A great deal of the Napalm Death album reviews I’ve read over the last several years follow a recognisable pattern. It generally starts with the obligatory nods to the band’s legendary status as early codifiers of grindcore as a genre, their relentless pace over their 30-odd year history, and the consistent quality of their releases in the 2000s and 2010s. Some writers might touch on the frequent personnel changes at the start of the group’s existence; others will note that, actually, the lineup has been largely stable since the early 90s. Amid the meaningless adjectives describing the music (“visceral”, “brutal”, “vehement” etc), there will be a proclamation that, while staying true to the hybrid of grind and death metal they’ve purveyed over the years, Napalm have introduced more experimental touches this time around- nothing outré enough to make you forget who you’re listening to, but welcome deviations from the fast-loud template nonetheless. Change a few identifying details here and there and you’ve more or less got a review of every album from The Code Is Red… Long Live The Code up to Utilitarian.
In fairness, that formula emerges because it’s not easy to write about a long-running, genre-defining band that’s been issuing good-to-great albums on a regular schedule for over a decade, tweaking a signature sound with each release rather than making sudden left turns. The fate of Napalm Death and many other extreme metal bands that got their start in the 80s has been neither to burn out nor fade away, just to keep on shining a little brighter or dimmer each time around. With that said, we shouldn’t ignore those moments of experimentation that have peppered the group’s recent work. As it happens, there are moments on their fifteenth full-length Apex Predator – Easy Meat that push a little further at the borders of the band’s sound than previously.
Things start ominously, with little more than Mark “Barney” Greenway’s chanted vocals to usher in the eponymous opening track. Before long though, the band steps into a lurching, slowed-down trudge that shows a clear influence from Swans. That homage shouldn’t be too surprising: the story goes that early Napalm drummer Mick Harris coined the term “grindcore” as a portmanteau of the grinding sound of early Swans and the ferocious speed of hardcore punk in order to describe the band’s sound. This might be the first time Napalm Death have approximated the menacing creep of Swans’ early-to-mid-80s output this directly, though. The bass pulses on the one rather than buzzing on sixteenths, drums pound away augmented by clanking metal, and the guitars are deployed sparingly, as atmosphere rather than riff machine. There’s a direct reference to the “big strong boss” of Swans’ first album in the lyrics of “Dear Slum Landlord”, and Greenway seems to model his vocals here on Michael Gira’s, after a fashion. The initial woozy, see-sawing rhythm morphs halfway through into more recognisably grind territory- maintaining the slow tempo, but ratcheting up the volume and intensity. That Giraesque monotone makes a return at the close of the album, announcing the switch in “Adversarial/Copulating Snakes” from a rampaging collection of cobbled-together metal riffs into a drawn-out psych comedown.
Aside from these moments, where the Napalm Death attack is taken into previously unexplored avenues, the laser-speed grind they’ve honed over the last decade dominates the tracklist. Riffs sprint along before colliding into choppy grooves, the band gathering breath for a gradual return to full speed, never staying in one mode long enough to overstay their welcome. Standout moments include the crossover thrash riff introducing “Hierarchies”, which repeats itself throughout the song before giving way to a strangely triumphant bridge that almost recalls mainstream rock, complete with easily-deciphered lyrics. “How The Years Condemn” sees Greenway’s barked delivery almost at odds with long-time bassist Shane Embury’s lyrics. A surprisingly personal remembrance of lost friends that approaches sentimentality but tends more toward defiance (“For the sake of my loved ones/I will remain on this earth”), it might feel out of place juxtaposed against Napalm’s sociopolitical themes were it not delivered with the same ferocity as any of their screeds against multinational corporations or institutional power structures.
When the material on offer is as strong as it is here, it seems like nitpicking to complain about it all bleeding together, or not distinguishing itself enough from previous efforts. But for me at least, aside from the aforementioned songs that channel Swans worship into a grindcore context, a lot of Apex Predator – Easy Meat could fit on any Napalm Death album of the last ten years. It’s not a given that an entire album of more experimental tracks would be more creatively vitalising or enjoyable to listen to than this release. It might have been nice, though, to have less of a dividing line between the rampaging grind blasts and the slower, moodier material. This isn’t to disparage a perfectly fine collection of Napalm numbers, but more to suggest that, as powerful and consistent as the band has been of late, they could do even better. The fact that you can even say this about a decades-old band working within a genre that most saw as a short-lived joke upon its inception is a very encouraging sign.
Apex Predator – Easy Meat was released on January 26th through Century Media Records.