Where is guitarist Mitch Harris? He’s not in the liner notes or press photos. Well, according to bassist Shane Embury in the press release, Harris decided to take a step back on this one. “Mitch hasn’t inputted musically this time, he decided not to, but we got him over and got his riffing arm to record the guitars,” Embury says. “John (Cooke, Napalm Death live guitarist) played a bit of stuff too. But it leant on me to write all the songs, really.” That means Napalm Death’s sixteenth full length studio album, Throes of Joy in the Jaws of Defeatism, is the first in 30 years (since Harmony Corruption) that Harris doesn’t appear in his full studio capacity. Fans might recall he stepped down from live duties in 2014 due to an illness in the family, but still went on to record the previous LP, 2015’s Apex Predator – Easy Meat. Fair enough. There’s no need to prod into the bloke’s private life. So this time around, it’s mostly Embury, drummer Danny Herrera and vocalist Mark “Barney” Greenway.
With that significant item addressed, it’s time to take a look at the Brits’ bloody staggering milestones for a quick sec before jumping into an in-depth discussion with Barney about ‘Throes’ and life. Napalm turns 40 next year, released their debut studio album, Scum, 33 years ago, signed with Century Media Records 16 years ago and enlisted producer Russ Russell about 15 years ago (relationships which continue to this day). Wow. You’re probably also aware that ND are the godfathers of grindcore. Because Barney is such a loveable, humble bastard, that will be the first and last time we mention that.
He does need to be talked up just once more, because this year he celebrates 30 years with the band. So after all these years, how do Barney, Herrera, Embury and Harris maintain that level of intensity and aggression? “The basis of it is just the enthusiasm, plain and simple,” Barney says. “If you still feel that sort of rush, that kind of vibrancy to the whole thing, you are going to approach it with all gusto. Whatever you basically do. That’s always been my way. Napalm, as far as I’m concerned, has to be 100 per cent – no less. Whatever we do. There’s an important point in terms of the years going by with any band – I think that some bands just kind of talk themselves into a sort of a tailing off of the sort of stuff that they do, whether it be an aggressive band or not … Life tends to plummet ahead at a fair old crack, but that’s no reason for Napalm to back off on its intensity. I would be so disappointed in myself and the band if we started to do albums that were wishy-washy; kind of a diluted version of what we are. I just wouldn’t. I’m not interested in doing that.”
39 years – Napalm Death are born in Birmingham, UK
33 years – Release debut studio album, Scum
30 years – Mark “Barney” Greenway joins as vocalist
16 years – Sign with Century Media Records
15 years – Enlist producer Russ Russell, who works on all albums henceforth
5 years – Between ‘Apex Predator’ and ‘Throes’ – the longest break in ND history
That ‘do everything at 100pc’ mantra also applies to the time the band take to produce an album. Indeed, the five years between the release of ‘Apex Predator’ and Throes is the longest in ND’s history. “Bearing in mind we were touring like crazy before that, so there were other things going on in the band that kept us away from the position of being able to record,” Barney says. “Napalm Death is a spontaneous band … the spontaneity aspect suggests that we would be doing albums a lot more frequently. The reality of it … is, we’re 16 albums in. Yes, the ideas are always coming. Yes, they’re always free flowing. But I do sometimes worry that if we start putting albums out all the time… there are a few bands that do that… I don’t want to run out of steam. I think a bit of space in between creative processes is a good thing because it allows you to take stock, and then it resets your brain.”
Their unique approach is also behind why they won’t do live stream shows in the COVID-19 era either. “We try not to get on the hamster wheel too much but we’ll definitely be touring, it’s definitely happening. We’ve spoken about trying different things online, but there’s not really anything else we can do until lockdown is lifted. Napalm Death is a sweatbox experience. Shane and I always say this – you just feel like it’s more of a fuckin’ experience. As long as you’re in the moment with us, then you get that from gigs like that. So we’ll be back as soon as we can be.”
Maintaining the artistic vision is not just up to the band though; the label has a part to play. When ND signed with Century Media in 2004, the legendary German metal stable was still independent. A year later, it sold to Sony – a move that might have frightened some fans due to the nature of some major labels that push their artists towards a mainstream sound. Luckily for band and fanbase, all the goodness that was Napalm remained untouched. “Century Media are fully aware that Napalm Death knows what it’s doing,” Barney says. “If the record label comes to us and starts putting the thumbscrews on when we think it’s not appropriate, we’ll just tell ‘em to piss off. It’s that simple (laughs). We told them when we signed to them: ‘Look, we’re very self-contained. We know what we’re doing. We don’t piss about, but we will make our own decisions. We don’t need you to hang over our shoulder and tell us what needs to be done, or push us in directions where we feel that it’s not appropriate’. So that’s what they do, and credit to them – they’ve been brilliant with us.”
It’s a far cry from their 2000 record, Enemy of the Music Business, which took a sledgehammer to the industry and its shoddy practices. While some (including Wikipedia) claim it was a straight out attack on their old label Earache, Barney says that’s not the case. “There is a little bit of a misconception that that album was basically directed completely at Earache. It wasn’t actually. It was more of a general, overall critique of the way the music industry treats its bands and the way it operates, which would be a similar criticism as to a lot of the corporate world. I’m not a vendetta person going after one. Despite our experiences, that’s not my way.”
As with everything Napalm Death have recorded since the early 1990s, Throes digs into many historical and present-day horrors and injustices. It’s both a reaction to the madness but also a plea for humanity and compassion to prevail over selfishness and fear. The theme is basically the other – the treatment of the other, the perception of the other and the reaction to the other. “Not just the Black Lives Matter movement but Afro-Caribbean or South East Asian, the treatment of transgender people, and this fear that they can somehow cause huge trauma merely by their biological differences,” Barney says. It’s also about emigration and migration and the reactions to them – nationalism and protectionism.
Covering Dead Kennedys’ “Nazi Punks Fuck Off” (in 1993), it’s no coincidence that their songs take aim at today’s aggressors. “It goes back further and deeper than Trump. But we always try to steer away from the obvious anyway. It would be easy to write a song directly about him and I’m glad there are people out there doing it, but we use figurative reference and pathos and we try to work all of that in there.”
From an instrumental perspective, this time ND has experimented with indie noise, alternative noise, down-tuned stuff, basic punk rock, metal and hardcore. They wanted to layer the album, so there’s a lot of noise on the spectrum. From straightforwardly savage “Fuck The Factoid” and “Zero Gravitas Chamber” to the deathly “Contagion” and “Fluxing Of The Muscle” to the mid-paced post-punk “Amoral” (a salute to the sound of pre-Scum Napalm) to the post-punk electro “Joie De Ne Pas Vivre” to stuff with no guitars, just bass, Throes is a mixed bag of lollies intent on making motherfuckers’ ears bleed. “Napalm is full of distortion, but the sound is full, it’s big, it’s naughty, it’s vibrant, there’s space in it, and it’s just hopefully… it’s a bit of everything,” Barney says. “Sometimes I hear some albums and it just seems like the band just set the controls on the desk and just recorded all their songs, just making very minimal tweaks on certain settings. And to me, that’s not very creative. There are songs on the new album that are actually produced quite differently if you look at the whole thing.”
And while the musical direction is still bloody important 39 years on, Barney says they can’t get complacent with the rest of the package. “The thing is – the music can move forward a couple of steps. It should when you’ve done 16 albums, in my humble opinion, but … bands are 360 things and I think sometimes certain aspects of bands get neglected. You can have a band who do great music but the art might look like an afterthought; the production might even be an afterthought. I think everything should, ideally, in quality terms, move in tandem.”