For the better part of three decades, Napalm Death has been one of extreme music’s greatest examples of consistency and stability, with the only lineup change since the early 90s being the departure and death of Jesse Pintado. Other than that, it’s been the group of drummer Danny Herrera, bassist Shane Embury, guitarist/vocalist Mitch Harris, and of course vocalist/mouthpiece Mark “Barney” Greenway since 1991. (Okay, Barney quit for a year in the 90s, but his short-term replacement, Extreme Noise Terror’s Phil Vane, never recorded with the band.) Every couple of years, another great record emerges with very rare stylistic surprises and even rarer dips in quality. They’re about as dependable as they come.
Of course, the band’s first decade was a far different story. By the end of the 80s, Napalm Death had already seen 12 bands members join and depart, and not a single original member remained with the band by the b-side of watershed debut Scum. Even more shifting occurred on the less innovative, but actually superior From Enslavement to Obliteration, and by the end of the 80s, Napalm Death had helped to launch the careers of Bill Steer, Lee Dorrian, Justin Broadrick, and Mick Harris, among others.
None of this tumultuous activity is a secret, of course, all long being part of the Napalm Death legend. But it’s still a crazy to think about this era 30 years later after nearly as much time with such stability, and it wasn’t even the end of the nuttiness. For album number three, a mostly modern Napalm Death lineup (with Mick Harris still on drums) traveled to Florida to record with Scott Burns, resulting in Harmony Corruption. The record is great, but it’s by far the most purely death metal album of their career, and was an odd, somewhat conventional debut for Barney.
The band made a quick adjustment, and after a decade of upheaval and innovation and pushing extremes to further, well, extremities, Utopia Banished was the start of a “career band” status for which Napalm Death probably never seemed destined. But it was more than merely the start of lineup stability; Utopia Banished was the first Napalm Death record to find that perfect death/grind balance that they have now achieved for so long, as well as being the proper coming-out party for Barney.
More importantly, Utopia Banished just kills. The record carries an irate, malevolent, and almost fatalistic atmosphere that not even some of their post-millennium records can top and is packed to the gills with irresistible riffs and blasts and grooves and everything else you’d expect. In short: Utopia Banished is both one of the best and most important records in the long career of Napalm Death.
It started at the top. After sounding like a more conventional death metal vocalist on both Harmony Corruption and the Benediction debut Subconscious Terror, Barney was unleashed on Utopia. From the moment he bellows out the title of the classic “I Abstain,” his gruff, voluminous roar was pretty much fully formed. In the history of metal and grind, only Barney can turn the sound of a dog barking with a mouthful of peanut butter into something so intensely rageful and constantly magnetic. Barney’s belligerence ‒ which wasn’t just limited to the behavior that earned him his nickname ‒ was another huge factor. He could simultaneously sound like a person having a tantrum and the leader of a massive protest, all while having the vocal power of a bulldozer. Even in 1992 he possessed more charisma than most of his peers. His roar of “Open your eyes!” later in “I Abstain” comes across as a call-to-arms; the way he dry-heaves out the album title in “Christening of the Blind” sounds like a resignation to postmodern fate; and his delivery of the song title in “Upward and Uninterested” is damn-near catchy, despite being an obvious indictment on capitalism and the insatiable greed of the ruling class.
It goes without saying that Barney’s performance is all the more enhanced by him being actually pissed off. Eternally pissed off. Eternally extremely pissed off. And naturally, the lyrics penned by both Barney and Embury are as scathing as those on any Napalm Death record. “Awake (To a Life of Misery)” fittingly opens with a quote from the John Carpenter classic They Live before stating that the working class is made up of mere “Maggots, cast in the sea of struggle / Bait for the big fish.” The aforementioned “Upward and Uninterested” derides the ways in which financial greed is spun as a virtue: “Hailed a saviour as enterprise succeeds” and later “Words that distort to promote financial genocide.”
But no song carries quite the level of rage as “Aryanisms,” which obviously takes aim at racial prejudice and the personal insecurities that are quite often intertwined with white supremacy. You can almost picture the loathsome Unite the Right marchers wielding their tiki torches as Barney screams “Your distinction threatened? ‒ absurd!!” The song also gets into how holding onto such hatred isn’t just exhausting, but absolutely perplexing: “I cannot begin to comprehend how you wear such shame with vigor – homophobic, race antagonist.” The members of Napalm Death go beyond beyond mere anger to express confusion and sadness at so much of what they see around them. It was little surprise when they covered the Dead Kennedys classic “Nazi Punks Fuck Off” a year later and included “Aryanisms” on the single release.
“Aryanisms” isn’t just one of the record’s strongest lyrical statements, it’s also just a monster death/grind track on a loaded album. It has a brief, intimidating false start before bursting into some extremely intense ‒ but oddly melodic ‒ grind, drops into more of a death/thrashing drive, grinds some more, and eventually arrives at a huge death metal finish. These stop/start, fast/slow, grind/chug, blast/gallop shifts are all over the record, as are the memorable individual moments. “Dementia Access” has plenty of near-chaotic grind, but also gets into a really mean groove at one point; “The World Keeps Turning” churns and grinds, and sounds downright maniacal when the buzzsaws meet the, um… soloing; “Got Time to Kill” even gets nice and smartass in its riffage as Herrera drops a great half-time rhythm. Plus the great mid-paced death and nasty soloing in “I Abstain,” those great, now-signature “circular” riffs in “Idiosyncratic,” and some absolutely rude churning in “Exile.” The hits never stop.
Beyond all the grinding and death metal, Utopia Banished was one of the first Napalm Death records with a nice curveball—specifically, the closer curveball. “Contemptuous” is a slow-burn, brooding, tense exercise in mood, driven as much by Embury’s pulsating bass as by the drumming and guitars. It feels closer in spirit to late 80s Swans or Godflesh than it does grindcore, and finishes the record with not just a touch of variety, but also a nice reminder that Napalm Death’s righteous fury comes in more than one form.
It was also a not-so-minor hint that Napalm Death was not about to stick with the sound they perfected on Utopia Banished. The band would spend much of the 90s experimenting with groove and industrial sounds on their sometimes (unfairly) maligned “clean logo” records, largely abandoning the grind for a while. But without gelling as a unit on Utopia Banished, this group of dudes may never have had the courage to stretch out. (Besides, those records, particularly Diatribes, are quite good, but that’s a Diamonds & Rust for a different day.) Plus, without stretching out, they may never have arrived at their beloved modern era, and even if that era calls back to about every past phase, you’d have to be pretty thick to not hear how much of that great death/grind balance began with Utopia Banished.
Utopia Banished is by no means Napalm Death’s most important record in terms of what it meant for the evolution of extreme music; that honor undoubtedly belongs to Scum. But it is very arguably the most important in terms of building iconic status for the humans that have made up the band Napalm Death for many, many years at this point. It wasn’t the start of the name or the grind, but it may well have been the start of the career. No matter the context, it’s an absolutely essential entry in a towering catalog.
Great D&R, Zach. Really enjoyed this one. I’m a big fan of Utopia Banished. You’ve captured it perfectly.
Haven’t listened to this in years, and I’m listening to it now. It takes me back to my early teens, I love it. I seriously need to revisit Napalm Death’s discography.