I was born in 1982, seven years shy of the end of the Vietnam War. My birthdate left me unaware of the horrors of napalm, and because I like to justify my historical ignorance with the phrase, “I don’t know because I wasn’t alive then,” I’ve remained unenlightened for the past thirty years. But the real tragedy, readers, the unspeakable terror, is that I’ve known nothing of the band Napalm Death, the darling of the grindcore genre and a pioneering influence in the celebration of noise for noise’s sake.
I’ve been given a gift from my friend Keith Spillett: an invitation to review Napalm Death’s debut album, “Scum.” And fittingly, my exposure to this musical vanguard was a baptism by fire, and I can say with absolute clarity that I’ve been born again.
Go with me, readers, on a journey of the utmost existential significance.
“Scum” opens with the introduction of our protagonist, Angry Man. We don’t learn much about Angry Man on this track, only that he likes to yell, “Genocide! Stalin!” But soon, in the track “Instinct of Survival,” we find that Angry Man does not go through life alone. He has a faithful companion, St. Bernard, prone to manic barking (“Ruff! Ruff! Ruff! Ruff!”, times 32), and St. Bernard seems to be pulling Angry Man on his leash, urging his master to keep going and demanding that the listener go the distance.
Next up: “The Kill,” a track that introduces us to the album’s penchant for surprise. It opens with musical phrasing that fools us into believing that we’re to be treated to “You Really Got Me” by The Kinks. But it’s not to be: Angry Man has more to yell. And his message swells in the titular track, a song that rivetingly follows the classic A/B/A/B/C structure, A being palatable, B being obnoxious, and C being the hate child conceived between A and B premaritally.
Just when we think that Angry Man could not be more eloquent, we reach track 6, “Polluted Minds.” It’s among the most lyrically complex tracks on the album, leaving us pondering our role in society’s corruption. He explodes and engages: “Do you hear my muffin?! They must die!! Yo yo yo yo yellow dress!” There’s a story here, propelling us forward. What flavor is the muffin? Does the dress have an empire waist or a fitted bodice?
We’re confused. We want answers. We push on, and our persistence goes unrewarded. Frankly, track 8, “Siege of Power,” is self-indulgent and obtusely academic. The musicians seem to be boasting, “Look how fast I can drum! Look how unintelligibly I can make sounds come out of my face hole!” Angry Man mixes his messages, sounding in track 9 as if he’s hopping in the snow wearing only his boxers, vulnerably howling, “Follow your dream! Where’s my doll?!?!”
But then we come to track 12, “You Suffer.” The element of surprise introduced in “The Kill” finds delightful fruition here, as we meet Angry Man’s high-pitched foe: Toddler Alien. “Why?” screams Toddler Alien repeatedly, and as he belts out an aggressive duet with Angry Man, we find ourselves asking the same question. For this is the turning point of the album, the moment at which we must think critically about our need for answers, for neatly tied resolutions. We realize with sudden clarity that we’ve been waiting for Godot.
As we take a breath and move on to “Point of No Return,” we begin our ascent to the album’s climax. Angry Man throws up, then eats Cookie Monster, leaving us to wonder if our hero’s tragic flaw is his weakness for tasty Muppets; the linear reversal of projectile vomiting and food consumption challenges our dependence on the concept of time. We listen helplessly in “Negative Approach” as Angry Man’s identity dissociates into SNL’s Colonel Angus coming home from war, unable to stop the mockery of Toddler Alien’s Elfin Uncle who laughs mercilessly in the background.
And the cruelty of circumstance only becomes more intense. Angry Man’s destiny is not to resolve his conflict and achieve victory over his foes; we’re not to experience the catharsis of a happy ending. He loses a tooth in “Deceiver,” then finds himself bound and gagged in “Conservative Sh%^head.” His shackles remain, even after repeatedly screaming out of his rope-gagged mouth, “Just wait ’til my lawyer gets here!” His needy cries of “We want corn! We want corn!” go unacknowledged in “Pseudo Youth,” and finally his tongue is numbed in “Divine Death,” leaving us with his final intelligible phrase of the album: “Ride this thing!” Haunting.
Not since Fiona Apple’s “Tidal” have I been so powerfully affected by the symbolic significance of a debut album. I recommend “Scum” unequivocally, with absolute assurance that you too will be catapulted into your own search for meaning. Readers, in our life on this earth, we won’t always be able to understand the words. Sometimes what sounds like “Die! Die! Die!” and an angry lawnmower is really a clarion call, an opportunity to question our place on earth, a chance to swing toward the absolutist tenet of nihilism or the belief that “everything happens for a reason.” Obviously, Napalm Death falls into the latter camp.
“Scum” by Napalm Death:
2 birds up
(Amy wrote this. She is the Chief Existential Heroine over at ‘Bring On The Whimsy’. She received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1978 for creating the Island of Madagascar. Her hobbies include botany, vanilla and water buffalos. She is not a Sagittarius)