This article originally appered in the June 1991 issue of SPIN.
A half-dozen years ago it seemed heavy metal was destined to continue as purely mindless, directionless music. But recently—spearheaded by the punk-influenced, speed-laced breakthrough of Metallica, the bad-ass mayhem of Guns N’ Roses, and the major successes of rap-funk-enhanced acts like Faith No More—the era of spandex- and headband-clad metal lunkheads is being challenged by a new metal attitude eager to find new ways to experiment with both the sound and the image of rock’s hardest edge. The trend is most evident in the rise of grindcore. Breaking past the death-metal barrier, these acts constitute metal’s most important development in years—and it’s grislier than ever.
Primarily a U.K. phenomenon, grindcore’s innovators blend the hyper-speed velocity of grungy death-metal merchants like Slayer and early-era Celtic Frost wit industrial wall-of-noise texturing a la Throbbing Gristle, early Swans, and present-day Ministry.
Released and promoted through the Nottingham, England-based indie label Earache Records, gnarly bands such as Napalm Death, Godflesh, Carcass, Morbid Angel, Entombed, and Nocturnus are on the verge of modern consciousness. Don’t expect any of these acts to appear on American Bandstand or The Arsenio Hall Show in the near future, but their highly regarded cult status and imminent impact on the metal underground is altering the face of the genre.
The grindcore story dates back to the summer of 1987 when Earache honcho Digby Pearson put out the first Napalm Death album, Scum, a full-length epic comprised of brutal 30-second supersonic blasts that garnered critical acclaim and significant sales.
“That album just came out at the perfect time,” Pearson says. “The hardcore thing was still very strong, but this was the first time that a band had added a really metallic edge into their music, while speeding it up beyond all recognition—which is Napalm Death’s hallmark. They just put hardcore and metal through an accelerator—no one could be sure what the results were gonna be—and we just went for it.”
“Basically, a lot of this label has grown out of Napalm Death’s early involvement,” Pearson continues. “there have been a lot of different members in Napalm Death over the years, and a lot of the bands that those members went on to join—Godflesh and Carcass, for instance—are also on the label. That band has been central to the whole label, really.”
The man often credited with formulating the grindcore style and dubbing the term (grind is a Brit-metal synonym for thrash) is Napalm primary member-bassist Shane Embury. “Grindcore is now being accepted as the next extension from thrash metal,” Embury offers. “At the same time, I always thought this kind of music could become popular. It’s influencing a lot of people, and that’s pretty weird to me.”
“As far as how this whole sound got started, we were really into Celtic Frost, Siege—which is this hardcore band from Boston—a lot of hardcore and death-metal bands, and some industrial-noise bands like the early Swans. So, we just created a mesh of all those things. It’s just everything going at a hundred miles per hour, basically.”
“As far as where we’re going in the future,” Embury continues, “I think we’ve gone as far as we can with the ‘gods of speed’ thing. We’re starting to get into slower stuff, going for longer songs, as opposed to the blast aspect. Also, the noisy, industrial stuff is coming more to the forefront.”
“If you’re familiar with our latest album [Harmony Corruption] I think you’ve got a good idea as to our new direction. We’re getting into real painful noise; I just want to annoy people at the moment.”
While Napalm is the barometer by which all other grindcore purveyors are measured, the musical spectrum of these artists is significant. On the straight-up death-metal tip, Florida bands such as Morbid Angel, Massacre, and Nocturnus are powerful members of Pearson’s label.
And while the Sunshine State has long been associated with a heavy-thrash contingent, Pearson’s connection with those bands comes from his long-time association with the cult metal band Death, who introduced him to a whole spectrum of drastic groups.
The most severe, by far, is Morbid Angel, whose ferocity makes Testament sound like Faster Pussycat in comparison. Led by madman guitarist Trey Azagthoth—his surname is taken from the Sumerian god of war and disorder—Morbid Angel’s latest album, Altars of Madness, is not for the weak of heart.
Azagthoth gained notoriety at last year’s New Music Seminar in New York by biting himself and drinking his own blood onstage. At the time, he told people that he was a 300-year-old vampire, a charge he now vehemently denies.
“When I do something like that onstage, it’s not something I’m parading or some kind of gimmick,” Azagthoth says. “It’s just personal expression. If I feel like drinking blood, I’ll do it. But I’m not totally strange, I do some normal things, too.”
At this point in the discussion, Azagthoth took a brief intermission to stop his pet pit bull from mauling his next-door neighbor’s dog. He then added, “I’m into contradictions. I’m into extremes.”
Even more over the top is Carcass, led by onetime Napalm guitarist Bill Steer. Fusing sordid grindcore crunch with anatomically correct gore lyrics, Carcass has some of the nastiest song titles in rock history: “Cadaveric Incubator of Endoparasites,” “Sarming Vulgar Mass of Infected Virulency,” and “Excoriating Abdominal Emanation,” to name a few.
“When we stared the band in early ’87,” Steer recalls, “there were a lot of band with so-called gore lyrics, but they were just writing about horror films and stuff like that. To us, that was ineffective, it didn’t have any impact on the listener. We wanted to introduce something that was a little more realistic.”
“I mean, obviously, it’s got a fantasy element too, because some of these ideas are very overblown. But at the same time, the roots are in reality, and that’s why we use medical terminology. Also, I’d like to think that there’s an element of humor there. We’re not afraid to parody ourselves at times.”
But arguably, the most innovative of these bands is Godflesh, fronted by guitarist Justin Broadrick (formerly of Napalm and Head of David). Frustrated by the limitations of metal, and disillusioned by insular politics of the “alternative” scene, Broadrick set out to stake his own unique territory. Combining nasty guitar riffing and grotesquely strained vocals with the inhuman beat-box rhythms and sampling of the best Wax Trax acts, Godflesh possesses a sound that defies explanation, a sound truly exemplary of the grindcore aesthetic.
But just because these bands share a common background and often tour together doesn’t mean that they like each other. In fact, there’s a fierce rivalry between all the Earache acts. “I think the only way we fit into this whole Earache thing is the fact that we evoke extreme reactions,” says Broadrick.
“But too many of the other bands on the label are extreme in a bad way, it’s just sensationalism. We feel further apart from that scene because we’re not a metal band. To me, Carcass’s music is really powerful, but it lacks any real direction; what they’re singing about doesn’t mean anything.”
“I think we’ve got a lengthier vision of where music can go, where as a lot of these bands are already working within a set of confines. Death metal’s been around for ages—and I liked it originally for the power—but now it’s gone beyond a joke. I don’t really wanna say that Godflesh is the only band that’s actually doing anything extreme, but I do think that we actually fulfill what this whole grindcore sound is about. That’s why I don’t think many of these bands will last.”
Heated competition not withstanding, grindcore is bound to make important inroads for music in 1991 and beyond. This year will bring new releases from all the aforementioned acts, an as-yet untitled collaboration between Napalm Death drummer Mick Harris, bassist-producer extraordinaire Bill Laswell, and John Zorn (Earache recently released Zorn’s acclaimed Naked City album in the U.K.), plus a record by Manchester band Mighty Force, the rave-house ensemble that samples grindcore riffs and combines them with dance beats.
On the live front, a Napalm Death-Godflesh-Nocturnus nationwide tour is underway, after which Godflesh may embark on a month-long jaunt with industrial auteurs KMFDM. Now the citizens of our fair land can take a firsthand look at what all the hoopla’s about. Needless to say, it won’t be pretty.