Originally formed in Birmingham around late 1981 and early ’82, it was some five years before the cheerfully named Napalm Death unleashed their debut LP, by which time they were virtually a different band going under the same name.
Founded by vocalist Nick Bullen and drummer Miles ‘Rat’ Ratledge – at the time in their early teens – they were initially inspired by the offbeat anarchist punk ramblings of Crass, The Apostles and similar groups familiar to the Crass and Mortarhate labels at the time. Having toyed with the name Civil Defence, this more threatening moniker was inspired by the film Apocalypse Now.
Teaming up with bassist Finbar Quinn and Robbo on guitar, they began working on a set of songs. They played several gigs early on with the likes of Chaos UK and Amebix, and recorded a couple of demos, Punk is a Rotting Corpse and Like Sheep We Have All Gone Astray. They began attracting moderate attention from fanzines and throughout the underground hardcore scene in general, and in ’84 they were featured on the Crass Records double-LP compilation Bullshit Detector 3 with the track ‘The Crucifixion of Possessions’.
Daz Russell, who was the major promoter of hardcore gigs in the area in the mid/late ’80s, got the band regular slots at the Mermaid pub and they began steadily building up a following for themselves. Following a brief split, Nick and Rat recruited Justin Broadrick and recorded the Hatred Surge demo in ’85. A much heavier, crustier affair than previous recordings, this three-song tape saw the band adopting a sound that took the dark atmosphere and grinding guitars of Amebix, the slightly gothic leanings and relentless pounding beats of Killing Joke, and mixed them with the harsher, aggressive approach of heavy anarcho-punk outfits like Antisect and Icons Of Filth. The tape included a slower, more powerful early version of ‘Instinct Of Survival’ (which eventually would appear on their debut LP).
Rat left soon after this recording when the other two started heading in a noisier, faster musical direction that didn’t suit his tastes. Mick Harris, who had been catching their gigs for some time, took over on drums and they recorded the demos From Enslavement to Obliteration and Scum. Inspired by the brutally noisy US hardcore act Siege, the style they were now playing was the most extreme brand of ultra-speed thrash imaginable, with totally incomprehensible grunted vocals and songs that often lasted no more than a matter of seconds.
When Nick and Justin called it a day, Mick carried on using the same name with his newly recruited ensemble of musicians. The new-look line-up featured Lee Dorrian (vocals), Bill Steer (guitar) and Jim Whitely (bass). Signing to the recently set-up Earache label (appropriately named), they entered the studio in spring ’87 to record a new set of songs for their debut LP. This new material would make up side two while the earlier Scum demo recording formed the first side of the record. The resulting album was a brutally over-the-top, sonic aural assault from start to finish.
In many people’s eyes they were the archetypal band in what became known as the ‘grindcore’ sub-genre – the bastard offspring of hardcore punk and extreme thrash/death metal (although the likes of Heresy and Extreme Noise Terror had also been playing similarly fast and aggressive music for some time). John Peel became a big fan, inviting the band in to record several sessions for his Radio 1 show between ’87 and ’90. Surprisingly, they became something of a phenomenon in the late ’80s, making a number of television appearances.
By the time of their second LP, From Enslavement to Obliteration, Jim had left to join Ripcord with Unseen Terror’s Shane Embury stepping in. Further line-up changes followed in ’89 with former Benediction front man Barney Greenaway taking over on vocals and Americans Mitch Harris (of Righteous Pigs) and Jesse Pintado (ex-Terrorizer) on guitar duties (the Mentally Murdered EP was the last release featuring Lee and Bill).
The early ’90s saw the band changing gear into more of a death metal style with longer, more complex songs. Meanwhile, Bill went full-time with his other band Carcass, Lee formed doom metallers Cathedral and Mick twiddled knobs for spaced-out ambient dub act Scorn along with OLD’s Jim Plotkin. Lee also ran the Rise Above record label while Bill ran Necrosis Records (as a subsidiary of Earache) as well as writing the thrash fanzine Phoenix Militia. Justin had a brief stint with alternative noise merchants Head Of David in ’86 before forming Godflesh – an ultra-heavy, semi-industrial hybrid of early Swans, Throbbing Gristle and grinding, cranium-crunching guitars (they were subsequently also signed by Earache). Shane played guest guitar on a record by British rap act Gunshot in the mid-’90s.