Shadow of the Horns: 30 Years of Grindcore

Napalm Death Scum 30 years of grindcore

Thirty years ago, a band of Birmingham crust punks changed the course of metal history. Formed in May 1981 (before I was born!), Napalm Death made their first noises as an anarchopunk band who’d come to issue a series of cassette demos and early EPs throughout the early to mid ’80s. They knew how to play fast and loud, which is a good start for when you want to push metal and hardcore to its most extreme sounds. By 1987, that sound had crystallized on the band’s debut album Scum. And with its release, grindcore was born.

Grindcore is extreme metal. It’s the very definition of it, faster and more aggressive and simply more intense than any other form of metal that had come before it, and barring a few exceptions (the weird hybrid industrial/grind/black metal of Anaal Nathrakh, for instance) still the metal’s most extreme subgenre. And I’m talking musically extreme—surely death metal has more violent imagery (though Brujeria’s severed-head album covers are pretty fucked) and black metal is more infamous culturally, but grindcore on the stereo sounds like it’s going to drill holes through your frontal lobe. It’s fast, short, uncompromising and destructive.

The fact that grindcore songs can be absurdly short—30 to 90 seconds on average—means that it’s also the subgenre that probably can be the hardest to get into (I have no real stats here, but this all intuitively sounds right). Sure, drone doom is kind of hard to sing along to, but I suppose that’s the polar opposite of grindcore, come to think of it. But grindcore blurs by in a manic hurricane that hits you and knocks you on your ass, and it’s over before you even know what happened. That doesn’t mean there’s not a lot to dig into and enjoy, or even savor. In fact, some of my favorite metal albums of all time have some of the shortest songs. (Some also have 10-minute tracks, there are no hard and fast rules here.)

As we celebrate this landmark anniversary of one of extreme metal’s most intense sounds, I decided to pick a must-listen grindcore album for each year of its existence (including 2017, making it 31 albums instead of 30—this is intentional). I picked five absolute essentials to start with, however. Here’s your grindcore starter set:

Napalm DeathScum (1987): The Rosetta Stone of grindcore. This is the key to unlocking the secrets of the most extreme of metal subgenres. The sheer rawness of it means that there are a handful of songs where it’s unclear what the hell is going on, but that doesn’t mean it’s not barrels of fun. More like barrels of TNT, though; most of these tracks are super short, super aggressive, and half feature a young Justin Broadrick before he founded Godflesh. Turns out he prefers a slower approach, but this is a must-listen for any and all metal fans. At least clear out some time for all one second of “You Suffer.”

TerrorizerWorld Downfall (1989): Los Angeles’ Terrorizer arrived shortly after Napalm Death, but they took grindcore a few steps closer to death metal proper. In fact, drummer Pete Sandoval actually joined Morbid Angel after this was recorded, just to boldface that line a bit more. World Downfall is cut from a similar cloth as Scum, but its edges are sharper, its riffs more jagged, its attack more direct. In fact, the production gives it a punchiness that makes each track, no matter how brief, feel more fully realized. Grindcore isn’t necessarily about the songs in many cases, but Terrorizer had some great ones.

Discordance AxisThe Inalienable Dreamless (2000): Discordance Axis is a bit different than the prototypical grindcore band. For one, they favor shrieks over growls (mostly), with a piercing noisecore undercurrent throughout all of this millennial masterpiece. It feels less sweaty and muscular than grindcore often is, instead the New Jersey group streamlining their sound to a technologically advanced, yet somehow supernatural perfection.

Nasum Helvete (2003): Swedish grindcore MVPs Nasum (pronounced “gnaws ’em”) didn’t last long—their vocalist Mieszko Talarczyk sadly died in 2004 during the Tsunami that hit Thailand. But in their dozen years together, they made some outstanding progressive—and accessible!—grindcore. Helvete is remarkably catchy for a grindcore album. Though they do 30-second explosions of unrelenting fury quite well, they also pull of Converge-style hardcore anthems, one of the strongest of which is “Stormshield,” which is not only catchy but actually features some tasteful use of clean-tone guitar. Though Scum is arguably the first grindcore album anyone should listen to, I’d argue this is even more likely to be a gateway album.

Pig DestroyerTerrifyer (2004): If asked to pick a favorite grindcore album of all time, it’d have to be Terrifyer. On a purely musical level, it has so many layers and so much depth for a grindcore album that it almost occupies its own unique genre space. There are elements of noise rock, death metal, hardcore, etc., and vocalist J.R. Hayes’ lyrics are, while sometimes grotesque, more vivid and poetic than the typical grindcore violence-fest, with influences taken from William S. Burroughs, Nick Cave, Springsteen and others. All the things I love about this album can be heard in standout track “Gravedancer,” which has one of the heaviest grooves on the album, but also ends with a minute of disturbing muffled screams that could either be a poorly recorded theatrical rehearsal or something more sinister. If you find yourself drawn to both, then this album is for you too.

Then listen to these 26 albums…

Napalm Death – From Enslavement to Obliteration (1988)
Naked City – Torture Garden (1990)
Painkiller – Guts of a Virgin (1991)
Brutal Truth – Extreme Conditions Demand Extreme Responses (1992)
Brujeria – Matando Gueros (1993)
Brutal Truth – Need to Control (1994)
Brujeria – Raza Odiada (1995)
Dying Fetus – Purification Through Violence (1996)
Assück – Misery Index (1997)
Soilent Green – Sewn Mouth Secrets (1998)
Agoraphobic Nosebleed/Converge – Poacher Diaries (1999)
Pig Destroyer – Prowler in the Yard (2001)
Rotten Sound – Murderworks (2002)
Napalm Death – The Code is Red…Long Live the Code (2005)
Genghis Tron – Dead Mountain Mouth (2006)
Pig Destroyer – Phantom Limb (2007)
Gridlink – Amber Grey (2008)
Agoraphobic Nosebleed – Agorapocalypse (2009)
Nails – Unsilent Death (2010)
Fuck the Facts – Die Miserable (2011)
Liberteer – Better to Die on Your Feet than Live on Your Knees (2012)
Cloud Rat – Moksha (2013)
Full of Hell and Merzbow – s/t (2014)
Cloud Rat – Qliphoth (2015)
Nails – You Will Never Be One of Us (2016)
Full of Hell – Trumpeting Ecstasy (2017)

The best metal tracks of the month

Atriarch – “Inferno”

I’m always in favor of metal bands tapping into their inherent goth sensibilities. Both genres are born of darkness, so it’s really a wonder more metal bands don’t embrace being goth. Atriarch, however, are essentially the heaviest goth in America at the moment, with a sound that lends a hefty backing of sludge to sounds inspired by the likes of Swans and Killing Joke. In many respects they share a lot in common with Tombs, who also lean toward the dark arts, albeit without as much of the black metal sensibility. “Inferno” is a strong showing from the band’s new album Dead As Truth, with slow moving doom-metal pacing and a spacious, open progression that very much feels like a slow march into hell. It’s not the most urgent or energizing metal track, but it’s darkly powerful in its overbearing atmosphere. Or: It’s goth AF.

[from Dead As Truth, out August 11; Relapse]


Expander – “Biochron Space Suit”

When Kurt Ballou is involved in the recording or production of something, that’s typically a pretty strong indication that it’s something worth paying attention to. Expander, an Austin-based band of “timezapped neuropunks,” tap into some pretty wild sci-fi themes on this first track released from their upcoming album Endless Computer. The group’s music can probably best be described as some kind of hardcore/crossover thrash, and the spacey themes certainly put them in a similar category as Canadian thrash icons Voivod, though this is more aggressive, more visceral. It’s nasty, violent stuff, no matter what kind of Hackers-style clothing it’s dressed in. And, of course, Ballou’s production takes it that step further, sharpening the crusty jags around their power chord punch. Who would have guessed that a band with an album called Endless Computer would sound like they could kick your ass?

[from Endless Computer, out September 15; Nuclear War Now!]


Usnea – “Lathe of Heaven”

Of course the first track released from the new Usnea album is 10 minutes long. By their standards, that’s nothing. Each of the four tracks on their 2014 album Random Cosmic Violence was at least 12. So right off the bat we’re talking pretty epic, gargantuan stuff (but maybe slightly less so than the last album?). In any case, the glacial drift of the track’s introduction feels a bit like Godspeed You! Black Emperor gone sludge. It’s melodic and graceful, but it also harbors something ominous and melancholy about it. Then three minutes in it transforms into a nasty sludge monster, growling and chugging and turning those once graceful sounds into something more forbidding and dense. Yet the beauty is still there, much in the same way that a band like Rwake was able to showcase a haunting melodicism beneath overt harshness. It’s a colossal track with many different sides to showcase. And to think that they’ve got even more massive pieces where this came from.

[from Portals Into Futility, out September 8; Relapse]


Sannhet – “Way Out”

Instrumental metal isn’t necessarily a rare commodity, but it’s also not always easy to pull off in a compelling, emotionally powerful way. Sannhet, however, rises to the challenge in ways that many other vocal-free metal combos might not. “Way Out” is a perfect example of the power they wield, at times sounding nothing like metal at all, and at others charging forth with atmospheric-black-metal gale-force winds. It’s a beautiful piece of music, yet it’s also explosive, even illusory in the way that it conveys power without resorting to rote tremolo picking or power chord chugs. There’s so much space, yet it feels like it could fell neighborhoods. Whether it’s metal is a matter of perspective, but damn is it powerful.

[from So Numb, out August 25; Profound Lore]


False – “Anhedonia”

False is a band that often works best when given no restraints whatsoever. Their 2015 album Untitled was filled with 10-plus minute rippers that went on endurance-test journeys of strength and fortitude. But the band has a new seven-inch out this month, and both tracks are well under five minutes apiece. That’s admirably brief for the band; you could fit 20 of these on a 90-minute mixtape! “Anhedonia,” the A-side, is an absolute stunner. In fact both are, but this is the one stands out just a little bit more as a result of its creepy, atmospheric synths, which nod to the symphonic evil of vintage of Emperor and Enslaved. False is by no means an act concerned with tradition or keeping metal needlessly conservative. But they’ve done their homework. What they do with that knowledge, however, is vastly more impressive.

[from “Hunger,” out now; Gilead]

Piece by piece

The best metal albums of the month:

BorisDear: Boris have reached their 25th year as a band (only five years younger than grindcore!) and in that time they’ve covered a lot of ground. Their new album is, in a manner of speaking, a survey of their many years of innovation and heaviness, with some new tricks as well. It’s essentially all of the things that Boris have done well throughout their career, and as a result one of their strongest albums in years. (Sargent House)

Ex EyeEx Eye: This was a weird one, but a weird one that had some outstanding moments. Ex Eye is an unconventional experimental metal group that features saxophonist Colin Stetson and Liturgy drummer Greg Fox. And so while they have metal expertise and are released on a metal label, Ex Eye don’t sound like any other metal band, really. They’re progressive and strange and atmospheric and exploratory, using black metal as a foundation for doing some wild, out there stuff that’s more in line with a metal-jazz group like Brain Tentacles. It has to be heard to be understood, but it’s great. (Relapse)

NecrotBlood Offerings: Man, what a year for death metal this has been so far. Many of the best surprises in metal this year have been of a decidedly old-school death metal variety (and many of them a very not old-school variety). Necrot nods to death metal’s classic era while pursuing a gnarly melodicism that puts them in a similar category as recent rippers such as Horrendous or Blood Incantation. They’re a formidable group of bruisers, and they’re reminding us why the Bay Area was a hub for metal in the first place. (Tankcrimes)

TombsThe Grand Annihilation: The thing that I love about Tombs is how far they seem to keep indulging their goth/post-punk/ominous drone dirge tendencies every time they release a new album. On their latest, the black metal intensity is still there, but there’s also lots of stalking-through-the-graveyard darkness that makes it even more fun. More fun than black metal you scoff?. It’s true. At least as much as music this bleak and ominous can be, mostly because Tombs aren’t tied to any one thing at any one time, experimenting and expanding their capabilities while reinforcing their unique identity within heavy music. (Metal Blade)

WodeServants of the Countercosmos: Wode’s debut album was one of my favorite discoveries of 2016, and so it’s no surprise that their follow-up is, yes, another one of my favorite metal records of this year. Servants of the Countercosmos is much shorter at only around a half-hour, but its power is undeniable. The group has honed their black metal songwriting to create a perfect balance of ferocity and accessibility. Plus you can play it twice on the hour. Kvlt and convenient.  (Avantgarde)

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