Retrospective: Benümb’s “Soul of the Martyr”

The 23 minutes that make up California grind/power violence madmen Benümb’s 1998 debut Soul of the Martyr are 23 of my favorite minutes in extreme metal. They’re not as exalted as, say, Nasum‘s Human 2.0 and not as groundbreaking as, for example, Napalm Death‘s Scum, but these are undeniably 23 amazing minutes in the history of extreme music, and I wish that we would all be talking about Benümb just a bit more than we are, so I wanted to spend a few minutes today talking about just what makes this album such a glorious, ragged display of pure, unfiltered energy.

I write about extreme music a lot: pretty much on the daily I’m listening to new releases and comparing them to older releases to see how they stack up. And when I’m lucky enough to be spinning new grind and power violence, this is actually one of the benchmark albums I compare new releases to. Even though Soul of the Martyr didn’t break new ground, it solidified and encapsulated a perfect mix of punk, hardcore, power violence and grindcore, and it brought with it just the right amount of professionalism (more on that soon). This album has energy; it has an incredible amount of energy. You know how we talk about records jumping out of the speakers? This one really does! You know that other cliche that we use about bands sounding like they’re barely holding it together? This album is the epitome of that. It’s glorious, ragged chaos; it’s pure underground energy; it’s raw, it’s extreme, it’s not the least bit polished. There’s so much feel on this album it’s incredible.

Now, one of the great things about power violence is that it is underground, it’s pure, and it’s completely as far removed from concerns of commerce as any musical genre could possibly be. Having said that, man, was I stoked to see this album bankrolled by Relapse, who, at the time, were incredibly groundbreaking as far as taking extreme music and making it sound great and delivering it in a professional package. The fact that Soul of the Martyr had Earache-DM-level cover art ruled. I love that even though the production is bonkers, you can tell it’s bonkers on purpose. I found it genuinely exciting to see half-page ads in glossy music magazines for this record. Somehow, it felt validating, it felt like this music, this manic, frantic grind, this sludging power violence, this sloppy, beautiful noise was the soundtrack to a revolution that I was lucky enough to be a part of. And it was.

I also love how this album is 23 minutes long (although there was a shit-ton of bonus tracks added on to it, but today we’re just taking about the new material, for argument’s sake) and one song takes up almost nine of those minutes, the massive sludge centerpiece “Stood Up and Sold Out,” which showed the sort of Spazz-meets-Grief sound this band was capable of at their finest.

Benümb rule, man. All three of their albums are well worth getting to know, as are their great (and even rawer) non-LP releases (grab the Agenda of Swine full-length while you’re at it). But Soul of the Martyr will always be the special one for me, looking back at it all (although second full-length Withering Strands of Hope is maybe actually better). It’s a time when grindcore was entering a new era, thanks to records like this one and Nasum’s Inhale/Exhale. And here’s something you may not remember: both Inhale/Exhale and this album were released on the same day, May 26, 1998. I believe I got both in the same promotional package from Relapse and, without exaggeration, my whole view of the future of extreme music changed that day, in large part due to the sounds captured—sounding like the band raced in the studio when they weren’t supposed to be there, recorded everything in one take really fast, then bailed—on Soul of the Martyr.