Concert review: Napalm Death

napalm_death_live_at_elsrock_2010

also appearing: The Black Dahlia Murder, Misery Index
Agora Ballroom, Cleveland, Ohio – November 11, 2016

Though it’s easy to imagine the opposing viewpoints, it is all but impossible to be of two minds regarding Napalm Death, the inimitable, uncompromising extreme music institution that sprung like a bio-weapon from the industrial grit of Birmingham, England over thirty years ago. In that disposition, the restless, resilient grindcore pioneer is, ironically, very much of a piece with its most recently identified natural enemy, semi-scrupulous billionaire real estate mogul Donald J. Trump, the ageless social media provocateur, attention-deficient attention whore, and noted non-politician who, on November 8, 2016, wrested the U.S. presidency from its custodians/captors in an historic surprise victory. Despite the raw immediacy and utilitarian appeal of their respective figureheads, more thoughtful elements within these dual, dueling fan bases should be at pains to never overlap, one’s cause for celebration being the other’s cause for alarm, and so forth. As befits arguably – and this prolonged season of the witch was practically engineered to produce argument – the most contentious, divisive campaign in American political history, the stunning election results that swept Trump to power seemed to cause a full-blown, nationwide psychosis that has been fascinating to witness (and participate in!) in real time. At a moment in the post-election afterglow where emotions were at truly operatic heights – where one-third of the electorate openly rebelled against an incoming president while another all lobbied to replace turkey with crow as Thanksgiving’s traditional main course – I dipped a toe into what certainly felt like a new era, unsure of just what I’d find there.

To me, any evening spent in Napalm Death’s sweaty presence is a party. As the chaser at the end of an extended bender of unmitigated civic self-abuse, the “Abysmal Predator” tour’s November 11 stop at Cleveland’s venerable Agora Ballroom was more than some palate cleanser or much-needed pick-me-up. It was downright therapeutic. Decision ’16 was exhausting to all concerned, of course, and positively punishing to the vanquished. My friend and longtime concert-going partner in crime labeled the show a, “desperately needed release of anger” on social media beforehand, and it isn’t a stretch to suggest the crowd in general seemed abnormally antsy, even in anticipation of Napalm Death. “Good evening and welcome,” announced singer and progressive gadfly Barney Greenway from the same stage and with the same good natured patter I once heard him greet adventurous stray audience members of the rap group Bone Thugz-N-Harmony, whose show across the lobby in the larger Agora Theater had let out early and left attendees to twist in the noise wafting out from behind that makeshift curtain near the bar. Tonight, following an especially chilling version of the “Apex Predator-Easy Meat” intro/manifesto, in which he first ad-libbed the new president’s name in vain, Greenway had conciliation of a different sort in mind, referencing the “depressing few days” since Tuesday and his hope the band might, “shine a bit of light into the Trump-shaped darkness.” Much of the crowd shouted its approval, and thus the scene was set, in both word and deed, for a reeling, rollicking, fairly cathartic evening of music. Donald Trump answered immediately by Napalm Death* is living proof that kismet exists.

*This is not a political site, and the words contained herein are truly the only ones I ever intend to pen, except perhaps in passing, about our new Bloviator-in-Chief. Apologies if I’ve cut too hard against the grain. I thought it worthwhile to document a singularly fractious moment in time, which I feel like I’m going to remember long after the rest of DAE has exceeded its half-life. There was certainly no way to review Napalm Death on 11/11/16 without taking serious note of the prevailing climate and the band’s reaction to it. Having only recently emerged, groundhog-style, from a prolonged hibernation as concerns the care and feeding of this blog, it might’ve not been the smartest idea to potentially alienate half my readership by going political right off the bat. That assumes, of course, there’s anyone reading, let alone anyone THAT diametrically opposed to my POV. I’ll take that bet.

Have you ever had the experience of exerting yourself to such an extent that you get light-headed and see stars afterward? Invariably makes you pause to gather yourself, huh? Maybe even take a step back? Now consider the amazing example of Napalm Death lead throat Barney Greenway, whose every musical utterance caroms forth cannonball-like from an atonal gullet, carrying force one figures would be more than potent enough to trigger such a response in mortal man. Now 47, looking easily his trimmest in a decade or more despite the trademark middle-aged paunch and permanent bedhead, Greenway cuts an unassuming “working class uncle” figure for such a rabid attack dog. Indeed, without Mitch Harris’ sheet metal press guitar propelling/undergirding him, Greenway, though always unflaggingly passionate and highly opinionated, is surprisingly soft-spoken and reasonable almost to a fault. When not singing, he careens around the stage with a disarming, near-mesmerizing lack of grace, like a sugar-saturated toddler inhabiting the body of a lumbering caveman. One wonders how he doesn’t routinely trip over monitor cables or careen face first out into the crowd during the course of his rapt, blinkered, mid-song maraudings. Not merely content to mine the thematically fertile, musically feral terrain of 2015’s #13 cross-genre album, Apex Predator-Easy Meat, the set drew liberally from every delightfully dingy corner of Napalm Death’s 15-album, 30-year career. Recent diatribes like “The Wolf I Feed” and “Smash a Single Digit” mingled comfortably with outbursts a decade older than certain audience members – some exhumed treasures like “Suffer the Children” and “Twist the Knife (Slowly),” others longtime staples like the especially pointed “anti-fascist” Dead Kennedys anthem “Nazi Punks F*** Off,” or old school barrages that boil hellfire down into spans ranging from 150 seconds (“Scum”) to fifteen (“The Kill”) to, believe it or not, one (the priceless, perpetual highlight “You Suffer”). Blink and you’ll miss them. Wincing isn’t an excuse.

Napalm Death operates at a baseline level of sustained intensity that would reduce most bands to rubble in short order. Despite punk roots and a near summary rejection of nuance, theirs is most assuredly not easy music, either to play or to digest. “Abysmal Predator” represented, in its sublime pairing of ND with direct support from Baltimore’s magnificent, somehow still underrated Misery Index, a grindcore/death metal summit of sorts, complemented by a co-headlining though not scene-stealing turn from tireless road warriors and populist genre heroes The Black Dahlia Murder. With their general lack of pretension, laser focus on fan relations, and sneaky formidable performance chops, BDM remain one of the underground’s most dependable draws, no matter the season, year, or venue. It would be easy enough to imagine them assuming a faux-Slayer catbird posture in any pecking order, subtly cowing and marginalizing a stacked though comparatively obscure undercard in tribute/sublimation to their massive operating budget (sarcasm) and collective ego. To my surprise and delight, none of this happened. Simultaneously economical, explosive, and taut as piano wire, Misery Index’s eight songs impressed the uninitiated and left fans clamoring for more. “Sleeping Giants” and “Conjuring the Cull” distinguished themselves even amid a gallery of standouts. The shy lads even fit a Trump salutation into the half-second respite separating “The Bystander” from caustic closer “Traitors.” BDM cannily kept its banter focused on the electorate rather than the election, and unleashed their own tremendous near-90 minutes, peppering a nigh-unprecedented five songs from high water mark Nocturnal** into a lively, otherwise democratically representative set.

**While I’ve lost count of the times I’ve seen BDM ply their trade overall, the Agora alone marked my second of 2016, which otherwise had been a personal attendance down year. At that show, held in an oppressive sweatbox in Kent, Ohio, the band cheekily celebrated the “tenth” anniversary of its auspicious 2003 debut by playing that album, “Unhallowed,” in its entirety. “Nocturnal” is several notches higher in terms of quality, both the pinnacle of the band’s recorded output and my cross-genre 2007 album of the year. Since BDM never really leaves the road, and presumably has as little interest in applied mathematics as they ever did, I’m going to expect “The Nocturnal Experience” to be the mouthwatering centerpiece of at least one of their next half-dozen tours.

I give due credit and then some to The Black Dahlia Murder for their predictably killer performance, but also for being gracious enough to defer the evening’s spotlight to one of a handful of the most influential bands in extreme metal history. Napalm Death, regardless of their spot in the rotation, is one of those bands that stray members of other acts on the bill tend to watch from the wings, faces etched with enthusiasm bordering on, and often crossing into, joy. It serves to underline just how much we all have in common; how, in this style of music, everyone, on both sides of the stage, is a fan. The 20% or so audience runoff that bled, oblivious, out onto Euclid Street before Napalm Death’s set had even begun*** missed much more than Barney’s impromptu civics lecture. The band – consisting of shambling giant (and underground icon in his own right) Shane Embury punishing his bass; durable drummer Danny Herrera puncturing the sound barrier in alternately primal and exotic ways; and touring guitarist John Greene, excelling against long odds given the improbable task of standing in for Mitch Harris – was as on point and on fire as ever I’d seen them. Greenway, for all his vitriol, spent most of his time between songs in “sensible mate down the pub” mode, urging the crowd (paraphrasing) to remain vigilant, to be inclusive, to reject fear and repudiate “isms” of all kinds, and, above all, to stay engaged.

***Political affiliation notwithstanding, can you imagine how amazing the feeling, how fascinating and bulletproof the results, if only 20% of eligible American voters had stayed home instead of the (justifiably) grumpy 40%+ that abstained in 2016?

In the pantheon of Napalm Death performances I’ve attended, this night’s “Birmingham Pops Salutes the New Orange Truth” spectacle, shockingly, does not quite top the list, only because it would be impossible to legitimately better the second time I ever saw the band, a decade or more ago at Columbus, Ohio’s possibly now-defunct 161 Billiard Club. I witnessed the entirety of that show, held at a weird but cozy converted bar that bore an uncomfortable resemblance to Arnold’s from Happy Days, from approximately one foot below and two feet away from Mitch Harris. We took turns screaming in the other’s face all night (Newsflash: He won.) At the height of my prowess as an autograph hound, I obtained four signatures from the then-five-piece outfit on my Enemy of the Music Business CD booklet, including the late Jesse Pintado’s, and, apropos of absolutely nothing, Barney Greenway sat down at our table and chatted away amiably for ten solid minutes before show time. No shame in losing out to such an all-time case of wish fulfillment, though the Agora set fought valiantly. Barney remains a fine old bloke, ever reasonable and even charming in between songs, though, in a career dedicated to illustrating in stark, eviscerating terms the chasm separating the haves from the have-nots, I’ve never seen him quite so spitting angry and righteously motivated, nor his cohorts so obviously rising to match him blow for bellow and stride for stagger…this from a band that each night seems to double down on the fury of its past performances as a matter of routine maintenance. Every show becomes a great memory.

The normalization process is now so well underway for Trump that it can be easy to discount, or simply forget, legitimate, lingering concerns over having elevated an egotistical, tone deaf, breathtakingly inexperienced, professional dog whistler with a business portfolio/family Christmas card overflowing with potential conflicts of interest to the position of leader of the free world. That said, despite the temptation from opposition jerks like myself to want to disrupt, discredit, or even smother it in the cradle, at this moment the jury is obviously as out on a Donald Trump presidency as it is ever going to be. I therefore suggest we all take a breath, and that I go first. Thankfully, no such suspension of disbelief is necessary when it comes to Napalm Death, who may never have been quite so mainstream a reporting target as the incoming president-elect, but, as it turns out, are equally fun to describe in apocalyptic terms. In my year-end capsule review of Apex Predator, I called the band an “indoor tornado.” I seem to recall once describing them as an army of flesh-devouring ants. Somehow, despite all that reverence, nights like this one make feel as if I’ve callously discounted them. This was something special, the gift of rage made manifest. Napalm Death is simply in peak form right now, a beast in summer even as winter descends, ready to confront the next four years and beyond head-on, teeth bared, no backwards steps brooked. Get ready. Their next album might just burn the whole world down.

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