A-side – “You suffer…”
This is one of those records that I’ve had a million conversations about. Heavy crust/grind/metal/metalcore peeps will claim various things about it – it’s not the best/ it’s the best/ it’s not the first/ it’s the first/ Carcass did it better/it’s better with triggered drums/ it’s better without triggered drums/ it’s old/ it’s new/ they’re from Birmingham (good)/ they’re from Birmingham (bad). To answer each in turn: don’t care, fuck off/ don’t care, fuck off/ fuck off, don’t care/ fuck off don’t care/ meh – why not fuck off?/ fuck off you sexless geek/ fuck off you sexless geek/ fuck off/ fuck off/ Birmingham is AWESOME/ Birmingham is AWESOME, fuck off.
And because I’ve had a million conversations about it, and because Napalm Death, of all of this area of music, are best-known, it’s nearly impossible to approach it 25 (!) years on and say anything new or interesting about it.
Hi. Welcome to a well set-up review.Right, so, basically, the reason I don’t care about the ins or the outs about this record is because I massively think that it’s really, really important that this record occupies the cultural position it does. There certainly were bands in a similar ilk prior (Sore Throat etc.) and there are certain bands who did a similar thing after (anyone remember Gore beyond Necropsy?) But in terms of what extreme music means in 2012 – and it’s perfectly likely that extreme music means fuck all now – it’s really nice to know that, however people feel about it, some people remember Napalm on Chris Evans, or Steven Wells‘ reviews in the NME. Reviled or not (and remember: in 2012, no-one can hear you scream about things that aren’t really important any more), Napalm Death are known by far more people than (say) Carcass or the mighty Extreme Noise Terror are. The relative merits of each are unimportant here – Napalm did it, and they’re massively anti-fascist (which is always good) and they’re from Brum (which is the home of metal) and, for whatever reason, they have a bit of cultural currency beyond what isn’t really a massive scene.
So this FDR thing is kind of what I’m most interested in. There was, as some of you will remember, a bit of a hoo-ha over Metallica‘s Death Magnetic being mastered to such an extent that it sounds like an actual pile of wet wank. Which it did. But I think what got forgot in that whole debate is that they were always utter cack, well-mastered or not (remind me to write something about how Lou Reed‘s emasculation of Metallica was inadvertently the best thing the latter ever did). But what the Scum re-issue does is to give Napalm the proper grown-up audiophile remaster – showing that this isn’t brick-walled, showing that this is a record full of dynamic range. Which is fascinating, really – a band who, at the time, were considered extreme, violent, noisey and all those things, being press-ganged (rightly) into the world of ‘warm’ vinyl re-issues.Maybe that point is about claiming Napalm’s musical legitimacy. That seems a slightly weird thing to argue, but I think this record has a lot to say about where we are, and what’s going on with extreme music – next to the recent Harsh Noise Wall movement (long, static, unchanging music consisting of nothing but variations on white noise) Scum has a lot of musicality to it. In fact, there was a moment when I was listening back where I swear I thought of Elvis‘s drummer. [Audiophile-phobes, close your eyes now] This re-issue has plenty of moments where you can hear THE FUCK out of the drummer, the vocal reverbs, the guitar crunch and so on. Weirdly, this feels like a moment when Grindcore has, by some cultural osmosis, been absorbed into a world where it’s really nice to hear every element of the playing on a record which, when I first heard it, was a baffling wall of noise.
So I suppose a review should tell you whether the record’s any good or not – but to be entirely honest, if you don’t know this record, you really owe it to yourself. The question then is whether it improves on previous versions. And… yeah, it does. This is a really well mastered record, it sounds lovely, and while you’ve got a lot less of the brickwalling that characterised earlier reissues (and lent the impression of it being VERY LOUD when it was actually PRETTY FARTY). So yeah. Basically, it’s NAPALM FUCKING DEATH and if you don’t like that YOU’RE PROBABLY A FASCIST AND AS SUCH SHOULD DIE.
AA-side – “..but why?”
Of all the albums to get the remaster/remix treatment, I never thought it would be this one – Napalm Death’s legendary debut album – Scum. A record so ridiculous that each side (of the original vinyl release) has a completely different line-up. The only exception being drummer, and provider of “whirlwind caveman screams and growls,” Mick Harris.I could write page-upon-page about how, technically, there isn’t even a single original member on side 2, and how from the various people who did play on it you now have what reads like a metal/experimental royalty list. I won’t do that, but a quick internet search for names like Justin Broadrick, Nick Bullen, Lee Dorian, Bill Steer and the aforementioned Harris will show you all you need to know.
In terms of the record itself – amazingly it still stands the test of time. In 2012 where identikit metal bands are all pig vocals, shredding, blast beats, tight denim shorts and strange crab poses, Scum is still an incredibly aggressive affair. There’s no pissing about here. Taking the early Wire approach of only saying what really needs to be said – and no more – many of the songs are under a minute long. Watching it upload to iTunes is a uniquely amusing experience.
So short are some of the songs that they really do go past in a blur – like a police car with its sirens blaring …driven by 80s Brummies. Even today – the one-second long “You Suffer” acts as a somewhat insane signature tune for Napalm Death. So iconic is it, that this reviewer once spent a whole £1 to play it on one of those digital jukeboxes in a pub. Believe it or not, watching people turn their heads towards the speakers and look confused was incredibly good value.But back to the record. Although it works as a consistent whole, there are distinct differences in the two halves. Side one is much more punk influenced. The songs are generally a bit slower, and the riffs actually have some sort of melodic foundation. Not to say it isn’t heavy as hell – “The Kill” is 23 seconds of frantic nihilism. “Control” is a thrashathon that nicely sums up the lyrical ethos for the vast majority of Napalm Death’s recorded output: a desire to be a free-thinking individual with strong ethics. It’s ironic that such a positive message is buried within such a negative shell – but that’s what makes it so special.
Side 2 is a real step up in terms of noise – new guitarist Bill Steer doesn’t so much play riffs as wrench out a gut-churning grind. Although side two doesn’t have songs that are quite as… catchy, it’s probably the more influential of the two. Listening to this, it’s almost unimaginable that Steer would go on to record the pioneering albums he did with Carcass. He was playing in an early version of Carcass when Scum was recorded, and compared to their debut album Reek Of Putrefaction, it’s unmistakably him – but it’s scarcely believable that he also played on Necroticism and Heartwork.Lee Dorian’s vocals are suitably unhinged. In interviews at the time the explanation given to outsiders to explain why the vocals sounded the way they did. was that they needed to keep up with the rest of the instruments. It just seemed implausible to try and sing in a traditional way over such chaos. And chaos it is. Side 2 is much closer to the style they would perfect on the next release – 1988’s From Enslavement To Obliteration.
“Life?” kicks things off with a soon to be characteristic level of intensity. And to be honest, it doesn’t really calm down, at all. Harris had clearly become a better drummer in the 11 or so months between recording each side, and blastbeats dominate side 2. They still take a second or so to reach full speed, but somehow this makes them even heavier. He also adds vocals to a number of tracks, which essentially consist of him screaming “DA DA DA DA DA DAAAA,” no matter what the lyrics are. Diction has never been Napalm Death’s strong point, but he really does take the piss. Check out “Pseudo Youth”‘s first verse for a prime example.
When I first discovered this album in my teens, it must be said that part of the appeal was how funny it was. Napalm Death was made up of serious young men, but it would disappoint me if they never had the odd chuckle about how over-the-top their music was.This new ‘full spectrum’ mix does bring out a certain amount of detail that was buried in the mix that’s been available since 1995, but does it actually make the album sound better? I’m not sure it does.
The label have made a big thing that this mix is a reaction to the ‘loudness war’ currently being fought by mastering engineers across the world. But played alongside the 20th anniversary version of the album, it just sounds a little bit…wimpy. Sure, you can turn it up, but it almost feels like they’ve made the mix sound more polite. Admittedly, this isn’t that big a problem if you don’t have another mix as a reference point, but this album is most probably aimed at people that already have it – and I suspect there are very few audiophiles among them.
What IS of interest, and what saves this release from being a bit redundant is the rough mix that’s also included. It leaves in lots of the drum counts, flubs and chatter that bookend many of the tracks. It’s easily the most aggressive mix available. The songs sound ragged, like they were recorded at a practice – there’s an energy there. It’s almost like the engineers pulled out some new magic simply by not mixing it.
For fans of heavy music, and those interested in the roots of it’s members, Scum is a must-have album. It’s worth getting on that basis alone. But as a scientific endeavour – I’m just not sure what the point is of this release.