Silence is Deafening

Shane Embury’s Life?…and Napalm Death

I first met Napalm Death bassist Shane Embury in the 1990s.

Shane Embury (R) with Napalm Death.

I told him I’d hung out with Digby Pearson, the owner of Napalm Death’s first label, Earache Records, in Nottingham in the mid-1980s.

Embury asked me how I knew him, and I explained that I lived in the city then.

“Yeah,” he said, “that was definitely the time to have lived there.”

True enough. In the mid-1980s, the Midlands was the epicentre of the UK’s hardcore punk and extreme metal scenes.

Nurtured by heterodox metal label owners like Pearson, the region was a hotbed of experimentation for the fast and loud set at the time.

Bands like Concrete Sox and Heresy from Nottingham and Sacrilege from Birmingham were at the forefront of blending punk and metal into a mutant genre that would shape underground music for decades.

Shane Embury epitomised this process.

A Shropshire lad, although probably not of the kind that A. E. Houseman imagined, Embury had the good fortune to grow up near enough to Birmingham (Britain’s second largest city) to be exposed to the musical currents that swirled there.

But he also had managed to pivot to what was going on at a time when an appreciation for the underground scene put you in a distinct minority.

Embury’s new autobiography, Life?…and Napalm Death, tells the story of his journey through the scene.

In the early days, the central point was The Mermaid, a grungey pub in Birmingham’s rough Sparkhill section.

On any given night, one could find the second-floor rooms of the pub filled with a crowd that looked like extras from The Day After swilling beer and moshing around to the likes of The Varukers, Depraved, Generic, or Amebix.

It was there that Embury first saw Napalm Death, then with some version of their original lineup (including Justin Broadrick, who later started Head of David and Godflesh.)

There, too, he made the acquaintance of Mick Harris, who, within a few years, would claim the title of most chaotic (and yet most precise) drummer in the extreme metal scene.

Although Embury hailed from a relatively small town, he’d become involved in the tape-trading scene that was the primary way teens got to know extreme music in the 1980s.

It is hard to convey the importance of disaffected kids mailing cassettes all over the world, especially in the era of instant gratification via the Internet.

But the fact that there was less stuff out there, that you had to wait weeks before it showed up, added outsized influence to bands that might not have gotten a second listen.

In Life?…and Napalm Death, Embury charts the long and varied history of the band through myriad lineup changes and the development of a new style built on its grindcore roots.

What started as a fusion between the stripped-down, politically-tinged aggression of bands like Discharge and Chaos U.K. and proto-death metal acts like Celtic Frost and Slayer metastasised into something more.

With the coming to prominence of Napalm Death, grindcore (a term that Embury and his friends had coined to describe what was distinctive about the music they were making) became a thing.

Between the rise of Napalm Death and Nottingham-based Earache Records, as a genre, grindcore came to designate a wide range of disparate bands in the late 1980s and 1990s.

Life?…and Napalm Death is loaded with interesting stories and anecdotes and is leavened by contributions from people who knew Embury and the band through their long (and continuing) fusion.

However, viewing this as simply another rock autobiography would be a mistake. Embury is the central figure in a band that created a culture.

Much about that culture can be traced through the series of Napalm Death’s releases.

From the loose chaos of Scum (recorded in two sessions a year apart) through the increasing speed and precision of From Enslavement to Obliteration and Mentally Murdered, Napalm Death remained faithful to the grimy, aggressive tone of their underground roots.

With Harmony Corruption (1990), the band took on a more mainstream death metal feel. Recorded at Tampa’s Morrisound Recording, the band exchanged an opaque swirl for perfect clarity.

Some in the underground regarded this as a sellout. Embury clarifies that it was just the band evolving, trying to break new ground within a style that was their own.

Through Napalm Death’s sixteen albums and numerous other releases, this process of evolution has seen the addition of a wide range of new sounds into their repertoire, touching on industrial music and more dissonant genres.

In large part, this was due to personnel changes. The band went from a relatively homogenous group to one comprising various stylistic and cultural influences.

Life?…and Napalm Death is a book that can be read with interest on several levels.

For those interested in the story of one of the most influential extreme music acts, the book provides a wealth of stories and insights into the band’s history. But beneath the surface, there is more to be found.

The career of Napalm Death and its various associated acts is the story of the development of extreme music from a niche within a niche to a significant cultural phenomenon.

But it also involves a transition from the earlier culture of the hardcore punk scene, in which radical politics were front and centre, to an approach in which the medium was the message.

Embury and Napalm Death have remained on the side of the angels (so to speak) in political terms, unlike other bands in the genre. They’re still radicals.

However, their art expresses its opposition through sounds that reflect the world, unlike the more straightforward polemics you find in a revolutionary newspaper.

Of course, Napalm Death’s lyrics can be didactic, but their music takes everything to a higher level of complexity.

Through it all, we are guided by Shane Embury’s voice and character. His honesty and self-awareness are refreshing.

Photograph courtesy of Metal Chris. Published under a Creative Commons license.