When grindcore becomes avant-garde: Scum and Torture Garden on #neuguitars #blog #NapalmDeath #JohnZorn

When grindcore becomes avant-garde: Scum and Torture Garden

“Multinational corporations
Genocide of the starving nations”

Multinational Corporations, Napalm Death Scum

Without Napalm Death’s “Scum” there probably wouldn’t be John Zorn’s Naked City and much of the most exciting music heard in the last twenty-five years. This album, released in 1987, essentially an LP split between two almost completely different lineups, not only managed to define grindcore with its growling vocals, noise, hardcore-influenced riffs and explosive beats faster than a locomotive, but it has also anticipated and inspired, with its fusion of anarcho-punk and death metal, countless bands and musicians. Co-founded in Birmingham, England in 1981 by singer/bassist Nic Bullen, who would later play in Scorn and other bands, and drummer Miles “Rat” Ratledge, Napalm Death began as a punk band inspired by Discharge and politically charged. The group was given space for one track on Crass Records’ Bullshit Detector #3 compilation. Later, guitarist Justin Broadrick joined, and this lineup formed the nucleus of the “grindcore” genre. Broadrick, who came from an industrial music background; he would later form Godflesh and Jesu. Finding a faster drummer in Mick Harris, the group kicked out Rat and with this lineup recorded the A-side of Scum. Harris, author of both the term “grindcore” and the expression “blast beat”, which describes the manic drum technique he employed, would later be the core of the band, later playing in Painkiller, Lull and even Scorn. The B-side lineup included bassist Jim Whiteley (currently in Warprayer), vocalist Lee Dorrian, later of Cathedral fame, and guitarist Bill Steer, who also played in Carcass concurrently with Napalm Death. (Steer’s bandmate Jeff Walker designed the album cover)

“I just thought that it was exciting and—obviously not a word the practitioners would like to see associated with this music—but I also thought it was fun,” says Peel, who was 48 years old when he first played Napalm Death across national airwaves. “I started going to gigs and so on, and I liked the fact that people would do eight-second-long numbers and people would be shouting ‘too long’ or ‘too slow!’ A lot of various forms of popular music, people were becoming incredibly po-faced about it and wanted to see it as kinda exam subject material, so I quite liked the slightly tongue-in-cheek aspect of it.”

John Peel Choosing Death The Improbable History of Death Metal & Grindcore

Fame came quickly, thanks in part to repeated broadcasts on BBC Radio One by John Peel. With the heavy rotation of “You Suffer,” which has found a place in the Guinness Book of World Records as the shortest song in the world, Peel’s more eclectic crowd has begun to turn up at Napalm Death concerts, drawn by Harris’ swirling drumming. Often located in seedy clubs, such as Birmingham’s the Mermaid, the group scrambled to keep up with themselves, both in terms of fame and musically. Shortly after Scum’s first tour, the lineup changed again, as Whiteley left the group and new bassist Shane Embury joined, performing on Scum’s follow-up, From Enslavement to Obliteration. To this day, Embury remains the only consistent member of Napalm from their breakthrough days. Through him, the legacy of “Scum” lives on.

Why was “Scum” and still is so important? In his wonderful book “Electric Wizards: A Tapestry of Heavy Music, 1968 to the present”, the author JR Moores states that with “Scum” Napalm Death made punk rock faster and fuller than anyone could have imagined. If “Scum” wouldn’t prove to be as popular as Metallica’s “Master of Puppets,” “Peace sells… but who’s buying?” by Megadeath and “Reign in Blood” by Slayer, nor did it contain long and virtuosic guitar solos or songs on black magic, however it would have outclassed the level of heaviness of its American colleagues with an important gap in time distance, continuing to have a wide and strong resonance across borders, oceans, scenes and genres with twenty-eight hard, pure and pissed off tracks, compressed into just thirty-three minutes.

“I was fucking stunned,” says Broadrick of Napalm’s growing countrywide reputation. “I really couldn’t believe that this album that I just gave away one day without a due concern was now lauded as some fantastic novelty record. And for the first six months, regardless of how popular it was, it did appear that that would be it. You didn’t think for a moment that this would grow into a big worldwide scene. Still, the network had gone past all of the early tape trading— this was serious now.”

Choosing Death The Improbable History of Death Metal & Grindcore pag 166

This music, taken as it is by the interstitial logic, had the effect of annulling the temporal limits to give life to a sound as an event, without duration and iconic in itself, solely responsible for the possible logical references that its existence-fading continues to generate over time, so that meaning can only be found as a process in progress.

“.. Napalm Death was a band that meant a lot to me in their initial phase; and of that band, one musician I saw as being really interested in music was Mick Harris. The fact of being able to play with him has been very important: I think he is one of the most interesting musicians of that generation who really tried to explore new directions in creating music.”

John Zorn in John Zorn Itinerari oltre al suono pag. 16

“Scum” had a global impact, influencing bands in Japan, Northern Europe and even John Zorn, who, just two years later, in 1989, created with Naked City “Torture Garden”.

“In Torture Garden my work consisted of connecting up together different things from different worlds: elements of hardcore, of my life in Japan, of my love of the cinema: no single thing and many things make up a blend with extensive fragmentation, with sudden changes – which have always interested me. Since I began to work on improvisation, to play and work with other musicians, I have tried to create situations in which unexpected changes were possible.”

John Zorn in John Zorn Itinerari oltre al suono pag. 17

Zorn’s musical gomi had always assumed the role of breaking the rules, taking his responsibilities in striving to give new life to materials, technologies and music to already existing and dated structures. The result was an avant-garde music which, however, did not completely alienate the listener more accustomed to consumer music. However, Zorn’s gomi had never been nostalgic, he didn’t want to turn back the hands of the clock or embrace new age philosophies of the Aquarian era. It was the exact opposite. It was born and nurtured in New York’s Ghotam City, in its cultural crossover, in its frenetic daily activity, in its infinite cultural, technological, racial, musical stimuli.

“The Torture Garden record, at least in part, comes from my interest in hardcore, which stretches back ten years almost [with] my active involvement maybe only five or six years.”

John Zorn in John Zorn Itinerari oltre al suono pag. 38

“Torture Garden” turned out to be the perfect element and summation of the maximum compression capacity of information and musical genres. The music and the album cover, which features images from a sadomasochistic film, were the cause of the divorce between Zorn and Nonesuch Records. “Torture Garden” was produced by the quiet Swiss independent record label HotHat and marked the beginning of Zorn’s stubborn refusal of any contact with journalists and music critics. The violent references to the hard core and metal scene divided critics and audiences. Torture Garden quickly became an album to love or hate. No compromise.

“With all due respect, the critics understand nothing, absolutely nothing of what is going on on stage, particulary where hardcore is concerned. In any case it’s always a problem to do with musician. There are some who play the same old clichés because, for example, they want to be considered jazz musicians, and this could be seem to be the right thing… furthermore from such a position they can get status, money, fame. There are others, hardcore ones, who also play even in minor bands, who are on stage because they love music, and they are exceptional, people who are truly receptive with whom I have often played and have chosen because I admire what they do, what they are manage to give and in them I see the chance all the same to open music up, to keep it a living form.”

“John Zorn: Itinerari Oltre Il Suono Materiali Sonori Edizione Musicali, 1998” pag.16

“Torture garden”: bizarre aggression of a generation of extreme extraction, neurotic swing that expanded over 42 songs of 30-40 seconds (from a minimum of 8″ (Hammerhead) to a maximum of 18″ (Osaka Bondage)) , a very sketchy grind a la Scum\ From Enslavement To Obliteration, which referred to the very first and primitive Napalm Death by Lee Dorrian\Mick Harris, a hysterical mood that ran through a stretch of absolute non-sound control. Sound and mental destabilization?

“An increase in speed is followed by a reduction in the attention span. If previously one-minute chunks of information seemed indispensable, now ten seconds are enough.”

John Zorn On Speed “Panta” pag. 389

Not at all! Zorn and company knew exactly what they were doing. I’ve read numerous criticisms and reviews that spoke (positively and negatively) of free improvisation. None of this. No improvisation: everything in this album has been prepared, composed and written with a compositional trait that has its own well-defined qualitative characteristic jazz\fusion\swing open on a delirious and very tight grindcore, devastated by the inhuman voice of Yamatsuka Eye, also real grind pioneer. Alberto Pezzotta in his essay “Velocità e Citazione” makes a detailed and complete analysis of how the 41 seconds of the song NewJersey Scum Swamp are constructed, tracing 24 musical fragments, 24 frames of musical film, assembled on the sequence of a simply frenetic rhythm and paroxysmal with the addition of pure noise interventions to add a sense of disorder and apparent discontinuity. Pezzotta’s musical analysis clearly highlights some typical traits of Zorn’s musical montage: heterogeneous and distinct themes and genres are contrasted, shredded and mixed together while maintaining their distinctive features. The principle is simple and clearly post-modernist: amalgamate each other by equating them and reducing them to mere decontextualized ingredients melody, rhythm and noise, “high” and “low” music, more or less easily recognizable genres and indistinct sounds and noises.

“John Zorn: Itinerari Oltre Il Suono Materiali Sonori Edizione Musicali, 1998” pag.29

“The combination of speed and compression is indeed essential. Without the increase in concentration, speed becomes useless, like playing a new age record at forty-five rather than thirty-three: the information continues to disappear, however fast you play it. We are not talking about speed as an end in itself, but a way of restructuring time and increasing the perception and processing of information within the human brain.”

John Zorn Sulla velocità “Panta” pag. 389

The effects of this sound centrifuge are quite evident both in “Scum” and in “Torture Garden”. The listener is forced both to do a strong work of concentration and to remain in suspense awaiting the immediate, subsequent and inevitable accompanying noise. In “Torture Garden” the fragmentation process is accelerated to the maximum: there is also a precise reference in the titles and images to splatter, just a few titles are enough: Thrash Jazz Assassin, Blood Duster, Shangkuan Ling-Feng, Perfume of a Critic’s Burning, Blunt Instrument, Sack of Shit, New Jersey Scum Swamp, Cairo Chop Shop, Victims of Torture and Fuck the Facts. The centrifuge of “Torture Garden”, the maximum exemplification of a medium beyond which it was not possible to go beyond, allows us to highlight another important aspect of his composition/editing mechanisms: the speed and the capacity to compress information. John Zorn thus exempts the listener from a rigorous interpretation, deprives him of the tools to do so. Detached as he is from any scheme, he himself creates his own tradition, disconnecting and reconnecting the elements in order to create something new while keeping the music alive. Jokingly, Zorn states that his music is suitable for impatient people, as it is crowded with a high number of information that changes very quickly: if something you don’t like arrives, just wait ten seconds like this until it transforms into something else . But speed in Zorn is something more, it represents an aggregating, centrifugal force with which it is better able to unite its sound blocks together, making sure that the “protruding” sonorities favor the interlocking between the filing cards in which he annotates his pieces. But there is more, for Zorn speed is a key to understanding, a paraphrase of our society, of our world: “Still, you’ve got to realize that speed is taking over the world. Look at the kids growing up with computers and video games-which are ten times faster than the pinball machines we used to play. There’s an essential something that young musicians have, something you can lose touch with as you get older. I love bands like Husker Du, Metallica, Black Flag, Die Kreuzen. Speed bands, thrash bands … it’s a whole new way of thinking, of living. And we’ve got to keep up with it. I’ll probably die trying.”

“Scum” and “Torture Garden” were able to anticipate the acceleration movement of Mark Fisher, Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams, leaving however a hope made of anger, desire and speed.