Angry guitar music fans of all persuasions are spoiled for choice these days: For every precise blend of percentage of hard rock swagger, heavy metal bombshell and anarcho-punk sensibilities, you’ll find a subgenre to do the trick. But in 1987, that wasn’t the case: the stages were more compartmentalized, and when bands like Napalm Death broke through those walls with proverbial bulldozers, the resulting violent clashes between metal and hardcore punk created the instant classic. Foam. In the process, the band codified grindcore, laying the groundwork for a hell of a lot of angry music.
If you only have a passing interest in heavier music, you might think the last thing an album called Foam by a band called Napalm Death would raise some interesting philosophical questions, but it does. These are three of them:
How many group members can you replace and still have the same group?
How angry should we be at the death and destruction caused in the name of capital gains?
How short can a “song” be?
Foam also provides some answers. They are respectively:
- Everyone except the drummer.
- Very angry indeed.
- 1.316 seconds.
Let’s address the first question first. Napalm Death Lineup Changes Almost Entirely From Side A To Side Ssperm to Side B: Only drummer Mick Harris remained on the entire album, and he would leave the band in 1991, making ND a very loud crash course in the Ship Of Theseus issue. But the range of revolving doors from Foam is also a who’s who of British extreme music: Side A features the guitar work of Justin Broadrick, who would go on to pioneer industrial metal in Godflesh, and experimental electronic metal in Jesu. The B-side has the vocals of Lee Dorrian, who would later found doom legends Cathedral, and the guitar of Bill Steer of Carcass, themselves a band of monumental influence.
But putting aside the list of members for a moment, let’s hear what Foam actually sounds like. The album begins with the positively relaxed Multi-national companies – a crescendo of feedback building, rumbling bass and crashing cymbals under a shouted vocal chorus of “Multinational Corporations / Genocide of the Hungry Nations”. Although this sets the lyrical mood, it’s not until the second track, Survival instinctthings kick into high gear, where they will stay for the next 30 minutes.
There’s a chugging riff from Broadrick that wouldn’t be too out of place on a Black Flag record, soon joined by an equally appropriate skank beat from Harris. But then – it all gets a little crazy. Harris launches into a relentless blastbeat as Side A vocalist and bassist Nik Napalm begins a guttural rant. It’s hardcore punk turned up to 11, sacrificing absolutely none of the life-blooding, angry energy that previous bands like Discharge and GBH embodied in the name of heaviness. In a nutshell: it’s grindcore. Arguably, the earliest example of it, and some even cite Harris as coining the term.
From there, the album is essentially a brick wall of sound. The change in line-up between the two parts doesn’t exactly revolutionize the sound, track 13 onwards and it’s still intense grindcore fare. But on the second half of the album, the songs begin to break out of the hardcore punk structures, becoming (somehow) even more free and chaotic – embracing louder, more experimental sounds alongside wall-to-wall hardcore.
The sound of the grind
Foam sounds like its title would imply. The bass guitar sounds of Nik Napalm and Jim Whitely are absolutely dirty, and Broadrick’s and Steer’s guitars are both drenched in a similar amount of tar-thick distortion, often being left to blare feedback screeches between blasts of riffs.
In all, there are buckets of more gain on Foam than on previous hardcore punk records: GBH and Exploited’s spiky overdrive guitars sound like Mayer-esque cleans by comparison. Foam also stands out from the heavier ones metal of the time, whose guitar tones shifted towards brighter, more cutting and scooped sounds. Tones on Foam are neither: there are many mediums, but there are also many everything.
Plus, the whole production aesthetic is so crude that it’s hard to tell which distortion is coming from the amps and pedals, and which is coming from the mixer. But despite the fact that everything is in the red, Foam is a pretty impressive feat of engineering: in all the sonic chaos, there’s a relative amount of instrument separation, and guitar and bass transients cut through the constant blastbeats and cymbals. Yes, it’s not exactly something to test out an audiophile headphone, but that’s clearly not the intention of the band.
There’s little information available on how the actual sounds were achieved, but if you’re looking for a similar sonic aesthetic, you’ll get one with amps and stompboxes of the hairy, fuzzy, and fuzzy sonic persuasions. ugly. A toned-down Marshall amp and drive pedals like the Boss FZ-2 and HM-2 with most knobs all the way up will put you right on target.
Anarchy in the UK
With few exceptions, British punk has always been more explicitly political than its counterpart across the Atlantic. But before Foam, the most popular examples were much less direct: at best personal and eloquent, at worst vague and superficial. In both cases, British punk mostly expressed a somewhat nihilistic sentiment. “No future”, etc. Conversely Foam is anything but nihilistic, despite the violent and striking images. The main question in the dossier is: “Isn’t human life worth Somethingsomething more than just profit? »
And unlike the prepackaged anarchy of the Sex Pistols, Foam posits that the real fascist regime in the UK is more insidious and complex than can be summed up by half-baked anti-monarchy sentiment. FoamAnarchy rages against every supermarket, every McDonalds burger, every drop of gasoline – and the human and animal suffering that led to their creation. The results of unfettered and ruthless free market capitalism that was championed by everyone’s favorite Prime Minister. It’s refreshing and precise – you don’t have time to be vague when your songs are so short.
And on the subject of brevity, it’s now time to tackle the album’s most famous track: you suffer. A single blast of bass, drums, guitars and vocals, it’s an enduring part of Napalm Death’s legacy (they still perform it live to this day), and the ultimate example of their blunt en as writing hammer lyrics:
“You suffer, but why?
Four words and 1.316 seconds and they’ve said all they need to say.
At the end of the day, Foam has lasting appeal, not just because it’s half an hour of excellent, intense grindcore riffing (though that’s part of it), but because the anger which drives it is not really out of fashion. Half an hour’s worth of furious riffs and lyrics reflects anger at the soul- and planet-destroying consequences of endless corporate growth, led by a free-market-loving Conservative government. Suffice it to say, this won’t be unimportant anytime soon. Political music can age like milk (especially if the people involved in making it, say, team up with Disney), but Foam doesn’t.
Death by Napalm, Foam (Ear, 1987)
Side A (tracks 1-12)
- Nik Napalm – vocals, bass
- Justin Broadrick – guitar, vocals (“Polluted Minds”)
- Mick Harris – drums
Side B (tracks 13-28)
- Lee Dorrian – vocals
- Jim Whitely – bass
- Bill Steer – guitar
- Mick Harris – drums, vocals
Outstanding Guitar Moment
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