THE GRIND ERA
by Chris R. Morgan
In the late-1980s, the BBC aired a show called What’s That Noise, a musical education program geared towards children. It is not particularly well known in the United States and might not even be very well known in the United Kingdom. But to its credit, the show assumed a great deal of curiosity in its audience of the variety and sophistication of aural culture. This was most infamously evident in a 1989 episode, wherein they decided to take the show’s title literally.
After a pitch-perfect opening performance by a children’s string orchestra, then-host Craig Charles walked onto the set grinning impishly. “A little bit too angry for me, a bit too aggressive, a bit too doom-laden, a bit too subversive,” he says. “So let’s lighten the mood here a little.” The camera then cuts to a band of four scrawny men with faces enshrouded in shoulder-length (or longer) hair. They play a song called “You Suffer,” which lasts for one second and has only four words (“You suffer, but why?”). The band is Napalm Death, who had just released their second album From Enslavement to Obliteration. The segment lasts under three minutes, featuring a reserved, awkward interview with a game Charles, and one more, slightly longer, song. The BBC was said to have received numerous complaints about the episode, with many thinking the band was fabricated as part of a prank. But alas, Napalm Death was and is still real, though even at that time they had no more original members and only one of those remains in the band now. The incident, which of course is memorialized on YouTube, is as instructive as it is amusing.
The grindcore movement that first emerged in the mid-1980s is, in the wider world, best left unheralded. To do otherwise, even casually, would risk having to hear it. Napalm Death’s appearance on a publicly funded children’s program was as unwelcome an intrusion into polite space as any band of that kind would ever commit. But few introductions to so unusual a sound have not been more perfect to virgin ears. Though most historians credit Flint, Michigan’s Repulsion as its originators, the Birmingham, UK band crafted grindcore to such refinement that it has been surpassed only seldom. It is incomprehensible to many and a revelation to a fervent few.
Grindcore is at turns marveled at and reviled for its sonic extremes. Of melding the primitive speed of hardcore punk, the precise speed of thrash metal, and the art damage of no wave. But those are nothing without the tonal and philosophical extremes it embodied as first principles. Though the genre owes a steep debt to the metal-punk pair bonding of Slayer, Discharge, Motörhead, and others, theirs amounted to little more than selective borrowings—and outright distortions—when compared to the pure synthesis of sound and idea that Napalm Death achieved. The political content of punk is not always its best asset. For all their clever radicalism, bands like Gang of Four and Dead Kennedys, did not venture very far beyond liberal norms. But out of the more coherent and earnest visions of Crass and Killing Joke, grindcore was able to better articulate punk’s political geist, not only seeing farther than the already extensive plain of vision of those bands, but also doing so in less time. And to the extent that it is more than political.
The concept of prophecy has taken an odd turn in our long flight from biblical antiquity. Perhaps accepting its intrinsic value, we’ve opted to reupholster it in more pristine leather instead of jettisoning it entirely with the spring-cleaning we’ve done for, say, alchemy and sorcery. On separate occasions Reinhold Niebuhr and Christopher Lasch have been called the “American Jeremiah.” Allan Bloom has been dubbed a “prophet of doom.” Cornel West has made the label central to his work. And of course it clings to the less credentialed but still rarified James Baldwin and Bill Hicks. We shouldn’t deny that these people on their own are rightly prized as independent, strident, and obsessive thinkers. Some of their work—namely Lasch’s and Baldwin’s—is currently enjoying a moment in the eclipse. But even at their most condemnatory, the status of these figures only rose, or at least never critically diminished. In a part of the world that prides itself on tolerance of dissent, prophecy, even if it is merely elevated Real Talk, is honorific. After all, as De Gaulle put it of Sartre during the 1968 uprisings, “you don’t arrest Voltaire.”
And you don’t, obviously. But every so often there might come someone having a vision to impart but no sheen or accreditation undergirding it. A vision that is bleak, with a style that is repulsive. It runs exactly contrary to the tenor of the moment at which it is heard. The true prophet shows an indifference to tact and boasts a deprivation of moral authority. He or she is counter-authority. For this there might not be harsh persecution, but there may be loud offense-taking, mockery, derision, feigned ignorance, very occasionally “constructive” criticism. Of course that makes it all the easier for any loafer with pangs of #decline to assume the mantel with pinch hits of profundity, but to say that they have not been out there would confirm that more genuine articles do exist. “I will bring on them a disaster they cannot escape. Although they cry out to me, I will not listen to them.” That is God warning the Israelites and Judeans through Jeremiah. Now imagine that set to a blast beat.
At best Napalm Death were a curiosity, an uncommon metal band that didn’t seem to think in centuries. In fact no one could quite pinpoint exactly in what time they were thinking. From Enslavement to Obliteration came into the market at the opposite end of punk’s and Thatcher’s codependent ascension. The pessimistic upheaval of the former and optimistic upheaval of the latter had given way to a stasis that cancelled one another out. Amidst the complacency, Napalm Death’s anger was untimely but not backward looking. Forsaking the easily responded-to sloganeering of their predecessors, Napalm Death buried their message under then-vocalist Lee Dorrian’s dual action indecipherability, switching between either guttural or throat-searing growls. Read on their own their lyrics are telegrammatic. “A chronic complaint of dimness/Prevails your profound ideology/A romantic vision of a ‘master race’/Attained through coercive forms of authority,” goes “Unchallenged Hate.” “What’s perspicuous on the surface/Is artificial inside/When views are merely symbolic/Of an image you hide behind,” Dorrian screams on “Lucid Fairytale.”
From Napalm Death, grindcore spread rapidly throughout Europe, North America, and Asia. And while some bands have managed to reach a distinction around the level of their catalyst, even a well-trained ear will not always detect those variations immediately. Grindcore is the most monolithic rock subgenre ever created. Most of them, to paraphrase one critic’s hilarious assessment, are barely distinguishable from a water faucet going at full blast for 30 seconds. There is design in this, certainly, with the prophetic rather than the artistic end in mind. Grindcore broke through the great contentment of the ‘90s with in a collective ominous blast. If there is one unifying theme of its sound it is urgency. At a time when most people thought life was beginning anew, the grindcore prophets countered that time was actually running out. Written off as vulgar and barbaric, it would be difficult to argue now that they were not simply foretelling of unforeseen but oncoming barbarism, of a stark shift away from calm functionality, away from eloquence, away from reason. As Brutal Truth put it on their 1997 classic Sounds of the Animal Kingdom: “The art of the deal/Numbers feed, life surreal.”
“The Trump Era” is a phrase that take writers have been trying to make stick since the beginning of primary season if not earlier. It is their shorthand for the culmination at the end of the steady freezing over of political and social civility over the last 15 years. But it was only going to stick if its namesake was going to win. No doubt this honor is incentive enough for Trump to persevere in his otherwise frustrating transition to public service. Lending his name to objects, after all, is a large part of how he earns his income. What greater object is there than the entire zeitgeist?
But that ownership is slippery. The failure of the experts to foresee Trump’s victory even as they tried to mark his rise gives his moment an air of novelty. But it is less impressive to the dregs of the world’s dingy clubs and basements. “The clowns are now the ringmasters backed with the arsenal of the economy,” said Assück in 1991. “Our ears are plugged when we speak the tongue of reality/Failure to accept the truths, we speak of peace but push civilization to the edge.” They understood early on the rising tensions finally giving way, and will no doubt comprehend Trump’s breakneck sense of urgency and brute intuitive approach to decision making. Grindcore saw the kind of culture that would create superweapons as objects of pure terror and knew it wasn’t a particularly radical leap to think it will actually get used. “Super powers/Threat of war,” goes a Terrorizer song released, rather hysterically, in 1989. “World wide peace/Dream is gone.”
I admit that “The Grind Era” lacks the branding punch that “The Trump Era” has ignominiously gained over the past year. But sticklers for accuracy will doubtless find the exchange an amenable one. It is, of course, no mark of triumph for us to acknowledge the reality of the visions we chose to ignore. Or at least to laugh at. More notorious than Napalm Death’s children’s broadcasting debut is Cannibal Corpse’s gross out comedy cameo. Grindcore bands still exist, some of them are even quite good, but its peak had long ago passed. The medically obsessed Carcass, founded by early Napalm Death guitarist Bill Steer, had sowed controversy in the ‘90s by signing to a major label and daring to explore nuance. But this is not to say that the messages have stopped coming.
Amidst the ensuing chaos of the Roman Empire and the persecution of early Christians, someone named John on the Greek island of Patmos composed the controversial concluding chapters of the Bible, the Book of Revelation. It contains some of the most disturbing images ever committed to writing, even if one is not reading it literally, describing an all-encompassing conflict with evil that nonetheless ends in the ultimate triumph of God:
And I John saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God. And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.
Following his departure halfway into the recording of Napalm Death’s first album, guitarist Justin Broadrick formed Godflesh. Described by writer Dave Thompson as “Pornography-era Cure on Quaaludes,” Godflesh was far more punishing than any conventional grindcore band, going drudgingly slow, favoring agony in place of urgency. Following its demise 14 years later, he founded Jesu, which followed Godflesh’s pace but not its tone, borrowing increasingly from shoegaze and ambient with each release. This, too, has been met with derision, though largely from metalheads this time, much in the same way the Revelation was thought heretical among some early Christians. But the trend shows little relent, as clearly shown by complimentarily named Deafheaven, who straddle the line between the earthly and the ethereal in the space of a single song, and Liturgy.
This is perhaps to read too much into an otherwise natural progression of the decades-long activity of a musician going into middle age, but it’s one worth observing all the same. The call for calm is a repeat one in our history. We long for it. It often does not come cheaply. Whether we can avoid such a payment I can’t say, but it should not be billed to a single person.
1 Napalm Death’s lineup is so unstable that even on their debut album Scum only one member, the drummer Mick Harris, appears on both sides.