By Nicholas Bullen
If it can be said that there is a dominant organisational principle of meaning within modern culture, then this principle is the practice of language, particularly as an ordering tool to facilitate meaning and to demarcate boundaries. It may be an inevitability that artistic creativity falls under the auspices of this organisational principle, particularly in respect to classification by genre – as is the case with Heavy Metal, the musical template created and developed in the industrial culture of the Midlands.
However, the very definition of genre may be seen to occur at the point where the initial creative impulse has reached a stasis: a stasis which allows an open space for delineation, demarcation, description and categorisation. The actualisation of creativity which spawns a genre is of a different nature, something more akin to a disease: like a viral infection, it sprouts and blossoms without warning, and can be highly contagious. Such is the case with ‘Grindcore’, the genre spawned in the 1980’s by Napalm Death which is informed by the surrounding environment of the West Midlands, and represents an extension of a certain approach to musical composition predicated on ‘heaviness’ and a hard-edged approach which is explicitly linked to this particular geographical location.
The use of the term ‘Grindcore’ was first introduced on a global stage through the release of the debut album by Napalm Death – ‘Scum’ (1987): the band themselves developed the term to describe the abrasive qualities of their sound. The genre developed as a hybrid form characterised by the amalgamation of guitar riffs fusing Heavy Metal and extreme Hardcore Punk Thrash music (and featuring heavy use of the Power Chord, distortion and ‘downtuning’), aggressive vocal tropes (featuring an emphasis on low tones and a flattening of the verbal content of the utterance in favour of an aspiration towards pure sound), high velocity drumming (appropriately dubbed “The Blastbeat”), and abrupt short songs (which almost act as an apogee of the notion of the short song in popular music). It also retains – in its original form – echoes of the Post Punk music of the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, particularly the use of discordant and atonal guitar motifs, and the introduction and application of passages of textural ‘white noise’ reminiscent of the work of early ‘Industrial’ musicians.
The development of Napalm Death (and the ensuing development of ‘Grindcore’) could be viewed as an alchemical process, simultaneously a product of both macrocosm and microcosm.
The cloud of ennui that pervaded the mid 1980’s musical landscape had an influence on the development of Napalm Death by extending the focus to the macrocosm of global music which provided both a conduit to fellow sufferers and a sense of belonging (however artificial) operating at extended distance through the global network of letter writing and cassette tape trading. The desire to seek out extreme forms of expression manifested itself in an interest in musical forms extending the vocabulary of ‘extreme’ music in a variety of contexts (including Hardcore Punk, Post Punk, ‘Industrial’ music and D.I.Y. ‘experimental’ music) with a tendency towards aggressive velocity, textural noise and laminar structure.
‘Grindcore’ developed out of this exploratory spirit, informed by an approach to form and content where each complemented the other in order to create a compositional approach which reflected emotional concerns through formal expression and validated a singular vision over communal homogeneity.
The microcosm of the immediate geographical environment operated as a defining factor in terms of psychic positioning. The social environment of the city of Birmingham (and the region of the West Midlands in general) is indefatigably shaped by the demands of the surrounding industry and leaves nothing untouched. The monotonous and forbidding vistas of the city, brutalist, functional, and pitted with liminal zones of dereliction and industrial fauna returned an echo to Napalm Death whose worldview had been stained grey by the apocalyptic turmoil of the late 1970’s. This worldview was a product of the outer reaches of the city – of the zones of isolation and alienation – and seemed to be perfectly complemented by the sense of oppression engendered by the omnipresence of the grey concrete.
The shifting nature of the psychic terrain within a region which transmits mixed signals (of place and non-place, of immigration and belonging, of purpose and non-purpose) may – paradoxically – produce a fertile bed for creativity. The sense of isolation and oppressive powerlessness engendered by such geographical locations can act as a fulcrum for an exploration of limit positions of expression and emotion. Napalm Death was a product of this environment: the grey blankness of the city acting as a tabula rasa for the expression of frustration, anger and rage. The rupture created by the disorder of the music of Napalm Death represents a drive towards the limits, a rending of the social fabric in order to regain control of the environment and of oneself (if only in a ‘magical’ sense). It represents a politicised position founded on a private act.
The sonic footprint of the environment is also overtly shaped by the prevalence of heavy industry: it is a bricolage of rhythmic rigidity and of fluid dissonance, of harsh and abrasive sound storms built from the metallic grating of the foundaries of manufacturing industry. This sonic footprint informed the compositional approach of Black Sabbath (particularly in the use of monodic minor key powerchord progressions played on downtuned guitar) – and consequently the Dionysian vision of the Heavy Metal genre – and also informed the sound of Napalm Death. The term ‘Grind’ itself makes an oblique gesture towards this industrialised soundbed.
The impact of the billowing mushroom cloud of bleak noise and distorted fury initiated by Napalm Death in the mid 1980’s has ultimately occurred on a global level. The ‘Grindcore’ genre is an established element of both the cultural lexicon on a global level (entering the pantheon of musical history and requiring both documentation and academic analysis) and continues to inspire new generations of artists. The fallout also continues to have an impact on a more localised level: the Black Country (and the Midlands in general) remains a stronghold for Heavy Metal music.
The urge towards experimentation which underpinned the initial incubation of Napalm Death continues to act as an inspirational lodestone for the creative work of the protagonists. The work of early members (such as Justin Broadrick’s Final and Jesu projects, and Mick Harris’ work as Scorn) continues the legacy of musical exploration, as does my own work (centred around the Monium label) which has continued to develop an exploration of the textural and timbral qualities of sound through improvisation and signal processing, and which remains underpinned by a defined conceptual framework informed by both metaphysics and political philosophy.
If one can isolate and identify a defining quality within this disparate work, it may be seen to be that of a singular vision which is drawn towards experiences at the limit, which pushes outwards from an internal position, and which refuses to remain in one position or definition.