When I first heard of Napalm Death, I had only been exploring the depths of the metal genre for less than a year. I had become familiar with thrash, death and industrial metal (we loved labels back then) but had yet to hear grindcore outside of a Brutal Truth song on a Rock Hard death metal compilation.
Anyway, I was in high school and a school mate who was around may age but in the grade below offered to trade me Utopia Banished for my copy of Godflesh’s Pure. It sounded like a good trade at the time, so I took it home and gave it a spin.
So, I jumped into grindcore feet first with the biggest band in the genre.
What is grindcore?
Well, depending who you ask, some people will call it metal and others will call it punk. It consists of blast beats, incomprehensible vocals (on the most part) and lots of anger. It’s an aggressive in-your-face style that seeks to hammer you and give you no chance to breathe.
Napalm Death are often considered the founders of the genre, thanks to their first album Scum, which was released in 1987. Scum is more like an LP split between two different bands because the lineups, save for drummer Mick Harris, are totally different. But, that’s another review at another time.
Utopia Banished was released five years later in 1992 and it reflects a continued shift away from punk into metal territory, albeit a very extreme form of metal.
But this extreme approach has worked for Napalm Death, giving them not only giving them a level of notoriety above many of their contemporaries, but also an existence that’s surpassed many mainstream acts. This long existence is reflective of Napalm Death becoming more of an institution than a band, considering that none of the original members are left. Napalm Death also lies at the root of many other successful acts, with members of Godflesh, Cathedral and Carcass (among others) serving time in the band. Its membership has been pretty stable since the early 1990s and it remains to be seen whether the band can endure the loss of the current lineup when that time inevitably comes.
But, back to Utopia Banished.
Utopia Banished kicks off with the industrial-sounding “Discordance,” which was a pretty common thing in the 1990s for many metal albums. Unlike many other bands who tried this, Napalm Death pulled it off pretty well, with its samples and static flowing seamlessly into “I Abstain,” which is one of the strongest songs on the album. It also gives you a taste of what Napalm Death is about, with Mark “Barney” Greenway roaring politically infused lyrics over a song that mixes heavy grindy sections with blast beats. Good stuff.
“I Abstain” is followed by another strong song, “Dementia Access” which shows that Napalm Death can do a lot with a genre that can be difficult to be creative within.
“Christening of the Blind” is the song where you actually hear the lyrics “Utopia Banished.” “Christening of the Blind” is another fast, though slow-paced for Napalm Death, song where the band grinds through with a little undercurrent of groove.
Other strong tracks include the relentless “The World Keeps Turning” which just hits you like a wall of sound and puts you through a meat grinder as you listen. It was also an official single with a video. “Judicial Slime” is also another song where Napalm Death show a lot of their musical flexibility as well as Greenway who’s growls go a little deeper than his usual roars and screams.
“Distorting the Medium” is another recommended listen because it shows the variety of what can be done around the blast beats and galloping bass drums. It’s short, but there’s a lot going on there and it’s worth multiple listens.
There’s also “Contemptuous” that sounds almost like a Godflesh song until Greenway’s vocals begin. “Contemptuous” is also about as slow as you’ll ever hear Napalm Death get.
Now, with a lot of grindcore albums, there are some problems. For people who don’t have an ear for the genre, a lot of the songs are going to sound alike. That just comes with the territory, though. If you stick through and develop an appreciation, you’ll get through your initial bewilderment at wondering what the hell you’re listening to and enjoy the music.
While this isn’t a complaint, I will warn that Greenway’s vocalizations aren’t going to be easy to understand. Many people will find them downright incoherent, which many people might find confusing considering the seriousness of the lyrics.
One thing I believe that Utopia Banished has over 1987’s Scum is that the drums don’t overwhelm the rest of the instruments. This is mostly thanks to the production that lets the guitars to move to the front of the mix, balancing out the blast beats.
Utopia Banished is also much more a metal album than a punk album. But, Napalm Death never ditched its punk angst and that shines through the lyrics.
Anyway, would I recommend Utopia Banished? Yes, but with a word of caution. If you’re a person who doesn’t like being challenged by what you’re listening to, this album is definitely not for you. But, if you’re a bit adventurous with your ear, go ahead and dive in. Just be ready to give it a few listens before you get into the groove.