Music: Pure (Godflesh)

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2007-03-03 18:23:29-05:00 No comments

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Someone once said that trying to write a criticism of a favorite thing is a little like assembling a rational explanation of why you love your wife. That’s the central problem of criticism: you’re trying to find logical, dispassionate ways to talk about things that ultimately come down to taste and preference and, yes, passion. This doesn’t mean that criticism is useless, though—just that you have to be aware of how every critique is as much about its author as it is its subject. The better you defend yourself, the more transparent the reasons for the criticism tend to be.

To that end, when you talk about something that is close to your heart, you’re obliged to communicate a part of yourself, too. Roger Ebert couldn’t talk aboutLa Dolce Vita without also describing how he saw it at different times in his life, and each time it meant something different to him: at twenty, it represented something he wanted to be a part of; at thirty, it was what he was trapped in; at forty, it was what he had escaped from. I can’t listen to, or talk about,Godflesh’sPure without digging at least that far down into myself. I don’t know if it has much to do with the album itself—although it is, objectively, a great album, and I’ll go into that in its own way—but it certainly has a great deal to do with how it arrived in my life, what it came to represent, and what I hear in it every single time it plays.

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Godflesh was one of the by-products of the chemical breakdown of the original lineup of Napalm Death, the band that essentially invented suffix metal (grind-core, noise-core, death-core) as we know it. Infamy guarantees a matching degree of fame in music, and they were instantly infamous for one-second songs (“You Suffer”) and lyrics that threw acid at, well, everything. The only thing sacred in Napalm Death’s worldview was the oppressed individual, the mind that can never be destroyed by the outside world. Justin Broadrick, a contributing guitarist for the Death for part of its first outing, split ways with the group and eventually formed Fall of Because, the prototype version of Godflesh that would pair him up with bassist G. Christian Green. (A few songs from the original Fall of Because sessions—“Life is Easy” and “Devastator”—were re-recorded as Godflesh tunes.)

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Rather than rely on a human drummer, Godflesh opted to use a drum machine, a move which instantly and automatically put them into the same category as outfits like Big Black or the earlier Slab!. They were at least as heavy as those crews—if anything, in fact, they were already far heavier and more emotionally savage. Their debut album, with its cover photo stolen from John Frankenheimer’s paranoid Seconds (which I’d heard about years ago thanks to Danny Peary’s Cult Movies books), flattened you as soon as you dropped the needle into the outer groove. The follow-up, Streetcleaner (cover shot courtesy of Altered States) was at least as good, and the block of run-on sentence lyrics in the inner sleeve was like all of Godflesh’s world view compressed into something that could be engraved on the side of a cenotaph: YOU CAN CRUSH ME AS I SPEAK WRITE ON ROCKS WHAT YOU FEEL NOW FEEL THIS TRUTH … CORRUPTION IN THE GOAT HERD FLESH CRUMBLES IN THE REAL WORLD.

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Then came Slavestate, essentially a collection of EPs and B-sides but with the sequencing and sweep of a full album. Their sound was still as heavy as ever, but given new shape and direction with the addition of sampling and more advanced programming. The title track sampled a Future Sound of London side project, and for remixes of two of the songs Broadrick cut up the originals and replayed them through his sampler to create something entirely new (a remix technique he’d apply to a number of other artists with great results). What hadn’t changed was the outlook and the philosophy: this was the music of someone surrounded by and crushed by the weight of existence itself. The very name of the band had been designed to play off that concept: God—something great and ethereal—and flesh—something immediate and concrete, with both in constant collision.

Pure, the next full album, was actually the first Godflesh disc I ever picked up, and I suspect that may be a big part of the reason it assumed as monumental a place in my life as it did. A column on the group in Tower Records’s Pulse! Magazine spurred my interest—they namechecked Black Sabbath (Broadrick hailed from Birmingham as well), and after my then-fiancée had introduced me to the Sisters of Mercy, I took an interest in any band that used a drum machine as an official part of the lineup. I snatched up a copy on my next foray into the city, and at first I found myself terribly frustrated with it: my interest was riveted on the few electronic elements that were in the mix—the drums, the occasional sample loops—but not on the songs themselves. It wasn’t until after about a week of listening to the album on and off that I realized I was connecting with the music, the songs themselves, not just elements of the whole, in a far more personal way than I might have originally anticipated.

Howard Hawks once said that the formula for a great movie is “Three great scenes, no bad scenes”. There isn’t a bad song on Pure—that is, there isn’t a single song that I would skip over if I had the album on, and that is not something I can say for any five albums I own. For a band that used loud guitars, drum machines, and half-shouted vocals (and the occasional sample or synth part), they worked to make every song as distinct as they could thanks not to production techniques but simple, strong songwriting. The songs aren’t just blurs of guitar noise; they have structure and presence, and will still sound compelling when most of the other stuff released in the same year has long since melted away.

The strength of the songwriting was something that many of the people who followed lamely in Godflesh’s wake never figured out; it’s not just the attack or the volume level, but the way the song pulls it all together. One of the imitators, Pitchshifter, put out a number of dreadful Godflesh clones (allegedly their lead singer called up Broadrick to find out what exact model of drum machine he used; Justin hung up on him), but over time branched out and found their own sound that owed as little to Godflesh as Godflesh ultimately owed to any of its own predecessors.

What made Godflesh heavy—if “heavy” also means “good”—was something inside the music, the conceits Broadrick explored from the inside out. The universe is a terrifying and cold place, but not without beauty, and everything that lives has within itself all it needs to persevere. Sometimes the song titles alone told the whole story. My favorite cut on the album is the one that lays it most directly on the line with its title—“I Wasn’t Born to Follow”—but each track is a declaration of purpose in its own way. You may be crushed by the world, but as long as you still have a mind of your own, you’re not defeated.

This was much more compelling stuff than what most heavy-guitar bands of the time could offer—either it was the bad-boy banalities of Guns ‘n Roses, or it was what the boys in Anthrax called “Dungeons and Dragons lyrics”—goofy escapism on the order of Venom or Manowar (or even Carcass, another band with Napalm Death as its precursor). At twenty, it sounded like something I could identify with, and when I realized just how much I identified with the band’s and the album’s worldview, I added the rest of their discs to my collection. Pure remained my favorite, though, and still does: it offers a kind of solace and perspective, an immediate and real one, that no other record I’ve heard since has been able to give. Maybe, again, it was a matter of the right place and the right time, but the fact that I’ve found even one album like that is rare—about as rare as, say, finding someone you can marry and live with and still love without apology decades later.

Pure has also aged well—not just musically, but personally. If I identified with it at twenty, it was something I remain connected to at the age of thirty-six. If anything, I’m more connected to it now than ever, because of so much else that has come and gone, and not stood up. “It will stand”, as the bluesman said, and it does—in me.
Tags: Justin Broadrick