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Scale The Inferno - 96%

televiper11, November 15th, 2012

Fear, Emptiness, Despair is a polarizing record. That needs to be out front because many metal heads won't even give it the time of day. They blame this album for ND falling off a cliff in the mid-to-late 90's, which is entirely unfair. This is Napalm Death at their heaviest and most straight-forward yet the material here is far from accessible. Whereas later ND albums went all simplistic and easy, this record cuts deep with a suffocating air of pervasive horror and gloom. This is Harmony Corruption taken to further extremes, a moment where Napalm Death decided to once again accentuate the death side of their death-grind equation.

Heavily informed by Meathook Seed (Mitch Harris's industrial death side-project with members of Obituary), Fear, Emptiness, Despair rolls at a medium tempo relying more on nuanced riffs and menacing grooves than hyper-grind and unremitting blasts. As such it alienated many, especially coming off the feeding frenzy that was Utopia Banished. But this step back was vital for the majority of Utopia Banished's grind vortex blurred indistinguishably whereas F.E.D. has well-defined songwriting that sacrifices none of N.D.'s power and menace. Take first single "Plague Rages," it builds slowly with an ominous riff moving at snail's pace before a slow acceleration incrementally builds towards the blast beat/double-bass inferno that dominates the conclusion. Or the opening rage-induced attack of "Twist The Knife (Slowly)," a song that recalls Obituary at their most compact and aggressive. This track made it onto some soundtracks due to some blatant cross-promotion on Earache/Columbia's part but no one I know enjoyed it. They were terrified, and rightly so. Had I not already been into death metal, I would've run too. Barney sounds like an uncaged beast shot full of methamphetamine. His voice heaving and ragged and just plain venomous.

One of the best tracks here is "Hung." The sliding riff and bass run as Barney bellows and the drums nail this tight syncopated beat is killer. This track slams you over and over with its thick grooves before becoming completely unhinged with blinding riffs and scintillating d-beats and blasts -- this is a smart approach, layering that old-school N.D. feel into a newer template of mid-tempo death. When the blasts let up, they curb stomp you with a huge darkened groove that feels like a wall caving in. An unqualified success, "Hung" is one of Napalm Death's best songs. Another is "Throwaway," the fastest and most old-school song on here. It blisters with ridiculous blasts and is a real showcase for Danny Herrera's tight drum work. Then Mitch and Jesse trade this twisted riff work over some jaunty double-bass. Shane's keeps things heavy with strong bass runs while Barney rages maniacally throughout. Ill stuff indeed and a slap in the face of anyone who calls this album weak.

Apparently Colin Richardson's production was a salvage job from Pete Coleman's initial work but I actually think that turns in the band's favor. There is a rich tension in the production. The guitars are thick and grey-toned with heavy slabs of distortion layered over them. Shane's bass is fuzzy and active beyond the riffs. His playing really stands out for a change. And Danny Herrera's drums are front and center with a rich snappy sound. All the instruments have a sinister vibe, as if slathered in a post-apocalyptic industrial grime. Barney's voice too sounds different: strained and sinister, deeper than ever. Apparently recording conditions caused his throat to close forcing him to force extra air through his diaphragm. Whatever the problem, it worked in his favor.

If you are looking for darkly atmospheric death metal with ominous industrial overtones, you could do a whole lot worse than Fear, Emptiness, Despair -- a deeply misunderstood record that has more than stood the test of time. It may linger at a slight remove from the majority of N.D.'s discography in terms of punishing speed and grind aesthetics and it may have presaged their mid-to-late 90's decline but don't hold that against one of the most powerful and singular records in the N.D. canon.