Most of the people who pass Mark “Barney” Greenway in the street every day almost certainly have no idea what the man does for a living. His sensible haircut, unassuming demeanor and soft-spoken Birmingham accent betray nothing of his status as one of the most ferocious and accomplished voices in the gruesome history of extreme metal.
For the past 23 years, however, Greenway has toured the world as the front man for Napalm Death, the grindcore originators who have continuously pushed the boundaries of abrasive sound in every direction. Tonight, Greenway and company hit town to shatter eardrums at Music Hall of Williamsburg as part of the Decibel Magazine tour featuring death-metal heavyweights Immolation and headlined by those godfathers of gore, Cannibal Corpse.
Each band has built a notorious legacy of brutality dating back to the ’80s, making tonight’s bill a showcase of underground legends. Just don’t call it a nostalgia tour.
“I don’t think it’s a nostalgia tour for one reason: All the bands on the bill are still active and still making albums,” Greenway says. “There are bands out there that specifically set out to do a nostalgia tour and market it based on that. To me, that’s never going to be the thought school with Napalm. If it came to that, I wouldn’t want to do it. We’re always striving to do something fresh.”
That’s no platitude. Napalm Death isn’t simply still active; they’re on top of their game. 2012’s Utilitarian, their latest album, is a furious, experimental and crushingly heavy squall of outrageous noise. In addition to the expected blast beats and guttural shrieks, the record also seamlessly incorporates cruel snatches of acoustic guitar, crooning vocals, and even a schizoid saxophone solo from noted composer/multi-instrumentalist John Zorn. Sonically, it’s their most intriguing album of the 21st Century.
Characteristically, there’s a message in there, too. Eschewing the horrific fantasies that inspire the lyrics of many of their contemporaries, the album instead finds the erudite Greenway exploring the utilitarian ethics of “the greater good,” which have inspired some of humanity’s greatest triumphs and terrors.
“Clearly, the pursuit of happiness is what everybody would want,” Greenway says. “An equal world without oppression or having to prostrate yourself to other people: That’s what everybody desires. But utilitarianism isn’t that simple. It’s basically a pursuit of happiness, but that could mean anybody from animal-rights advocates or it could mean the most extreme form of capitalism, sort of a very selfish form of individualism.
“There’s a wide spectrum, so I don’t really know if I am (utilitarian) or not. What I was trying to do was sort of throw a question mark up in air,” he continues.
The same pursuit of a greater good that can obviously appeal to a proud socialist like Greenway, but may have likewise influenced the political philosophy of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher — a hated foe of the anarcho-punk music scene that gave rise to Napalm Death’s original incarnation more than 30 years ago.
That delicious irony isn’t lost on Greenway, who couldn’t help but reflect–if only briefly–on Thatcher’s legacy after her passing made global headlines last month.
“It was kind of my formative years when Thatcher was in power,” he says. “It was pretty miserable if you were from any sort of working-class background. I guess you could, if anything, relate it to the Reagan period in the States, where free enterprise was everything, but if you had nothing, you were kind of consigned to the dustbin. That, to me, was not the mark of a civilized society or one that strives for equality.
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“My final thoughts on the whole thing were that she couldn’t hurt anybody anymore, because she’d already gone,” he continues. “I understand people’s frustrations and some of the things that were done when she died — some people were kind of dancing in the streets. Personally, I had no reason to pay tribute to it in any way, shape or form. Quite frankly, I’ve already forgotten about it.”
While Thatcher’s death may have marked something of an end to an era in the U.K., no such end is in sight for Napalm Death. Still creatively energized, totally independent and terrifyingly passionate, Greenway says the band has no plans to slow down a single beat per minute, even after releasing five albums in the past decade.
“My general opinion is that if I’m going to do something, I’m going to do it 100 percent,” the singer says. “There’s no 50 percent or 65 percent. For the time that I’m with Napalm, that’s going to be the case. Napalm is my life, and that goes for the four of us — it’s more than just a band. It would be like cutting an arm off to take it away.
“It’s not just music; there’s a certain ethos to it,” he continues. “For the past couple of decades, there’s been some really baseless stuff in terms of music and corporate manipulation of music. I like to think that Napalm is the antithesis to that, so it’s really important that we carry on doing it.”
Once the Decibel tour has run its course, Napalm expects to continue taking its music where it’s never been before, to places like Kazakhstan and Russian Federations. Sometime after that, prep work will begin on a new album. But first, the obliteration of Houston tonight.
If ever there was a touring show at which you could be forgiven for wearing earplugs… mate, this might be it.