Napalm Death’s latest album, Utilitarian, certainly gets off to an interesting start. The opening track, “Circumspect,” is a delicate acoustic number about the inhumane treatment of stray puppies and kittens. The next few tracks follow suit, with gently strummed guitars and the surprisingly beautiful crooning of vocalist Mark “Barney” Greenway.
No, but seriously. It’s Napalm motherfucking Death. 15 studio albums in, you should know what to expect by now – a death metal/grind hybrid that’s as furious as a pack of horses on PCP. If you’ve been keeping score since Napalm’s ‘comeback’ album Enemy Of The Music Business, then you’ll have an even better idea of what’s in store for you with Utilitarian. The main difference this time around, as Greenway himself has pointed out, is that the band has now figured out how to integrate their Swans/Sonic Youth fetish into the heavier songs, instead of keeping them as separate pieces. So basically, instead of having 14 grind songs and one slow song (think “Morale” from 2005’s The Code Is Red), you have 15 grind songs that occasionally have some weird shit going on in there.
So for the most part, this is the Napalm Death you know and love. There’s a couple of curveballs on here, as always – most notably the track “Everyday Pox,” featuring some spazzed-out saxophone by the one and only John Zorn. There’s also “The Wolf I Feed,” a catchy mid-tempo number not far removed from, say, “Greed Killing.” Greenway also plays ‘just the tip’ with clean vocals, and does surprisingly well, especially on “Fall On Their Swords” and “Leper Colony.” Over their last few records, Napalm has learned how to expand their boundaries just enough to keep things interesting, and Utilitarian continues that trend.
I would now like to take a moment to discuss the one major issue I do have with this album: This album sounds waaaay overproduced. Drummer Danny Herrera’s kit sounds fake to the point of being obnoxious, completely drowning out guitarist Mitch Harris and bassist/guy with the coolest hair ever, Shane Embury. Even Greenway’s vocals have taken on an almost Behemoth-like level of studio trickery — an approach that is fucking irritating on Behemoth’s records, and doesn’t exactly make Greenway sound pleasant either. Top it off with a mastering job that is compressed and shitty at any volume level, and you’re left with a sound that doesn’t begin to do justice to the actual material. Perhaps the band was trying to sound ‘brutal’ and modern, but Napalm Death should sound a little bit rough around the edges. That is what gave their earliest albums their charm, and what made their ‘90s stuff interesting. (Oh, and being ‘brutal’ was never a problem for them).
Regardless of Utilitarian’s merits, there is something oddly comforting about having Napalm Death releasing an album every 2 years. At this point, they are an institution, and they’ve outlasted many movements both musical and political. Wherever atrocities are being committed in the name of religion, wherever politicians are spewing hypocrisy, and wherever the corporate sector is destroying the world, Napalm Death will be there to call them out on their bullshit. And this, my friends, is as it should be.