Napalm Death: The wilderness years ranked

Our Napalm Death special issue features a piece where we interviewed some of the ND fellas to talk about their “wilderness years,” the four albums they released from 1994-1998. Because we can’t stop thinking about these albums—Fear, Emptiness, Despair; Diatribes; Inside the Torn Apart; Words from the Exit Wound—now, we thought we’d spend a bit more time with each and rank them from worst to best.

The results were, honestly, almost the exact opposite of what I thought they’d be, for reasons I’ll detail below. The end conclusion of this incredibly scientific experiment, which often involved me drinking beer and making incomprehensible notes about blastbeats and Fear Factory, was that even though the grindier albums of this era are the ones we tend to immediately consider the best ones, Napalm is at their best when they’re embracing whatever it is they’re doing fully, not tentatively.

Check out a Justify Your Shitty Taste article we did on three of these albums here; buy the Napalm Death special issue here to read what the guys in the band have to say about these albums.

Now, from worst to best, here are our thoughts on how these albums rank up.

4. Inside the Torn Apart (1997)

Sure, Inside the Torn Apart was when Napalm Death started to get a bit of their energy back after a two-album dip into unexpected experimental sounds, but that’s actually why it ranks lower than those two releases. The band sound like they want to grind but won’t fully commit, and want to get experimental, but won’t fully commit; the end result is just somewhere in between, and while it works sometimes, much of the time the album feels a bit unsure of itself. Having said that, I always found the production much more welcoming than on the past two albums, which goes a huge distance in helping the listener warm to the sounds here. I dig opener “Breed to Breathe” and the more pensive “The Lifeless Alarm,” and the album on a whole always sounds good when it’s spinning, but it leaves little in the way of lasting impact. A not-great Napalm album is still better than most things in this world, but out of these four releases, Inside holds down the bottom slot.

3. Words from the Exit Wound (1998)

The final album before Napalm started their full-on dive back into grindcore, Words from the Exit Wound does a good job at that transition: there’s grinding in opening song “The Infiltraitor” but there’s the experimental guitar work that was one of the main features of the band’s experimental era in songs like the killer “Next of Kin to Chaos.” The album has the energy that their completely experimental duo of albums lacked, and a better production sound, but, like Inside the Torn Apart, it feels a bit like a band torn between two sounds. Also like that album, great while it’s spinning (what Napalm Death isn’t?), but not much in the way of memorable songs here, although the aforementioned “The Infiltraitor” is really pretty great.

2. Fear, Emptiness, Despair (1994)

When it came out, it divided fans that thought it was too groovy, too mid-tempo, and too, well, boring, but Fear, Emptiness, Despair has aged very well. There are even a couple songs on here that could be considered classics (“More than Meets the Eye,” “Plague Rages”), and there’s more energy than you might remember (see “Remain Nameless”). A song like the mainly forgotten “Retching on the Dirt” blasts hard and has no shortage of ND grit and spew, it’s just buried so deep in here that no one really notices it. This album feels a bit too stiff and uncomfortable to hit number one here, but there are times it threatens to, and it’s an admirable first, tentative, step into the experimentation that would peak on Diatribes before the band started wobbling back to grindier sounds.

1. Diatribes (1996)

To be honest, back in 1996 I wouldn’t have placed Diatribes as number one of any list indicating good things, but here we have it, the band totally killing it at the pinnacle of their experimental era. Opener “Greed Killing” starts off with a daring groove and melody, but now that some time has passed, we can all admit, it’s a great groove and melody. “Ripe for the Breaking” grinds like crazy before dropping into one of the weirder Napalm moments ever, that strange ambient riff that actually makes complete sense. The song sums up everything great about this era, and everything that was a bit hard to comprehend when the album came out (sure, “Take the Strain” apes Helmet a bit too hard, but we’ll forgive them for that, because Helmet circa this era were not too bad of a thing to be aping). It’s still extreme, but in a whole different way, and Napalm Death were at the top of their game with Diatribes. It’s just that they changed the rules of their game for a bit, which is what all trailblazers do.