Sunday, 11 August 2013

Godflesh - A Rough Guide

I have to confess to a real love for bands with names that tell you exactly what you are going to hear before the needle even drops to the wax. And it could never be said that anyone would listen to a band called Godflesh without expecting to have their aural canal battered mercilessly.

Formed in 1988 by Justin Broadrick and G.C. Green, the band already had an astonishing musical pedigree given that it was two teenagers bellowing about urban disillusionment. Broadrick had played for both grindcore pioneers Napalm Death (co-writing the first and superior half of their highly influential debut 'Scum') and noise rock obscuronauts Head Of David.

They wasted no time in outlining a manifesto of decay, intensity and brutal collapse. Unlike many bands, for Godflesh influences are to be woven together into an unrecognisable whole rather than worn on the sleeve. Thus from a heady concoction of '80s crusty punk, raw piercing industrial, spaced-out dub and experimental hip-hop comes the roaring wounded beast that was their eponymous debut EP. It's difficult to overstate just how different this was to anything that had come before it. The closest touchstone at the time was Ministry's work in transitioning from synthpop to something far more aggressive and evil, but beyond some superficial similarities in fusing guitars and electronics the comparison runs dry. At the time, there was simply nothing out there remotely like Godflesh.

Godflesh – 'Godflesh' – 1988 - “Weak Flesh”

The following year Broadrick and Green dropped 'Streetcleaner' on an unsuspecting audience of musical extremophiles. Still widely lauded as their best work (which I would disagree with), it takes the formula set down by their debut EP and fucks with it harshly. Forming a cogent whole that physically seethes with insignificant fury, to listen to this album is to invoke the absolute nadir of Thatcherite urban life. It is broken glass, shattered concrete and random violence written large under a banner of godless horror. Mechanised self-flagellating impotent apathy. Music to detonate council estates to.

Godflesh – 'Streetcleaner' – 1989 - “Christbait Rising”

A flurry of EPs followed through 1991, with Godflesh doing their subconscious level best to alienate the metal-oriented fanbase that had begun to build around them. This audience was an unintended consequence of releasing debut material so unrelentlessly punishing, and while it is remarkable now that more experimental material would piss off Godflesh listeners, the early '90s were a much more provincial time for metal. The Slavestate EP, and in particular the title track, took ahold of the spreading techno contagion and grasped it lovingly around the neck, finding yet another chemical infusion to inject into an already hæmorrhaging organ. This would not be the first time that Broadrick and Green would take a more popular electronic genre and crumple it into their own weeping shapes.

Godflesh – 'Slavestate' – 1991 - “Slavestate”

'Slateman' was released the same year, a single that was later fused with the 'Slavestate' EP for collectors and latecomers. It offers another fascinating early insight into a later direction, this time with a melodic underpinning that makes the buzzsaw guitars and Green's deep sea bass detonations into a thing of soaring beauty rather than a discomfiting trauma.

Godflesh – 'Slateman' – 1991 - “Slateman”

It's astonishing even now to consider how many boundaries were left crushed and broken in the wake of Godflesh's advance, before they had even inflicted a second full-length LP on the planet. 'Pure' arrived in 1992 and delivered 50% monstrous rolling metal set to beats that were in turn half early-'90s techno slowed down to heartbeat pace and half puncture wound-rhythm hip-hop. The other 50% of the record satisfied their more experimental urges with extended feedback and noise pieces that are at points exquisitely masochistic trials to endure. By spinning out the length and focus on some tracks, the duo had started to build the sense of churning hypnosis that would be so fundamental to their next album. Looking back on 'Pure' now it is easy to make some criticisms. The production isn't fantastic and both types of song have a tendency to bleed into one another – this does the job of painting a single portrait of the needle-swamped alleyway of British culture nicely, but also chokes the delivery before it can scream its name.

Godflesh – 'Pure' – 1992 ' - “Spite”

'Selfless' was voided into the world in 1994, and was (in my mind) the absolute perfected fusion of everything that had come before it. Brutal, hallucinogenic echoes in the silence. A more natural sound that nevertheless machine-tooled every single percussive concussion and tortured riff to unbelievable precision. Astonishingly produced and released partly by major label Columbia records, this would be Godflesh's only flirtation with mainstream distribution. In every way, 'Selfless' is a mad creature split between several worlds and all the better for it. Unlike the previous releases that meshed organic with mechanical in a blood-and-hydraulic fluid wreckage, this album sequences them together on a genetic level. It would also be where the real seeds of their influence on the world of post-metal would start to be overtly sown.

Godflesh – 'Selfless' – 1994 - “Xnoybis”

1996's 'Songs Of Love And Hate' continued the more organic feel of the previous record to a logical conclusion – replacing many of the beats with a drummer in the form of Brian Mantia (though some hip-hop influence is still clearly on display in the beats that remain), stripping back the sound to a more coherent song-oriented approach and turning every track into a controlled collapse. It's an extremely energetic and powerful record, maintaining the unmistakable bellowing control of Godflesh while dancing around the edge of more mainstream metal. It is, without a doubt, their most easily listenable record. For a crushingly heavy industrial metal album named for a Leonard Cohen LP, that's a hell of a trick. A remix collection of more of less the entire album followed - the imaginatively titled 'Love And Hate In Dub' - and is a darkly entrancing curiosity rather than a necessary investment.

Godflesh – 'Songs Of Love And Hate' – 1996 - “Wake”

Three years later Godflesh decide to fuck with everyone one more time with pretty much the opposite polar extreme of their sound. Electronics are pushed to the fore, guitars are stripped back to an underpinning and everything is suffused with an uncomfortable existential dread for 1999's “Us And Them”. It's sourceless drum n' bass-slathered body horror for a select and elite few, and it is the only time Godflesh have been beaten to the punch. Cubanate's 'Interference' emerged a year prior to this, and while the two are obviously distinct and vital records they carry the same internal agony to the bitter end. Thankfully, by this point the band had so inured their fanbase to a constantly shifting musical landscape they were happy to be pulled violently in whatever direction the duo desired. It is truly the most beautiful thing in existence when an audience matures enough to obviate the term 'sellout'.

Godflesh – 'Us And Them' – 1999 - “I, Me, Mine”

Of note for a decent overview of their albums to this point, as well as a collection of rarities, is the anthology 'In All Languages'. While summarising Godflesh's discography is an exercise in futility, it makes the best stab it is probably possible to make and is therefore a decent starting point. It also contains this slightly obscure gem from a 1989 compilation.

Godflesh – 'In All Languages' – 2001 - “Love Is A Dog From Hell”

Godflesh's final LP to date arrived in 2001, and 'Hymns' is an oddly appropriate coda. More stripped back and direct than any previous work, a live drummer in Ted Parsons is again brought on board to relegate electronic beats to the occasional background piece. Finally perhaps finding a balanced point between the melodic and the furious, it is a unique record that reduces what has come before without sacrificing integrity, quality or the inner emotional turmoil that enabled it all. It is the final whistling noises in the ears of Icarus three seconds before impact.

Godflesh – 'Hymns' – 2001 - “Regal”

The band imploded in 2002, with G.C. Green's departure and Broadrick's ensuing nervous breakdown. Throughout the timeline of Godflesh, Broadrick had released hordes of side project material and continues to do so, as well as being the central force behind the masterful post-metal/shoegaze act Jesu. In 2012 the duo reunited for some live shows and potential new recordings. Beat the pack of inevitable awful hipster twats and get into Godflesh before they emerge. You will not regret it.

Listen To A Whole Load Of Godflesh On Spotify HERE.

Essential Records: Streetcleaner, Selfless, Us And Them, Hymns

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