Napalm Death are an institution. In three decades of existence, they have remained at the forefront of extreme music, constantly evolving and refining their sound while at the same time staying true to the band’s roots in early grindcore and punk. Despite the fact that there are no original members left in the lineup, they have never faltered in quality or watered down their singular vision in order to get ahead; their integrity and dedication has become something of a gold standard by which all other grindcore bands are judged. Utilitarian is Napalm Death’s fourteenth album, and it finds the band sounding as potent and relevant as ever.
On Utilitarian, Napalm Death continue to operate within the sturdy grindcore/death metal/hardcore framework they’ve built for themselves and have been working to perfect since 2000′s ridiculously corrosive Enemy of the Music Business. The bone-breaking assault of tracks such as “Quarantined” “Orders of Magnitude” and “Think Tank Trials” prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that the UK quartet remains a well-oiled killing machine; the level of battering brutality on display is almost frightening. But for all this brutality, Utilitarian is also shockingly catchy; its deep grooves and pummeling punk-derived chord progressions burrow their way into your brain with ruthless, surgical precision. Napalm Death are easily one of the tightest bands in all of metal; just listen to the way they lock in together for a rhythmic beatdown on the bonus track “Everything in Mono.”
As musically ferocious as Napalm Death are, they’ve also never been afraid to experiment, and Utilitarian sees the band introducing some interesting new elements into the mix, as well as expanding upon previous explorations. Intro track “Circumspect” kicks the album off in doomy, groove-laden fashion, augmented by synths and electronics before dissolving into the explosive “Errors in the Signals.” John Zorn (Painkiller, Naked City, etc) lends his twisted, atonal saxophone playing to “Everyday Pox,” a track that also sees Napalm Death flirting with slower rhythms and layered vocals that recall the likes of Killing Joke and Godflesh, all within the space of two minutes and ten seconds. “Fall on their Swords” features an eerie, gothed-up middle section that sounds like an ultra-heavy Bauhaus, replete with deep, Peter Murphy-esque droning vocals. Napalm Death have proved time and again that there is room for progression in grindcore, and Utilitarian just might be their most forward-thinking album yet while losing none of the band’s trademark knack for total musical devastation.
Lyrically and aesthetically, Utilitarian finds Napalm Death as politically and socially conscious as ever. If the album’s cover, which features a quartet of corporate lackeys stomping the shit out of the “common man” while he’s down (being something of a corporate lackey myself, this image hit particularly close to home) doesn’t give away the album’s basic themes, then biting lyrics such as “The wolf I feed / Outweighed, policed and rationed / The wolves I feed / Our liberties seized and blackened” from “The Wolf I Feed” or “Take a hammer to (stifling) traditions / Don’t tread carefully / Yes, we presume with no exceptions / freedom is for free” from “Quarantined” had damn sure better. The band have been raging against the machine for years and show no signs of letting up here.
Considering the state our world is currently in, we need art to act as a voice of dissent now more than ever. With Utilitarian, Napalm Death are that voice personified for the extreme metal underground, as they have been for the past thirty-one years and will no doubt continue to be until Embury, Harris, Greenway and Herrera are in the ground. Then again, who’s to say that other musicians won’t replace them to take up the mantle, just as they did when the original band members began to drop off? Maybe Napalm Death is eternal.