined us on vocals for the writing period, but when it came to recording, he just couldn’t pull off what was required. It was a hard day when I had to pull Phil aside and tell him it just wasn’t working. We had been too much into doing our own thing to acknowledge all of the parts that made the Napalm machine tick. I quickly made the call and asked Barney if he would rejoin—time away certainly gave all of us the chance for reflection, regrets and hopes for the future. He was surprised by the material, as it was heavy and some of the songs were fast—I don’t know what he really expected us to do!

I think it’s a testimony to our friendship that Barney decided to rejoin; communication is paramount and that had been failing for a long time. Lyrically, this album is far from socially conscious and very much about the stress within a band, and how we grow and change over the years. We don’t always see eye to eye, but that’s the beauty, as it creates stronger dynamics. It’s hard to focus and look in the same direction all at once.

It’s amazing we finished this album. For me, it was a very personal album.

Harmony Corruption
Earache (1990)

We had some of the most fun-filled weeks ever in our lives in Florida, hanging out with our favorite death metal bands, but that was perhaps part of the problem. A lot of fun but not enough attention to where the album was heading.

Mick had made the choice to go to Florida to record at the famous Morrisound Recording. We had three new members, perhaps struggling to find their feet and all while recording a new album. We felt eyes were upon us! Mick was beginning, I think even then, to doubt how much longer he wanted to be a part of the band. Maybe he felt control slipping—I don’t know—or he was just getting into other styles of music.

The sound of the album was different and, in hindsight, it was the wrong move to record in Florida. Scott—bless him—is a wonderful individual and did what he was hired to do. But we were all so uncertain; I think Barn, Mitch and Jesse especially were not happy with the sound of the record. Times were changing in grind and death metal, and with a new lineup, we were a bit nervous. After all these years I can’t believe we recorded that album the way we did with half of us out and about and Mick and Scott in the studio alone analyzing the music. Previously our records were recorded a lot faster, but it brought us a whole new fan base when the album was released. Hindsight or grind sight.

Utopia Banished
Earache (1992)

The momentum for this album was rolling after two successful tours of the States in 1991. On the second of which, we recruited new guy Danny Herrera on drums to replace Mick—a recommendation from Jesse. No audition—straight in!

We had a shit load of songs that we had worked on after 1991’s Mass Appeal Madness EP. Mitch and Jesse were all fired up and there was no stopping the three of us. We felt we wanted to make a much in-tune and stronger follow-up to Harmony. As I mentioned, Jesse’s friend Danny Herrera came into the fold and really brought a fast, enthusiastic kick back into the grind department. We breathed a sigh of relief, as for a brief period, we all seemed to be focused in the same direction. All so young and hot-headed, we were blinkered to what people actually thought of the album and got emotional about negative reviews. For me, the guitars are way too low on this album. It highlights Danny, and though that’s a great thing, the intense riffing was overlooked, in my opinion.

The underground seemed obsessed with church burners at this point, so I kind of get the negative reviews. They certainly influenced myself, Jesse and Mitch to move in different directions.

Time Waits for No Slave
Century Media (2009)

We were very focused for this album as we were settling into just being a four-piece. Mitch went completely over the top with guitar tracks, though, recording six rhythms, and I won’t even talk about our experimental songs. We were bringing in different mood changes, which I loved. It was all very sporadic—such are Napalm sessions as a whole. You never know what you’re getting until the very end.

In some ways, what made the album ultra-heavy was also making the sound muddy. Very solid production from Russ Russell as ever, though. It’s interesting listening to the albums back to back as production was moving forward from Russ, as were the nature and variety of the songs. We played an excellent special show in Birmingham for this album, which was self-promoted and very soul-fulfilling. 

Smear Campaign
Century Media (2006)

Hard to believe this album is over 10 years old already! We set up rehearsals at our local practice spot Robannas (where we have been since 1991) in the center of Birmingham. Mitch helped demo the tunes, which was a nice change to do some sort of minimal pre-production [laughs]! But overall, I think this album is on the thinner side of the sonic spectrum, as opposed to Time.

The intro [“Weltschmerz”] was our homage to the opener on Celtic Frost’s To Mega Therion with Anneke van Giersbergen (ex-the Gathering) on sweet vocals, which set a more somber mood until “Sink Fast, Let Go” rips in with the S.O.B. attack!

I was very, very happy with Barney’s vocal delivery on the title track and “Atheist Runt”—I could quite easily do an album of that kind of stuff! Good evolution again for me on this album, and I have very fond memories of recording in the middle of the Wales countryside, watching the studio engineer scare a load of cows that had sneaked in and shit all over his lawn! A great isolated place to create and focus on the grind. Everyone seemed in high spirits. 

Earache (1987)

This classic debut album was recorded in stages, as originally there were talks of Side A being a split with the band Atavistic—although no one else seems to recall that except me. Napalm Death were my favorite band. I was friends with the three of them and got invited to the Side A recording session at Rich Bitch Studios, alongside Dig and a couple of the guys from Head of David.

I remember telling Justin that his second guitar track was out of tune—it was an overnight recording session and Nik and Mick got into an argument. Side A, for me, is the perfect marriage of Celtic Frost heaviness and Siege madness—I loved it and tape traded it all over the world alongside Mitch Dickinson.

I was asked to join when Justin left. I don’t know why I chickened out; it must have been the village bumpkin in me or lack of confidence in my guitar playing at the time. I originally wrote [FETO] songs such as “Practice What You Preach,” “Mentally Murdered” and “Unchallenged Hate” for the B-side of Scum but, of course, they went into storage until I came in on bass. 

Side B of Scum is not my favorite and compared to the Side A, I think the songs on Side B were Mickey’s reaction to the Dutch band Lärm not liking Side A—as it was too metal! Some of the songs—especially the end part to “M.A.D.”—were longer, but we were all young and impressionable back then. God, even I wore a checkered shirt and was straight edge for a week (see Unseen Terror Human Error back sleeve). Thank God for Heresy’s beer rider in Eislingen, Germany, for my salvation and enlightenment! But the album overall, along with Jeff Walker’s cover art, is awesome. It ticked all the boxes and officially put grindcore on everyone’s radar. 

Century Media (2012)

Very chuffed with the title of this album. Originally, Barn had other ideas, but this leaped out at me as I love one-word titles. Also, it reminded me of the old punk band Totalitär [laughs], so we settled on that. Frode Sundbø, our old buddy from Denmark, came up with some brilliant artwork based on his obsession with old Napalm album layouts—anyone notice the thinking man being kicked on the floor?

Flawless production from Russ. I remember myself and Mitch drunk after the nightly sessions, piling in extra ideas—maybe too many ideas, as we had to dial back some of the vocal effects and backing vocals [laughs].

It’s hard to be critical of this album. I guess some of the tones were starting to sound a little samey—the record needed a few more left-field curve balls thrown in, perhaps. That said, “The Wolf I Feed” certainly had a few with Mitch’s melodic Voivod-like chorus.

Some of the songs that never made this record found their way onto Apex. Like a good wine, I guess the maturity on this album shines through for me with sound lyrical ideology behind the album and artwork concept. 

Apex Predator – Easy Meat
Century Media (2015)

I was super happy with the title track to the album; it came about from a discussion Barney and I had about solitary vocals introducing the record. Barn’s deep vocals are perfect for such a song, and the heavy industrialized percussion that follows was a combination of myself bashing the hell out of metal tins and iron and then the sounds being arranged and sequenced by Russ Russell. I think the title track is a very bold move; it’s a long track, and I know the label were concerned about people’s attention spans drifting at the start of the record. My thoughts were, if kids don’t like it, they can always skip it; why should we compromise the start of the album? Napalm Death albums need to be challenging.

The record moves and flows in many directions—not all of them perfect—but definitely adventurous. Mitch was feeling the pressure on this last album, for sure—life’s hammer striking blows in every direction both physically and mentally. We also put this album together during the last year of the grueling touring cycle for the Utilitarian record. 

Full credit to Mitch, though. He delivered great concentration when we were tracking the album, Me and Barn were left to arrange the album’s track listing, though, as Mitch kind of dissolved a little into the background, unfortunately. This record is moving more and more to where I envision Napalm going. I am not sure if Mitch is/was 100 percent on board with that. So, our journey continues into album No. 16. 

Enemy of the Music Business
Dream Catcher (2000)

We had lost our longtime record label and management after the Words album and we felt very disillusioned. Through my old buddy Mitch Dickinson, we came across Rudy Reed, who took us under his wing to breathe some new life into us. We started work on the Enemy album with another longtime friend of mine, Simon Efemey, and his engineer Russ Russell. The vibe was so different—so much fun—that we were all taken aback. Myself and Barn had spoken about how we needed to kick up the intensity more than the previous album. We were getting along much better and, for me, grindcore was inspiring again, so off we went.

Simon and Russ’ approach to recording was so much different to Colin’s; the sound on this album is so much more organic and pure. Jesse’s and Mitch’s songs are outstanding on this album, and we finally felt we had a team of people with us who we connected with on all levels. It really helped us in the writing department to feel we were doing what we always should have been doing. Lyrically, Barney gave the industry a big finger—we were back and pissed off!

Management had reignited the flame, and TV appearances followed once the album was released. We even had an award presented to us by our adopted father, John Peel. We were all very happy and motivated for a period of time. 

The Code is Red… Long Live the Code
Century Media (2005)

After Order of the Leech, shows were scattered and enthusiasm waned all around. With no label and all of us fragmented in different corners of the world, I truly believed that this might be the end for Napalm Death.

As we came closer to what I perceived to be that point, I received an email from Barney while I was in Japan visiting my future wife, suggesting we give it one more go with Century Media. CM had been asking us to sign since the Enemy album. We were up shit’s creek with the tax man and the easiest thing in some ways would be to throw in the towel and not deal with life for a while. Mitch made it seem as if the decision were up to me!

We couldn’t give in, I thought. Not now. So, we decided to start our relationship with CM with the release of our second covers record, Leaders Not Followers 2. Weird that it had been in the can for over a year already—some strange old-school karma? Did that shine through the darkness?

We commenced recording The Code. We recorded the album in Wales again at Foel Studio, this time only with Russ at the helm and, thankfully, no shitting cows!

It was the start of real experimentation in the studio as me and Mitch would add guitars and different kinds of harmonies and layers into the songs. There was definitely a sense of boundless creative energy! The song “Morale,” which was a musical piece I had had for a long time, finally came into play. Barney’s vocals on this track are magical for me. The time of the year was September—dark as hell in the U.K.—and I still felt as if the band could end at any point. It was an odd but creative atmosphere.

So much so that the last track, “Our Pain Is Their Power,” is deliberately gloomy in case we never got to record an album again, such was the feeling within me that I explained to Russ. The whole lyrical concept and mood unfolds over the course of this album, and it’s why it’s a massively important record for me. Definitely one of my favorite Napalm albums.

From Enslavement to Obliteration
Earache (1988)

So, after losing my bottle mid-Scum album, I was asked to join Napalm Death once again. Ironically, just after Scum actually came out, I think Mick had driven bass player Jim Whiteley crazy. Also, at the time, it seemed mainly because I had Napalm Death songs ready, which I suppose is odd! I can’t imagine how casual our discussions must have all been back then.

Originally, in my mind, the track “Mentally Murdered” should have been the title track. I even put punches in it like the track of Scum, but it was not to be.

The studio was very small; we all slept in the control room. I think we were there tracking for around six days, and I believe Mickey mixed it later. We all performed and recorded the songs at the same time—this was old-school! We were standing around the tornado known as Mickey as he orchestrated the frantic tempo changes—an unforgettable experience. I was finally in my favorite band, and as cliché as it sounds, it’s the only thing I had ever wanted to do.

We sat there and decided we would do an EP to be given away with the record but realized we had no more songs! “I have a riff!” I said. Three minutes later, the song “Musclehead” was born. 

The album’s success in the U.K. surpassed Scum, hitting No. 1 on the indie charts. We were over the moon. The album title is taken from the band’s second demo—an awesome title for sure, but also a nod of respect to Bullen and Broadrick. This has to be the No. 1 Napalm Death album for me.

Purchase the limited edition Napalm Death Special Issue here