On Second Thought
Napalm Death - Scum






for better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That's why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.

For whatever reason, I’ve found it somewhat difficult to get excited about heavy metal; as a result, my explorations into the genre will inevitably smack of tokenism. Sometimes I think my lack of enthusiasm for the genre is best explained by a comparison to many folks’ (many of them metal fans) response to punk, wherein a lack of knowledge is its corollary. Keeping matters of on-the-bus-or-off-the-bus ideology out of it—i.e., all punk music amounts to a gang of spiky-haired art-school-dropout assholes ranting about politics they’re secretly indifferent to, while metal’s target market is 28-year-old D&D fans who collect Spawn toys and secretly idolize those Norwegian church-burners—all we usually have left to try to understand music that is foreign to us is its packaging. (Of course, one’s aesthetic viewpoint on the couture of its fans can fall under the scope of extramusical aesthetics, but let’s ignore those for now.) I can certainly understand most people’s aversion to the colored-vinyl-and-silkscreened-tour-cover-keep-checking-Skylab-mania that continues to dominate the hardcore scene, and usually tend to agree that the fact that they probably aren’t missing out on much good music by eschewing its trappings, so it’s not much of a step for me to figure that all the seemingly identical records I see with pointy fonts, poor layouts, and freeze-frame-from-an-Italian-cannibal-movie graphic sensibility is more of the same stuff, that stuff I realize I’m not that interested in to begin with.

And I guess it might be possible to judge Napalm Death’s Scum by its cover, which is ghastly, intricate, and silly at the same time. It’s like one of those etched-into-the-Trapper-Keeper cartoons made by those who seem to lack the aptitude to discern cartoonishness from serious grotesquerie, the sort of thing that always reminds me of the kid I knew in high school who spent an entire lunch period white-outing a band’s name onto his bookbag that he later realized he spelled “TESAMENT.” (The Xerox-ish cover to ND’s follow-up, From Enslavement to Obliteration, is even better.) At the same time, I can’t help but feel that the racket therein—which virtually defined “grindcore,” a hyperbolic mixture of light-speed punk caked in metallic grime that Spin recently misused hilariously in a Cranberries review—goes far beyond any and all such limiting definitions. What I’m saying, then, is that even as I poke fun at this band, I do so nervously, because, in truth, I’m a little disquieted by the mysterious energy that fuels them (probably comprised of whatever Satan ripped from the clouds of Heaven to make his cannonballs, according to Milton).

But let me make fun of them a little bit more, for the moment (please realize I’m also doing so affectionately), when I say that track titles are virtually irrelevant to any good review of Scum. Any, that is, but that of the infamous “You Suffer (But Why?),” the length of which can be estimated at anywhere between one and four seconds. (It’s not the only one of its kind on display here.) I prefer to think of this album as an epic with many movements, as it were, usually separated by brief whines of feedback. So it is that “Multinational Corporations,” which has the savage lunar pull of an invocation—all hissing cymbals and terse a cappella shouting—suddenly gives way to a lengthy buildup of riffing that gives way to the first of many, many onslaughts of furious drumming (courtesy of Mick Harris, later to play with John Zorn and form a series of avant-electronic, ambient, and dub projects on his own), always the centerpiece of an awe-inspiring sound characterized by little else than pained growling and catastrophic, equally unintelligible, distorted-well-past-the-limits guitar. Sometimes a taffy-thick bass emerges from this omnivorous sonic strife, but that is not to say that it hesitates for even a moment (read: these guys do not fuck around). So that was “Instinct of Survival.” You caught your breath, then came “The Kill,” and now it’s the title track. You know the one, “Scum.” It’s a bit more sophisticated, compositionally, starting off with a slow churning stomp, not-at-all-gradually accelerating to something like hardcore with cataracts, slowing down again, then again to the blast beat: wave after wave of guitar damage and drums playing even faster than they did the last time, faster still, until the no-quarter speed achieves its own kind of peculiar stasis. Another slow part, than it comes back, giving you whiplash. You try to stare the tornado down this time and fail anew.

Vocals and guitar parts occasionally lunge from the chaos, as on “Siege of Power,” where things are stripped to a minimal throb momentarily; “Born On Your Knees” opens with a grim fanfare of guitar buzz and calms down momentarily to take on a shambling quality that recalls Flipper in speedier moments. The very typical “Life” (the first track, I am guessing of the two eight-months-apart sessions that comprise the record; Justin Broadrick of Godflesh is on the first) is forty-three seconds long, but it possesses a subtle, terrifying quality that lurks in its margins I cannot quite explain to you. The oscillating toll and effects-treated chanting of “Deceiver” (twenty-eight seconds long) is even more horrible, and serves to remind me, like some doomed character in Lovecraft, that perhaps this music is best left in the critical blindspot. With each lesson, it seems less and less like a record to me, and more like five mute men having the same persistent, terrifying vision, one they can only communicate to one another with their instruments. And now I’m having the nightmare, one which I’m afraid I can’t quite articulate to you. I’ve had it before, and, for all its horror and even tedium, it’s always one I hope I’ll be revisited by.


By: Chris Smith
Published on: 2003-09-01
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