Friday, June 17, 2005

Evolution / Devolution

I’m here to talk about Justin K Broadrick.

A lot.

I suppose I should be posting this to an abstract view, but this is more about the evolution of a man and his band(s) than it is about a specific album.

For those poor unfortunates who don’t know who Justin Broadrick is... let’s just say that he’s one of the unsung heroes of heavy music. Most of the styles of modern metal you hear these days has been heavily influenced by one, if not all, of Justin’s bands. OK? So here goes...

In the beginning, there was Napalm Death.

(OK, I’m skipping over Justin’s Fall Of Because project, as they really didn’t release anything official until much later.)

Anyway, Napalm Death was formed in 1982 in Ipswich, England. They were the godfathers of grindcore and are perhaps most infamous for their first album, Scum. Although Justin and his trusty guitar only appear on one side of the record, Broadrick and Mick Harris (later to be further worshipped by me under his Scorn moniker) were the primary architects of the sound. Blistering blastbeats, howled and growled vocals (courtesy of Nick Bullen, who would join Mick as part of Scorn, at least for a couple of records), and songs so short they made the Ramones sound longwinded.

Scum rips through 28 tracks in a mere 33 minutes, so you get the picture.

Perhaps the best example: "You Suffer", clocking in at a whopping... 2 seconds. Intense stuff. Apparently John Peel was a huge fan of the track, playing it a bunch before inviting Napalm Death to do a famous Peel Session.

Justin, however, quickly got bored with the band’s monochromatic approach to things (hence the single album side appearance) and left in 1996 to join Head Of David as their drummer. HOD had already released a couple of albums and was touring with Napalm Death. They liked Justin enough to ask him to join up. He played with them for a little over two years (and two albums), but once again he began to feel the itch for something different. So he stuck out on his own.

And lo, the birth of Godflesh.

Teaming up with bassist GC Green (who, if the legend is to be believed, used an old amp belonging to Black Sabbath’s Geezer Butler) and an Alesis-16 drum machine, Justin formed what was to become one of the heaviest bands on the planet.

1988’s self-titled debut EP sounded like NOTHING else at the time: bass so detuned it was almost subsonic; pounding, martial beats; slicing, treble guitar riffs that soared over the seething low end. This was music that had practically NO MID RANGE.

Stark, yet beautiful and terrifying.

1990 saw the release of Streetcleaner, which raised the bar even higher (and dropped the bass even lower). Taking the blueprint first put forward by the Godflesh EP and darkening it even further, Justin, GC and the Alesis took listeners on a journey inwards and downwards. Incorporating samples, weird found sounds and an ever expanding palette of guitar tones, Streetcleaner is revered by most fans as the definitive Godflesh album (not to mention the definitive industrial metal record).

But still, Justin strove for more.

1992’s Pure took a more experimental turn. The heaviness remained, but the songs began to drift away from standard structure. Perhaps the most telling example was the closing track, "Pure II", a 21-minute exploration of harsh ambience filled with gaping silences and subtones.

Selfless was released in 1994 and picked up where Pure left off: more experimentation with electronic sound, yet still retaining the ultra-heavy bass and meteoric guitar mastery. There are brief flirtations with minimalism here and once again, the closer (the massive, 24-minute "Go Spread Your Wings") maps out the blackest of spaces, full of booming echoes and aching silences.

(It is also important to note that 1994 saw the release of the first Techno Animal album. TA is perhaps Justin’s most notable side project, formed with crazed free-jazz saxophonist Kevin Martin. While the initial album was very much in the Godflesh vein, future releases would show the breadth of Justin’s musical tastes and vision. This would also be reflected in subsequent Godflesh releases.)

Brain Mantia played drums on Songs Of Love And Hate, released in 1996. The addition of a human drummer lends the album a more organic feel, but it doesn’t loose its bite. Since Justin is not tied to the stiff one-two of a drum machine, he has even more room to maneuver. The results are incredibly exciting, for his guitar lines spiral all over the sonic map. Truly breathtaking.

And then, 1997’s Love And Hate In Dub. A record that changed everything.

This remix album of tracks from Songs Of Love And Hate incorporates drum and bass, ambient dub, funk, hip hop, and a myriad of other styles. Here is the first blatant proof that Justin’s musical ideas extended far beyond simple heavy music. Experimentation is the norm on this album, for these versions of older tunes are so different from the originals, they might as well have different names. Another Godflesh classic.

Us And Them, released in 1999, picked up the ball and spiked it in your face. From the no apologies drum and bass tracks like "I Me Mine" and "Defiled" to stratospheric guitar pieces like "Bittersweet" and "The Internal", UAT continued Godflesh’s experiments in sonic assault.

By 2001, however, Justin had decided to rein in the more disparate elements of their sound, so Godflesh churned out Hymns, an almost straightforward rock album. This was not a bad thing. Not in the least. This was a Godflesh rock album. Motley Crue it was not. Again, the bass is huge, the beats (courtesy of Prong alumnus Ted Parsons) are irresistibly propulsive and the riffs slash and burn everything in their path. This is the album every nu-metal outfit wishes they were capable of.

Alas, Hymns would be Godflesh’s swan song.

GC Green packed up his bass (and maybe Geezer Butler’s amp?) and left the band shortly after the album’s release. Justin recruited Paul Raven (formerly of Killing Joke and Prong) to fill in, but this new lineup never saw the light of day in the US. Shortly before launching their American tour in support of Hymns, Justin decided to throw in the towel: "I found that without GC Green, Godflesh is not Godflesh".

So the curtain fell on one of the greatest, heaviest bands ever.

(Note that I’ve taken quite a bit of editorial license with the above history. I’ve left out quite a number of EPs and side projects. Justin is an incredibly prolific musician, constantly seeking to push the boundaries of music in all its forms, so it would take days and pages and pages to list everything he’s ever appeared on. For a more complete discography, check out, Godflesh’s official fan site.)

There were rumblings, however, that Justin wasn’t done.

The final track on Hymns was a gut crusher entitled "Jesu". Rumor had it that Justin would be returning with a "more rock oriented project" entitled Jesu.

So I waited.

3 years, I waited.

And then it came.

2004 saw the release of Heartache. This sprawling EP contained two tracks, each clocking in around the 20-minute mark. Good stuff at first glance. Both tracks were heavy a la Godflesh and Justin’s lyrics continue to be minimalist, yet insightful. While I was not as thrilled with the first Jesu release as I had been with previous Godflesh albums, it did raise my hopes for the first full length album.

Jesu was released four months later.

It’s good. Don’t get me wrong. It’s really good. However, all of the experimentation that had arisen around the time of Love And Hate In Dub and Us And Them has fallen away. This is a heavy rock album. The tracks are huge, both in sound and in length (the shortest is almost seven minutes long; the longest, eleven and a half) and all the tone is there. However, much of the complexity and unusualness has been taken away. It’s Justin and his amazing guitar, some punishing bass and thundering beats, and a little keyboard thrown in here and there.

Enjoyable, but not revolutionary.

I think this happens to musicians eventually. At some point people just run out of ideas. I’d love to see Justin start to experiment again. Admittedly, he continues to do this with projects like Final, Sub Species (nee Techno Animal) and a host of other outfits. But I long for the days when a new release from Justin’s main project was a black box. You’d never know what you were going to end up hearing.

Only the future will tell, though. And god knows I’ll be listening.

A public service announcement with guitar.

I’m sure Justin has heard (and probably owns) all of the following:

Jesu - Jesu
(the second coming of Godflesh this is not)

Fugees - The Score
(premium hiphop amidst the blight of bling)

Dead Kennedys - Frankenchrist
(proof that you can be angry and coherent; JB for punky president)

Ambre & Mark Spybey - Sfumato
(environmental ambient with bite and purpose)


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Howdy Ben,

Found your Blog while searching for some stuff. Excellent review of the mightiness that was Godflesh! "Hymns" was way disappointing in our book, esp. after the new ground they'd managed to cover in the couple albums before, and the massively surprising and amazing "...In Dub".

"Hymns" was just boring and the recording quality is absolutely terrible. And "Jesu", yeah, you nailed it, it's OK, but a perfect example of, as you say well, what seems like a musician that's run out of ideas and isn't willing to explore, and is just stuck in a rut.

Better to hang up the towel than end up there. Been there, beat that horse to death, quit that band. Most musicians just don't know when to quit. At least Green can still sit back and feel good about his work and his choice to not bother any more.

Ever see them live? Even more amazing than on CD, best metal band ever (yes, even better than Slayer.) You can see Green's bass strings flopping around like broken flippers on a clubbed seal.

Cheers, Austere

3:01 PM  
Blogger Ben said...

Oh, yes, I've caught them live...

Nov 11, 1996. The Wetlands. NYC.

As I wrote back then: "Wetlands is a relatively small venue, so there wasn't much room for fancy effects, etc. So Justin and GC just didn't bother. They came on stage and kicked in our heads. It was fantastic. Great pit, too. Always a bonus."

And yes, they're better than Slayer, both live and on record, IMO.

11:02 AM  

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