There are days when I think Napalm Death is my favorite band.
Realistically, I know this to be untrue: I’ve known since I was a teen that Queen is both my favorite band and The Greatest Band In The History Of The Universe. But longtime loves are often those we overlook regularly, and so I sometimes wander. Still, though their output could hardly be more different than that of my long-declared favorite, of the bands I’ve come to love since, there’s absolutely none that hits me with the power and the poise of Napalm Death.
Of course, it helps that Napalm Death is making some of the greatest music of their career right now, riding high on a post-millennium upswing. They started out decades ago, making their name by being faster, more intense than everyone else, and though they briefly deviated, they’ve never faltered. Starting with 2000’s blistering Enemy Of The Music Business, they rebounded from a trio of unenthusiastically received and more “experimental” records by returning to form, by turning the dial back up. From then on, they’ve been impeccable, unstoppable, destructive. Discs like The Code Is Red and Time Waits For No Slave stand as some of the best metal records of the past decade.
And ever in the business of evolution, Napalm Death has outdone themselves yet again.
Apex Predator – Easy Meat is the band’s seventh full-length since their refocusing, and like all the six before it, it’s the sound of a great band making great metal, a band writing and playing at full strength, raging and taking no proverbial prisoners. Though the dashes of avant-garde experimentation that earned them some negativity in the late 90s have crept back in increasingly over the past few discs, they’re done better now: Napalm is and should always be, first and foremost, extreme, and Apex Predator is that, for sure. In truth, it’s the most extreme they’ve been in decades, maybe ever. Whereas in the 90s, the experimentation seemed at odds with the extremity, now they’re more focused – the clean vocals and the off-kilter riffing are worked in better and balanced against Napalm’s signature fury. And for all the fancy talk, fury is the name of this game.
As with all those since Enemy, elements of death metal and grindcore exist hand in hand, with less-prominent but noticeable nods to hardcore, industrial, and beyond. The formula isn’t particularly new, only performed better, with more fire. Honestly, fanboy that I am, I must concede that, if Napalm had continued to rewrite Enemy Of The Music Business or The Code Is Red endlessly, I’d probably still wax ecstatic about each new record, but what makes me love this band even more is that they’re not just reliving those successes. Sure, they’re operating within a framework, but they’re not slaves to it. They’re building upon it, refining it, expanding it without changing the fundamental core.
Still, even knowing that Napalm Death continually experiments with their formula, I wasn’t really expecting the title track to Apex. Whereas earlier efforts held the experimentation back, here it’s the first song, the opener, a statement of intent and a smack to the skull. “Apex Predator – Easy Meat” is not wholly out of left field – they wear their influences proudly – but still, it’s an outside spin on their modern attack. “Apex Predator” is a Swans-meets-Einsturzende Neubauten industrial stomp, ultimately nothing but chanted vocals and drums, with only the bare bones of instrumental backing. And it rules – in fact, it’s one of the best things they’ve done in this past decade of career resurgence. It’s an avenue they could and should explore further.
From there, though, Napalm Death does what Napalm Death does best through the rest of Apex Predator’s first half: “Smash A Single Digit” is a monster, a one-and-a-half-minute ripper, full of sheer velocity and violence. “Metaphorically Screw You” follows suit, with some groovy elements amidst the glorious grinding, while “How The Years Condemn” is an early standout. That one opens with a distant drum kit, soon joined by Embury’s gnarly bass, before kicking into a driving riff – it’s a fairly straightforward structure, but it’s so impassioned and it’s almost catchy. Lest anyone think that Apex Predator was going soft, the following two tracks revert to sheer grinding force, and all the better for it.
The second half offers a minor respite with the atmospheric “Dear Slum Landlord,” which evokes the days of Inside The Torn Apart. “Landlord” is a better-performed example of that album’s aesthetic, and it’s certainly helped that it’s bookended by some serious aggression. As great as the first half of Apex Predator is, ultimately the second half hides the greatest rewards – “Cesspits” is killer, hands down, and the give-and-take vocals between Barney and Mitch on “Beyond The Pale” is absolutely stellar. The clean-vocal choral chorus on “Hierarchies” evokes Anaal Nathrakh, and it’s arguably both the most traditional “chorus” and the greatest appearance of a clean vocal on any Napalm Death record thusfar.
Everything here is firing on all cylinders: The songs are absolutely amazing, filled with great riffs and what passes for melodies in Napalm’s world. The production is suitably stout, everything sounding exactly like a Napalm Death record should sound, and of course, the playing is absolutely blistering. Always the focal point, Barney has somehow managed to sound even angrier, even more furious, and add to that the increased attention given to Mitch Harris’ shrieking highs, and the vocal attack is simply devastating.
Before this review drags on for days, I could dissect every song on Apex Predator in ten different ways, riff by riff, line by line, in terms of production or performance. But the fact remains this: Napalm Death may very well be the greatest extreme metal band of our time, perhaps of all time. Apex Predator may quite seriously be their best record, and if it isn’t, by some microscopic margin, then it’s still on equal footing with anything they’ve done in the past two decades. This is the sound of extremity; this is the sound of everything in metal done right.
There are days when I think Napalm Death is my favorite band.
And this is why.