Napalm Death are coming up on their 40th year of existence; the first lineup was formed in 1981. In the band’s first decade, more than a dozen singers and players came and went; the band famously has no original members left. That era of instability is long over, though. Bassist Shane Embury is the band’s de facto leader, having been in position since 1987. Vocalist Mark “Barney” Greenway is the second longest running member — he joined in 1989. Guitarist Mitch Harris joined in 1990, and drummer Danny Herrera in 1991. Jesse Pintado was the band’s lead guitarist from 1989 to 2004; when he left, they marched on as a quartet. (He died in 2006.)
Beginning with 1987’s Scum, which featured a different lineup on each of its sides, with only drummer Mick Harris in common, the band has released 16 studio albums, three or four live albums, countless EPs and splits, and their tracks have been featured on countless compilations. They’ve got a platinum disc — not for any of their own releases, but because “Twist the Knife (Slowly),” from their 1994 album Fear, Emptiness, Despair, was included on the Mortal Kombat soundtrack.
Their latest release, Throes of Joy in the Jaws of Defeatism (get it from Amazon), continues a string of ferocious releases that kicked off with 2005’s The Code is Red…Long Live the Code and continued on 2006’s Smear Campaign, 2009’s Time Waits for No Slave (possibly their best 21st century album), 2012’s Utilitarian, and 2015’s Apex Predator — Easy Meat, as well as the 2018 loosies collection Coded Smears and More Uncommon Slurs. Napalm Death have only grown stronger with age.
While the band is known for inventing grindcore (alongside Repulsion, Terrorizer, and a few others), they’ve long experimented with other sounds, adding elements of death metal, postpunk, industrial, and even space rock. Throes of Joy… draws, both sonically and visually, from some of the band’s earliest roots in D-beat punk. Each of the three “singles” (“Amoral,” “Backlash Just Because,” and “A Bellyful of Salt and Spleen”) feature stark black-and-white artwork that recalls Discharge, and the album’s cover depicts a bloodstained white dove gripped in a rubber-gloved hand — a clear nod to the John Heartfield illustration used on the D-beat pioneers’ 1981 Never Again EP.
From a musical standpoint, Throes of Joy… is ferocious. The first three tracks blitz by in what feels like an unbroken headlong rush; the first break comes with “Contagion,” which features a Big Rock riff and a clanging postpunk chorus, Greenway chanting the word “Contrition” in an almost monastic fashion as Harris emits goblin-like screeches from deep in the mix. The vocals are consistently impressive throughout the album, cutting through the music like a jet of flame from a blast furnace. Greenway changes up his delivery from track to track, even moment to moment, enough that one may be tempted to scan the track listing looking for guests, but it’s all him (and Harris). On the track “Joie de Ne Pas Vivre,” for which the only lyrics are the title phrase, he barely sounds human.
Harris went on hiatus from the band in 2014, and is consequently not listed as an official member in the credits, but he’s all over the album, and his guitar work is multifaceted, even chameleonic. He switches seamlessly from chainsaw death metal riffs to clean postpunk leads to the space-rock tones he used on the band’s controversial-among-fans late ’90s albums, Inside the Torn Apart and Words From the Exit Wound. On “Invigorating Clutch,” a doomy dirge, he leaves enough space in the mix for Embury’s ultra-deep, industrial bass grind to rumble up from beneath the earth like an outtake from an early Godflesh album. Meanwhile, “Amoral” is one of the catchiest songs they’ve ever written, but it’s still 100% them.
The benefits of having a style as clearly defined as Napalm Death‘s is that you can stretch yourselves in all kinds of surprising ways, while still giving fans what they came for — fast, heavy songs that make them want to pump their fists and scream along. A modern-day Napalm Death album is like a cheeseburger; the basic ingredients are so simple, it’s hard to fuck it up. Throes of Joy… is one of their strongest releases, but they’ve been on a streak that’s well into its second decade at this point. Like Obituary or Cannibal Corpse, they are a reliable delivery system for their brand of musical devastation.