Godflesh peaked creatively 20 years ago. In August 1994, they released the four-track Merciless EP, which included one brand-new song (the title track), two more dating back to 1991 but newly polished up (“Blind” and “Unworthy,” the latter featuring Robert Hampson of Loop and Main), and a remix of “Don’t Bring Me Flowers” from their previous album, 1992’s Pure, now simply called “Flowers” and also featuring Hampson, who’d been a member of the group at that time—he can be heard on half of Pure as well as the 1991 single “Cold World.”

Six to eight weeks after that came the next salvo. Selfless, their fourth full-length album, was released through a joint arrangement between longtime label Earache and Columbia. (Other albums issued as part of this brief corporate dalliance included Carcass‘s Heartwork, Entombed‘s Wolverine Blues, Fudge Tunnel‘s Creep Diets, and Napalm Death‘s Fear, Emptiness, Despair.) And from its first massive riff, it felt like Godflesh—reduced back down to the core duo of guitarist/vocalist Justin Broadrick and bassist G. Christian Green—had stepped up to the plate. “Xnoybis” balanced crushing guitar power, earth-shaking bass, and concussive programmed rhythms with washes of reverbed vocals and a gentle, melancholy keyboard melody. The latter touch seemed clearly modeled on what Trent Reznor had done on Nine Inch Nails‘ “Closer” (The Downward Spiral was released in March 1994). No surprise, then, that “Xnoybis” was one of two singles from Selfless, the other being “Crush My Soul,” which actually had a high-gloss, ultra-’90s video, directed by Andres Serrano and featuring Bob Flanagan (who’d already appeared in videos for Nine Inch Nails‘ “Happiness in Slavery” and Danzig‘s “It’s Coming Down”) and Sheree Rose, cockfighters, and Broadrick being splattered with “blood.”

Selfless was clearly Godflesh‘s attempt to go big, to meet the audience halfway. In addition to the singles (which included a 17-minute “Psychofuckdub” mix of “Xnoybis,” and a 15-minute “Ultramix” of “Crush My Soul”), the album offered the ballads “Black Boned Angel,” “Empyreal” and “Mantra,” the latter of which again featured a heavy dose of keyboards and a throbbing, prominent bassline, this time recalling the Cure‘s “Plainsong.” Broadrick was also singing more than he’d done on any previous album—his hoarse bark was still present, but he was beginning to offer the soft crooning that would become so much a part of his next band, Jesu, a decade later. But nothing signified Godflesh‘s ambitions like Selfless‘s CD-only bonus track, “Go Spread Your Wings.” Ten seconds shy of 24 minutes long, and featuring grand piano and synth strings as well as droning, mantra-like backing vocals. Undeniably epic and genuinely beautiful, it was almost impossible to believe this was the same band that had wallowed in rage and despair so convincingly only five years earlier, on 1989’s Streetcleaner.

“Go Spread Your Wings” was more an ending than a beginning, though. On 1996’s Songs of Love and Hate, Broadrick and Green invited a live drummer—Bryan “Brain” Mantia, previously of Bill Laswell‘s group Praxis—into the studio. The result, somewhat ironically, was even tighter and more mechanistic than their previous work, sounding like Godflesh trying to be Helmet. The following year’s Love and Hate in Dub added breakbeats and hip-hop samples, ultimately sounding more like Broadrick’s work with Kevin Martin in Techno Animal than a proper Godflesh record. Mantia left, and 1999’s Us and Them, an album even Broadrick distances himself from, was probably the group’s nadir, with the guitarist left alone to create a collection of new songs that sounded like a remix album. After two more years, they left Earache for Music For Nations (their former home immediately issued a career-spanning compilation, In All Languages, that sums their catalog up incredibly well and includes some genuinely vital rarities, most notably “Love is a Dog From Hell”) and made Hymns, on which they tried the live-drummer thing again, this time with Ted Parsons, formerly of Swans and Prong. Easily the band’s most conventionally rocking album, it was released in October 2001; six months later, Broadrick announced the end of the band.

Except now they’re back. The duo of Broadrick and Green began performing together again in 2010, and last year were joined by Robert Hampson at the Roadburn Festival in Holland for a full live run-through of Pure. And now they’ve returned to the studio, releasing a four-track EP, Decline and Fall (the Japanese version includes two remixes), to be followed by a full-length album, A World Lit Only By Fire, later this year. (Buy it from Amazon.)

Decline and Fall is not the next step after Hymns. Nor is it Godflesh post-Jesu. The dreamy, drifty side of Justin Broadrick exposed on that band’s dozen-plus releases is totally absent here. He’s quite deliberately going backward. Three of these four songs—”Ringer,” “Dogbite,” and “Playing With Fire”—could be outtakes from Pure. The riffs have a looping, endless feel; the drum machine thwacks and thumps in the expected precise, simplistic manner. Only the absence of keyboard melodies separates them from work done 20-plus years ago. It’s not all the sound of 1992, though. The rhythm pattern to “Ringer” recalls the skipping, not-quite-a-breakbeat that underpins “Circle of Shit,” from Songs of Love and Hate. “Dogbite” and “Decline and Fall” open with downtuned guitar riffs (Broadrick’s playing an eight-string now) that wouldn’t be out of place on a modern deathcore album. The latter track is the noisiest, most aggressive thing here, with Broadrick growling like a death metal frontman and the drum machine bashing away like he borrowed it from Steve Albini‘s storage unit. The two Japanese bonus tracks, “Ringer Dub” and “Playing With Fire Dub,” are more relentless and ear-punishing than the original versions. The former becomes even more reminiscent of the band’s late ’90s work, while the latter strips the music down to a beat and turns the guitar into a wavering, swirling noise like a car alarm fed through a distortion pedal, as the vocals come in and out like a bad cell phone call. If this is what Godflesh are up to in 2014, it’s welcome just by virtue of being better than anything they did post-Selfless. But it would have been really nice to hear them recover their interest in melody and a broad sonic canvas.

Phil Freeman

Stream “Ringer”:

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