by Jay H. Gorania
Late in the evening at Inferno Fest in Oslo last year, one of Napalm Death’s members was shaking his head with frustration regarding his bandmates and the slim window of time between the completion of Utilitarian’s writing and the booked studio time which was immediately approaching. While chewing on his breakfast the next morning at the posh, upscale hotel housing the fest’s bands, another member was shaking his head for the same reasons. This isn’t to say there’s “trouble in paradise,” though. Aside from the departure of late guitarist Jesse Pintado, their lineup has remained the same for over over 20 years. They are family at this point, and like any successful familial unit, occasional bickering is inevitable and arguably necessary to weed out the bad ideas from the good ones. Napalm Death’s recently released Utilitarian, their fifteenth (!) studio album, is proof.
Offering faint praise to a band that is irrefutably one of extreme music’s pioneers might seem obligatory, but considering the quality of Utilitarian, they’ve earned a thumbs up, thrown horns and a fist pump. Since ushering the new millennium in with Enemy of the Music Business, they’ve carried forward the marriage of their early career’s raw, unpolished blast-fest with their mid-career’s venture into pastures filled with experimentation, more prominent melodies and tempo variation. This time, they’ve fine-tuned said approach and possibly, and almost impossibly, produced an album that’s even better than Time Waits for No Slave (2009). “Quarantined” and “Blank Look About Face” are just as hook-laden as they are assailing. In truth, you’d be hard pressed to find a bad song on Utilitarian. Tracks like “Nom de Guerre” and “Fall on Their Swords” exemplify their undeniable mastery of arrangements. The latter song brilliantly merges menacing sections with powerful vocal and guitar melodies that wouldn’t be far removed, in terms of spirit, from Fields of the Nephilim and Swans’ goth-leaning period.
What’s really special about this is the manner in which the transitions between coarse and smooth are complimentary to one another, and how seamless and logical they are. It makes sense. Worthy of note is John Zorn’s guest appearance on “Everyday Pox,” his unique, frantic sax lines fitting snuggly with the clanging stringed instruments and Danny Herrera’s thunderous percussive abuse. And guitarist Mitch Harris’ biting, high-pitched screams, which typically augment certain growls from Barney Greenway, ride in the front seat as he leads verses on “The Wolf I Feed” and “Orders of Magnitude,” proving himself so proficient that there’s no way that he shouldn’t be the main vocalist for a side project.
So, there’s a new Napalm Death album that’s absolutely incredible? That’s about as surprising as the possibility of death and taxes.