Posted by: Necci – Apr 26, 2012
Anyone with any grounding in classical philosophy is likely familiar with Theseus' paradox – the question of whether any item (in the case of this example, the ship owned by Theseus, the mythical founder of Athens), if all its component parts are systematically replaced, can rightly still be thought of as the same object as it was originally. Initially postulated by Plutarch, it's been a question that resonated throughout the subsequent millenia, with a variety of philosophers weighing in on whether said hypothetical object retains some essential characteristic greater than the sum of its parts. I'm no philosopher, and I'm not even the first or most eloquent to point it out, but Napalm Death is a solid example of this paradox for those who aren't as interested in allegorical shipbuilding. They've been around for thirty years and didn't even retain a single original member by the time they recorded the second side of their first album, to say nothing of the aesthetic shifts from anarcho-punk, to caustic lo-fi grind, to straighforward death metal, to more polished mid-tempo material, to their current style that isn't really any of those things but at the same time is all of those things at once.
And that latter point is the key to really understanding what Napalm Death is going for on their recent releases. Utilitarian is the band's fifteenth full-length album and, as with most of the material they've produced for the past half-decade, it works as a sort of sonic blender, in which the speed of the earlier material alternates with the more measured pace and hardcore influence of their 90s albums. The whole thing is underpinned by the progressive political slant that's been with them since their start, and overarched with the sort of slick production that has alienated their die-hard fans for twenty years now.
The band makes a few left turns on Utilitarian, however. Barney Greenway occasionally slips out of the growl-and-shriek vocal style that's characterized his approach for twenty-plus years, letting his Swans influence slip with some baritone Michael Gira-style intonations. “Everyday Pox” features a brief, frantic saxophone solo from John Zorn, the avant-garde composer and Macarthur Genius Grant recipient whose work with bands like Naked City and Painkiller (the latter of which also featured Mick Harris, Napalm Death's second drummer) was heavily indebted to Napalm Death's earliest albums.
Aside from these brief detours the album contains few surprises, but that's hardly the point. Aside from their earliest work, which took a hell of a lot of people off guard, the band has spent thirty years engaged in a slow process of paring down and building up their approach, rarely shifting rapidly between releases, but never putting out two albums that sound exactly the same. And while there are bands that are certainly heavier, faster, crazier, and more raw, Napalm Death emphasizes the power of a well-constructed song, and demonstrates that a band of their stature doesn't need to fade out or rust. There are a lot of people that are going to cry foul because they don't sound the same as they did in 1986, 1990, 1994, or any other point in their career that's defined some phase of their style. But just as the body's cells die and regenerate at such a pace that the totality of our component parts is wholly renewed every decade or so, just as a river is constantly set aflow through an influx of water, so is Napalm Death the same as they ever were – their aesthetic choices may be ephemeral, but therein lies their conistency.
By Graham Scala