NAPALM DEATH’S UTILITARIAN: A CASE FOR CONSISTENCY
There’s a moment pretty early in Napalm Death’s latest, Utilitarian, where I knew I’d love it. After “Circumspect,” an oddly effective mood-building track, “Errors in the Signals” kicks in with a fierce stop-start tech-grind riff. Then at the ten second mark, it becomes Napalm Death. You know what it sounds like: Danny Herrera brutalizing the drum kit just a notch faster than everyone else, Shane Embury and Mick Harris summoning a dervish of grind chaos while Harris and Barney Greenway try to out-shout one another, with Greenway sounding, as always, like his teeth have been gritted for so long that he has permanent lockjaw. It’s that “SHIT YEAH” moment that’s made Napalm Death stand out as long as they have (they’ve been a band in some form or another longer than I’ve been alive), even despite a laughably inconsistent lineup until relatively recently. And that’s the best thing about Napalm Death now: spazzy grindcore kids may worship the barely-reined chaos of Scum while deathgrind bands get hard for Harmony Corruption, but late period Napalm Death belongs to, well, Napalm Death. And around ten seconds in to “Errors in the Signals,” even though there’s still 45+ minutes left in Utilitarian, you know what’s coming. You could argue it’s predictable. You could also argue that it’s a testament to the fact that it’s pretty impossible to get sick of Napalm Death. Most bands with their track record may sound winded; the guys who made Utilitarian sound as vital as they ever have.
After “Signals,” well, like with the band’s excellent string of late-career albums, it’s a little all over the place. In a great way, of course: it’s still Napalm Death at its core, but the band are willing to step out of the room every few minutes and try something else. This leads to the proggy chanting in “Fall on Their Swords” and the scorched Earth synth breather in the middle of “Nom de Guerre.” “Everyday Pox” even acts like 2008 never passed and employs some free jazz freakout sax. It also leads the band to be a little more comfortable with hardcore than in the recent past (catering to the band’s soft spot with punks, present since probably Side A of Scum): the album is loaded with two-step, “Analysis Paralysis” has something resembling a breakdown about halfway through, and “Think Tank Trials” gives Trap Them a run for their money.
Of course, I’m singling out these moments because they make Utilitarian stand out a little more than other Napalm Death releases; rest assured, this is not a bold left turn for the band. If you love Napalm Death, especially in the last six or seven years, you’ll love this album. It’s loaded with the sort of white-knuckled, busted-capillary anger you’ve come to expect, even as the men involved trudge deeper and deeper into middle age.
The problem with Napalm Death is that they’ve made themselves incredibly easy to take for granted. They still hit the road fairly often, and even despite the numerous lineup changes, they never really went away, putting something out every 2-3 years consistently since the mid-80s. So while distance does make the heart grow fonder (where have you gone, Pig Destroyer, a lonely nation turns its eyes to you…), it’s a shame they aren’t even more revered than they already are just because they’ve been consistent (well, releases-wise… the less said about the mid-to-late ’90s…). Is Utilitarian the best thing they’ve ever done? Maybe, and maybe not. But it doesn’t matter. It’s new Napalm Death, and any new Napalm Death is worthwhile. One day, when Barney’s larynx dislodges itself from his throat and Shane Embury is actually as old as he looks, Napalm Death will cease to exist. Utilitarian is a great indication of how awful that day will be. Until then, this stands up to everything else they’ve done, and a fitting reminder that if you’re not pissed off, then you’re just not paying close enough attention.
(4 out of 5 horns)