Reviewing comeback albums is an absolute minefield. Do you criticise a band against their previous work relentlessly, or allow for the time that has passed and what that has wrought on them as people? The art they create will change, skills may grow rusty and the zeitgeist evolves around them.
It’s a difficult one to answer, even though the obvious response is to snort and claim that a discography should always be judged as a single continuum, despite the relative lengths of time that may elapse between releases. I think that’s an oversimplified view and the easy way out. But luckily for me, it is an approach that can be comfortably adopted with Godflesh’s first album for 13 years.
Because this is Godflesh being no-one but Godflesh. The tools and methods are the same, the end result is unmistakeably Broadrick and Green doing what they do. And what they do is punishing.
Previous Godflesh albums have been violent, but the violence was always that of a scalpel. Admittedly it was a huge, diabolical scalpel, wielded with tremendous force as well as precision. But the violence of “A World Lit Only By Fire” is that of a mailed fist. Four fingers and a thumb, clenched together inside a rotting iron gauntlet, driven home hard into soft tissue, organs and bone. A martial full stop, with no apologies or mercy.
More than ever before, these songs are driven by Broadrick’s tortured riffs. They boom over the top of the other instrumentation, a detonation cracking overhead as you cower in the ruined monochrome slums. At times it actually threatens to swamp the mix - this being the greatest weakness of the album, in that the rhythm section is almost reduced to a drowned metronome in the background. It seems odd to say that of a Godflesh release, especially Green’s usual subterranean bass – here an echo in a nearby cave rather than the faultline-cracking explosions of previous releases.
It isn’t jarring enough to impede the casual listener, but hardcore soundheads may find it a mild irritant – especially given Broadrick’s record for consistently putting out music that sounds as if the mix has been pored over with a fine steel toothcomb to produce exactly the required levels to conjure up hell and brimstone in the human forebrain. Don’t get me wrong. I’m sure that is exactly what has happened. I’m just not convinced that I appreciate it in comparison to how I think the album could have sounded with a more textured approach.
“How I think the album could have sounded”. The sheer arrogance of criticism at work.
Sound issues aside though, this is a rock solid entry into Godflesh’s monumental catalogue. The likes of the unbelievable organic avalanche of ‘Carrion’ and the closing industrial-thrash riffage of ‘Curse Us All’ are as convincing and brutal as any other metal that has seen the light of day since the last Godflesh release. The pure vastness of the rolling riff thunder at times swings firmly into stoner/doom groove territory, which is a land the duo have thoroughly explored before but never on this scale or with such consistency.
Where subtlety can be discerned in the neutron-dense mix, such as the hip-hop turntable whistles sunk into album highlight ‘Shut Me Down’, glimpses can be seen of the blended experimentalism of the past. This is a rarity throughout though. I imagine there may have been a conscious effort to segregate this release from Jesu (Broadrick’s beautiful and expansive post-metal child), so anyone coming to it expecting the occasional more melodic Godflesh song may be sorely disappointed - with only the occasional soaring vocal on display.
To be frank, in a world lit only by endless cash-in band comebacks, disappointment is a word I struggle to associate with this album. To a certain degree it is Godflesh-by-numbers, and while it pushes metal to the forefront in the same way as “Songs Of Love And Hate” or “Hymns”, it lacks the bombast of the former and the minimalist defiance of the latter.
That’s not to say it is better or worse than either of them, merely more straightforward – if you are called upon to recommend a Godflesh album to a resolute metalhead, this is now undoubtedly the place to start. Ranking albums next to each other is a mug’s game anyway, especially with an act so vital and pioneering. What matters is this: Godflesh are back. They are convincingly Godflesh. And they are as fucking vicious as they have ever been.