The Chaotic Evolution of Napalm Death's 'Scum,' the World's First Grindcore Album
Founding vocalist and bassist Nicholas Bullen reflects on the electronic-tinged journey the album has taken since its 1987 release.
Photo by Joe Singh
Thirty years ago, a group of young musicians from Birmingham created an album that would resonate loudly across borders, genres, scenes and generations. With 28 angry and politicized songs squeezed into just 33 minutes, Napalm Death's debut album set new standards in speed, heaviness, brevity and extremity. Quite rightly, Scum is widely considered to be the first grindcore album.
You probably don't need me to tell you about Scum's enduring influence on heavy metal. You'll find its appearance in a thousand "HEAVIEST ALBUMS EVER listicles," and nobody would dispute the influence this blueprint had on Pig Destroyer, for instance, or Full Of Hell. Honestly, if you're a musician who plays or a fan who dabbles in any of the many metal subgenres and you haven't already familiarized yourself with Scum then frankly you haven't completed your homework. Yet Scum's impact stretches far wider than grindcore, metal or even rock-based genres.
Notoriously, the two sides of the LP were recorded by almost entirely different line-ups. The personnel from the first side soon spread their sonic wings into industrial and electronic areas. Guitarist Justin Broadrick went on to form the industrial- and post-metal projects Godflesh and Jesu. Broadrick was also part of the beat-orientated "illbient" duo Techno Animal (with Kevin "The Bug" Martin) and has released other electronic material under the aliases Pale Sketcher and JK Flesh. The only member of the A-side trio who played on Scum's second side, drummer Mick Harris would leave Napalm in 1991 to form the trip-hoppy proto-dubstep outfit Scorn as well as his ambient side-project Lull. Nicholas Bullen, who founded Napalm Death when he was still a teenager and performed bass and vocals on Scum's opening 12 songs, also contributed to the first three Scorn albums. Since then, Bullen's variety of audio experiments have included soundscapes, sound installations, performance works for voice, acousmatic pieces and other esoteric pursuits.
Those ventures' association to electronica is plain to see, but the actual output of Napalm Death, and that first album in particular, has had a profound effect on countless "non-rock" musicians. Recording as Broken English Club, in 2015 the techno artist Oliver Ho paid blatant homage to Napalm Death by titling one of his tracks "Scum." The late Mika Vainio of Finnish electro pioneers Pan Sonic was another Napalm Death aficionado. Discussing his favorite albums with The Quietus in 2014, Vainio spoke of his enthusiasm for the first albums of Napalm Death and Carcass (i.e. the Liverpudlian metallers whose guitarist Bill Steer played on Scum's second side), comparing their work to the "grindcore jazz" of John Coltrane's Interstellar Space.
Bjork collaborator Bobby Krlic (aka The Haxan Cloak) has said that his own approach towards sound was formulated when an older brother introduced him to records by Napalm Death and similar extreme bands. The multidisciplinary artist, curator and avant-techno noise-maker Russell Haswell attributes some of his own cross-genre outlook to the experience of going to see the legendary Detroit DJ Jeff Mills on one night and attending a Napalm Death gig the next. In 2014, the French producer Mondkopf released an album under the Extreme Precautions alias with the accompanying caveat: "I was thinking of doing a techno EP. But I was mostly listening to Brutal Truth, Assuck, Napalm Death, and Pig Destroyer at that time, so grindcore got me carried away and I went blast beat. This was a blast indeed. I did this record in a week total, a big release for me."
Nicholas Bullen left Napalm Death shortly after the completion of Scum's first side and his subsequent work has demonstrated that he is not one to dwell on the past. Nevertheless, for this year's Supersonic Festival in Birmingham Bullen was commissioned to give a special performance to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Scum's release. Dressed in a colorful shirt and regularly mopping the sweat from his brow, Bullen used a mixing desk, several microphones, various effects units and samples from the first side of Scum and a cassette recording of Napalm Death's first ever rehearsal in 1981 to create a looped and layered tornado of harsh sound. So fierce was it, Bullen's initial mixing desk gave up after less than thirty seconds and had to be hastily replaced. The second mixing desk did endure, though it might now require some urgent therapy.
Bullen named this performance Universal Detention Centre. Like Scum, it had a clear left-wing political agenda, as Bullen explained when we spoke a few days before the festival: "It does follow through on the continuum of Napalm Death from its beginnings in that I felt it was appropriate to try to address the way people's freedoms are being increasingly limited. By that, I don't mean the alt-right desire to say whatever they want! I'm thinking more about actual physical limitations on people, in terms of where they live, where they can go, and how they exist."
All types of boundaries and barriers seem anathema to Bullen, and Scum's influence on electronic artists is less incongruous when you consider that Napalm Death's own music was itself inspired, in part, by electronic music. By listening to John Peel, hanging around record shops and trading cassettes in his youth, Bullen discovered the mechanical rackets of post-punk acts Cabaret Voltaire, Throbbing Gristle and The Normal. Two years before Justin Broadrick joined the band, he and Bullen bonded over a mutual love of power electronics including the output of the Broken Flag and Come Organization labels. "That harshness was a big influence for me because it chimed with the harsher ends of hardcore and thrash," Bullen recalls. "There are passages on the first side of Scum that explicitly reference harsh electronics, or what would be called 'noise' now. There's a passage in the song "Sacrificed" and there's the beginning of the album [ Multinational Corporations]. They were written to include what Throbbing Gristle termed the 'walls of noise' as break points."
Though it sat among a broad range of other reference points, electronic music also had an impact on Bullen's development of the distinctive grindcore vocal style. "I was really excited by the use of ring modulation in Cabaret Voltaire and Throbbing Gristle. As you discover later, the ring modulator was often used on voice in modern composition electronic works. I liked the alien-like cold and distant feeling that sound gave. In part, that was an influence of my youth and the television programs I would watch, which often included distorted and mutated voices. I'm thinking particularly of Dr. Who's Cybermen and the Sea Devils. Before I was into music, when I was six or seven, I was obsessed with horror and science fiction. We definitely tried to mutate the voice as much as possible."
I think it was John Peel who said that playing Napalm Death's records at an exceptionally low volume made for a similar listening experience as the kind of music pioneered by Brian Eno and advanced by subsequent ambient artists, which is something Bullen can appreciate and explain. "At twin points towards the ends of the spectrum, i.e. very low and very high volume, detail begins to merge into sound patterns and I can understand how you would listen to grindcore as ambient music because it would roll off the edges. What you're left with is tone, shape, and sensation. The same occurs with extremes of volume. Often, people view high volume through the simple viewpoint that it's in some way an expression of maleness; that it's designed to express in a macho way. But I don't really see it like that. I see it as another way to alter consciousness and listening, and to alter the space within a room and its architecture."
It has to be said that, whereas much aggressive, heavy and extreme music can risk coming across as decidedly macho, this isn't the case with Napalm Death. That's true both of the formula set by Scum and the continuing recorded output and live performances of Napalm Death's current line-up. Despite the music's intensity and that primal guttural vocal style, I've never felt that theirs was an exercise in the assertion of masculinity, something which surely adds to Napalm Death's universal appeal.
Bullen attributes this to the fact that Napalm Death emerged from a different milieu than other heavy music. "Napalm Death comes very much out of politicized punk which by its very nature includes a range of ideas, influences and spaces in a way that perhaps other loud, heavy rock doesn't. With Napalm Death, everything's focused on ideas in a way that you wouldn't find perhaps in the extremes of, say, modern power electronics or goregrind which come from a different place really. Musically, they come from a similar area but the import behind it is different," he says. "It's [also] to do with the technical aspects of it. When you hit high levels of speed, there's less opportunity to replicate the more traditional tropes of rock music, the focus on overt displays of musicianship which could be seen as self-aggrandizing, because there just isn't the room to do that within the sound. When I was in Napalm Death, when we played the slower parts they acted as blocking points between the extremes of speed rather than the more clichéd approach to heavy music. Rock music's never interested me particularly. I like areas of it. But my record collection doesn't contain a lot of 'rock' music."
Scum's global reach is noteworthy too. The dance producers mentioned above come from an array of locations and these days it's possible to find grindcore acts in virtually every corner of the planet. Also on Supersonic's line-up were Japan's Melt-Banana whose berserk effects-laden cyber-grind style is heavily indebted to Napalm Death without sounding very similar at all to their precursors. Indeed, Yasuko Onuki's high-pitched vocals are virtually the opposite of the deep grindcore "cookie monster" growl, although, as Bullen has already identified, such extremes can go full circle.
Before recording Scum, Bullen and his collaborators had soaked up the intense displays of sound made by vintage Japanese punk groups such as GISM, Kuro and Crow. "One thing we loved about Japanese hardcore bands was that they were enamoured of early 80s hardcore from the UK, which was very noisy and focused on feedback and distortion. So it almost acted as a bounce back between the two. They took that influence, made their own version and then when we heard it, it escalated what we liked in those earlier records, and moved forward. There was a level of intensity that the Japanese groups were reaching towards that wasn't necessarily replicated in England. So, within a continuum, [Napalm Death] sits as a further development, but it perhaps took that development close to its logical end, where it stops being a song and goes into pure sound."
The global influence on Scum wasn't restricted to Japan. The Finnish groups Kaaos, Cadgers and Rattus were also significant, among other international bands. "We traded them on cassettes around the world in 1982 and 1983," remembers Bullen. "We couldn't afford the records. For one thing, they were imports with limited runs and we just didn't have the money. We were all schoolkids. But we could afford a pack of ten tapes and some stamps. We would regularly get compilations from Finland, Italy, Holland, Sweden, all over the world. It was very exciting." No doubt it was equally stimulating for foreign listeners when, in return, Napalm Death fired Scum right back at them. Yasuko Onuki would have been 15 years old at the time of Scum's release. Four years later she would form Mizu, which would soon mutate into Melt-Banana.
Bullen may have long since moved on from Napalm Death but as Universal Detention Centre showed Scum remains an essential part of his DNA and was the launching pad to a long and varied artistic career. He's not kept up with much of Napalm Death's post-Bullen output, although that is no reflection on its quality because there is no band that his "mercurial" tastes would allow him to follow for thirty years. Napalm Death continue to perform tracks from Scum despite none of the current members having actually played on that debut, not that the barrier-averse Bullen is bothered by that.
"My perspective is that the members of Napalm Death now are Napalm Death, and they have the right to go back and play that material, should they wish to. They were there at the time, Shane [Embury] and Barney [Greenway], they were all listening, and I don't see a problem with them playing that material at all," he says. " I'm certainly not precious about the songs I wrote. I'm not going to play them and why shouldn't they? As a group, they perhaps also have a desire to let their appreciative audience hear all aspects of their career. It's within that continuum of Napalm Death so it sits well."
J.R. Moores is on Twitter.