If Scum sounds like two different albums by two different bands, that’s because it is. Napalm Death recorded the first side in August 1986 as a three-piece,1 then shelved recording for nine months before entering the studio again in May 1987 with no returning members other than drummer Mick Harris,2 whose obsession with blast-beat percussion – a new thing back in the mid-80s – characterized the frenetic speed of Scum and, by way of history, the entire grindcore genre. The result was punk shot with up with adrenaline and a speedball of the scruffiest d-beat and death metal that set off a wave of imitators and successors in a way unseen in the underground since the Sex Pistols only a decade earlier.
Of course, there are the one-two punch shredders that are over before they’ve begun, as seen on “The Kill,” “Deceiver,” and “Common Enemy” – with special mention to the (in)famous 1.316 second-long “You Suffer.” Sure, hardcore punk had experimented with the microsong via Black Flag, Circle Jerks, and Middle Class; but here is that taken to its furthest, most ridiculous extreme. There is none of the gore/guts/genitals that are all too common in modern grindcore and its derivations; Scum is a harsh critique of fascism and capitalism that makes Refused look like Wall Street sympathizers. The sociopolitical commentary is occasionally inane – just take a look at “Stigmatized” use of the word “retarded” – but frequently brilliant, especially on “Success?” and the nearly four-minute long “Siege of Power.” It’s a shame that both Nik Napalm3 and Lee Dorrian are among the least lucid vocalists in heavy metal and punk history, because their lack of clarity severely dampens Scum‘s lyrical impact.
Although Pig Destroyer and Agoraphobic Nosebleed thrive on brutalizing production, Scum‘s first side is noteworthy on its quietness. There is a distinct muddy mix on each track, as if layers of dust accumulated over recording equipment that had not been touched since the first Crass album, and whatever resulted is what was able to get through the years of caked-on residue. A very slight reverb permeates Napalm’s3 throaty (but not guttural) yell and Broadrick’s guitar. This is sewer production – a metaphor that serves Napalm Death’s frequently grotesque, sodden image. The musicianship is tight, with Broadrick’s hybrid thrashcore/crust punk riffs slicing through the grime. It’s more impressive than most of what was going on in hardcore punk and American death or thrash metal at the time, with “Polluted Minds”4 standing out in its Slayer-esque solo. There’s even a bit of noise influence, as seen in opening chant(?) “Multinational Corporations” and the fuzzy bass underpinning of the title track. Scum‘s first side is far more varied and technically competent than is grindcore’s reputation.
The second side is radically different. Broadrick’s replacement via Bill Steer5 had none of Broadrick’s thrashy swagger, opting instead for flailing riffs and messy finger-tapped solos, the most gratuitous of which (and the best example of the difference between the two sides) being that on “Parasites.” Dorrian and Harris share vocal duties, dueling it out as a soprano and gravel combination that would be more refined on later Napalm Death releases. Their best work is on the half-minute long “Deceiver,” which utilizes a cavernous reverb/multi-track to great effect. Ironically, Scum‘s second side actually has the more poignant lyrics (e.g. “Point of No Return” and “Negative Approach”), but the musicianship is so much sloppier that the songs are ultimately less powerful than the first side. The production focuses on the treble range, resulting in a fairly typical lo-fi sound. Hindsight is twenty-twenty: Scum should have been released as two different albums – but it’s easy to see why that didn’t happen, since the band was very much in the underground and releasing two different albums that were basically EP-length would not have given the band the traction it needed to succeed.
Scum is the rough draft for the entire grindcore genre. With some curious exceptions in Repulsion’s early demos and Siege’s Drop Dead, Napalm Death was the first group to release an album firmly planted within this new metal/punk hybrid that crossed over to both fanbases. Scum is a testament to Napalm Death’s ingenuity. The circumstances behind the writing and recording make it an uneven listen, but it is certainly a worthwhile one, especially that exceptional first side. Check it out, and see where it all began.
1. Multinational Corporations – (1:06) – ★★★★★
2. Instinct of Survival – (2:26) – ★★★★☆
3. The Kill – (0:23) – ★★★☆☆
4. Scum – (2:38) – ★★★★☆
5. Caught… in a Dream – (1:47) – ★★★★☆
6. Polluted Mind – (0:58) – ★★★★★
7. Sacrificed – (1:06) – ★★★☆☆
8. Siege of Power – (3:59) – ★★★★★
9. Control – (1:23) – ★★★☆☆
10. Born on Your Knees – (1:48) – ★★★★☆
11. Human Garbage – (1:32) – ★★★★☆
12. You Suffer – (0:02) – ★★★★★
1. Life? – (0:43) – ★★★★☆
2. Prison without Walls – (0:38) – ★★★★★
3. Point of no Return – (0:35) – ★★★☆☆
4. Negative Approach – (0:33) – ★★★★☆
5. Success? – (1:09) – ★★☆☆☆
6. Deceiver – (0:29) – ★★★★☆
7. C.S. (Conservative Shithead) – (1:14) – ★★☆☆☆
8. Parasites – (0:23) – ★★★☆☆
9. Pseudo Youth – (0:42) – ★★★☆☆
10. Divine Death – (1:21) – ★★★☆☆
11. As the Machine Rolls On – (0:42) – ★★☆☆☆
12. Common Enemy – (0:16) – ★★☆☆☆
13. Moral Crusade – (1:33) – ★★★★★
14. Stigmatized – (1:03) – ★★☆☆☆
15. M.A.D. – (1:34) – ★★★★☆
16. Dragnet – (1:01) – ★★★☆☆
1… that famously included a young Justin Broadrick of Godflesh and Jesu.
2… whose joining the band at the end of 1985 heralded the group’s shift from anarcho-punk to grindcore. Harris was originally just a fan of the band who became a member – much like the circumstances regarding Henry Rollins’ participation in Black Flag. It’s kind of funny that Harris would end up being the only consistent member on Scum and be the main person responsible for Napalm Death’s continued existence as a band, let alone within grindcore.
3… one of the band’s founding members and later member of Scorn.
4… on which Broadrick performed vocals.
5… who later founded the almost equally-influential group Carcass.
6I have Scum‘s two sides organized separately in my music library. It’s way more convenient and cohesive that way. I do the same for The Beatles’ self-titled and The Clash’s Sandinista!, among others.