Christopher Owens teaks readers back into the music scene in his Friday slot.
32 years on, 'Grave New World' still divides opinion.
Is it a complete repudiation of everything Discharge had stood for in the past? Is it a record ahead of it's time? Is it an experiment that just didn't work?
Let's establish some context first.
The early 80's in the UK saw the development of two potent, dynamic punk scenes. There was not only anarcho punk, but the second wave of punk. Retrospectively known as UK82 (named after the song by The Exploited), it took its influences from the first wave of punk, but boiled down the ingredients to speed, intensity and bleakness.
Three bands came to symbolise the scene: Discharge (easily the most influential), The Exploited (easily the most commercially successful) and GBH (easily the most consistent).
The big three, if you like.
By 1986, although the big three were still going and still attracting crowds, UK punk was at a crossroads. The initial wave of UK82 bands had, by and large, either split up or were going through the motions. The anarcho scene had largely burnt itself out, with their utopian dream being destroyed by the success of the Thatcher government over the miners. The hardcore scene, with the likes of Napalm Death and Extreme Noise Terror, was certainly making waves but would not become a major proposition for another year.
With the rise of thrash, which initially confused punks (Adie Bailey from Ultraviolent/English Dogs once quipped that, upon hearing the 'No Life 'till Leather' demo, he was uncertain if Metallica were a punk band with metal guitar players, or metalheads whose first love was punk), it was clear that there was a bigger, bolder scene out there. And, if played correctly, there was room for more than just metal bands. So, the big three of UK82 crossed over into metal.
There is, however, a danger with "crossing over." You fumble the ball, and you end up playing to no one. Luckily, GBH and The Exploited did no such thing.
The next two major bands to "go metal" would have been Broken Bones and English Dogs. Although Broken Bones (made up of Tezz and Bones from Discharge who had left due to disagreements on direction) would always retain a punk following, English Dogs found that"...the fans of (crust punks) Disorder... looked down their noses with their sneering. A lot of those guys did actually form Metal influenced bands so I can’t understand what problem they had with us in the first place."
In England, at the time, metal was still seen as a reactionary form of music about shagging three "chicks" at one. Motorhead escaped a bashing, however, because their sound was still dirty, loud and fast. But the battleground was set. You were either one or the other.
The first sign that the Discharge sound was undergoing chance was the release of the 'Warning' 12.' Guitarist Peter "Pooch" Pyrtle (replacing legendary riffmaster Bones) was clearly more openly in thrall to metal than punk. Also of note is Cal's vocals. No longer barking or shouting, he's clearly singing. Listen to him sing the line "propaganda and lies" in 'Warning.' This is the sound of a man stretching his voice for the first time, maybe trying to develop some vocal traits.
For long time fans, it must have been strange taking this sound in at first. But, with classics like 'In Defence of Our Future' and 'Where There is a Will...', it's an essential release.
Later singles would see the elements of metal guitars and vocals come more and more to the front. Single release 'The Price of Silence' would see Cal develop an almost Ozzy Osbourne style vocal, while 'The More I See' (later covered by Metallica) introduces a higher pitch to the vocals.
With Pooch departing (to form the abysmal HellsBelles), Les "The Mole" Hunt was brought in. His only single with the band 'Ignorance/No Compromise', is a very, very different beast from what had come before. Less reliant on barre chords, we now got guitar lines and elaborate solos.
And all of this predated 'Grave New World',
The title track begins proceedings and, if you were unfamiliar with how the band had evolved, you'd be forgiven for thinking you'd put on the wrong record. The drum fills and hi hats sounds more like an LA metal band than grizzled Stoke on Trent punks. Then the lead work comes and we get a moderately cool riff that gets the head nodding. Very different, but also in line with the changes that had come beforehand.
And then Cal steps in.
The most divisive vocal performance ever. Once described as a bad mix of Ozzy and Robert Plant, I'm actually going to say that I actually enjoy it. Taken in context with the previous singles, it's definitely an evolution in his voice and one that actually suits the direction of the music. Of course, in terms of technique, he's no King Diamond or Rob Halford, but listen to his delivery of the line "This is a grave/grave new world." It's filled with disgust and (dare I say it) camp. Wonder if Axl Rose picked up any tips?
If you can get past the vocals, you'll find this song the sort of rocker that has an element of Tony Iommi (Black Sabbath) in the riffing, especially the second half with the descending three note riff. Something that set them apart from most of the LA hair brigade but, ironically, brought them a little closer to bands like Corrosion of Conformity, crossing over themselves from US hardcore punk into thrashier terrain..
'In Love Believe' continues with the Iommi obsession with a riff sounding like a rewrite of 'Sweet Leaf.' Although it could do with a shorter running time, it's notable for Cal's impassioned lyrics about we need to "extend the kind arm of infinity/all over the human sphere...", which comes across as almost a hippy style refrain, a new direction for the man who took delight in singing "we've been shit on far too long."
'D.Y.T. / A.Y.F.' has an almost Iron Maiden style gallop in the chorus while sounding vaguely like a song that emerged from a jam on the title track. While Rainy gets a moment to shine with his busy bass playing, and new guitarist Steve 'Fish' Brooks delivers a neat solo, Cal's lyrics relegate this one to "shoulda been a b-side" material.
However, he rectifies that with 'We Dare Speak (A Moment Only)', with a tale of Big Brother stamping over freedom of speech. It has some great imagery ('...dragged him screaming from his bed...behind closed doors') and actually has a bit of groove to it as well. Again, could be a minute or so shorter, but a good track nonetheless.
Closing with the fifteen minute (that's right) 'The Downward Spiral', we now head into Dio era Sabbath territory (tell me with a straight face that the opening doesn't sound like 'Heaven and Hell') and we hear a tale of a user descending into heroin addiction: " you get sucked in/without ever really realising/just what's happening/and that is when/the downward spiral begins."
Musically, it slowly metamorphosizes into more Iron Maidenesque galloping and guitar soloing, which gives way to a tasteful acoustic guitar around the eight minute mark, sounding like it was influenced by 'Fade to Black.' Once this is over, it goes back into the 'Heaven and Hell' era riffing for the next five or so minutes. Actually a genuinely exciting track, helped immensely by Cal's almost stream of consciousness lyrics.
As well as the music, the look of the band came in for grief (one local wag once remarked, upon seeing the press shot, that the Cult had let themselves go. He was shocked to see it was Discharge). And while this look has largely been the main stick with which the record is beaten with. While it has been retrospectively termed "glam", and it's easy to see why to someone in 2019, it's not. Bands like Amebix had long, back combed hair, the English Dogs wore denim and leather on stage. So it's best to describe the look as something that seemed a good idea at the time, and was very much of the time.
Bassist Rainy (who had been with the band since the first release) left around this time, later commenting that the album hadn't turned out the way he had originally envisaged it, which was an attempt at something bluesy (as the band had become disillusioned with the UK punk scene).
With new bassist Nick Bushell, they went out on tour with the new material. Reactions were, to say the least, mixed. Cliff Dinsmore from Bl'ast recounts "We played with them on that tour in San Diego...and all of a sudden the crowd started pelting them with shit - cans, bottles, you name it – anything they could throw they were throwing... But...it was kind of appalling for them to come out the way they did, all glammed up, and the drummer was wearing these weird shiny Kiss boots."
There's an audio recording from a show in San Francisco, where the crowd audibly turn on the band as soon as Cal starts singing. Soon, chants of "Fuck You" can be heard, perfectly in sync with the beat. Footage from a Canadian show can also be found online.
However, people like Rich Walker (Sore Throat/Solstice) have long defended this period, noting that he "...saw them on that tour, they were killer... Didn't get bottled off...people walked out, half of us stayed and enjoyed it."
My answer is the third statement.
'Grave New World' is a classic case of ambition over ability. Don't get me wrong, the playing on it is grand, but a few of the songs go on far longer than they should (almost an attempt to prove virtuosity on the chosen instruments), Cal's voice is certainly a tough sell for most and his insights into addiction and hope for humanity (while working with the music) do not begin to match the likes of 'Is This to Be' (from the classic 1981 12' 'Why.')
And, arguably, it was influential in the punk/hardcore world, as many would use it as a barometer of where not to go to (fairly or unfairly) musically speaking. Like the 'Hellspawn' compilation (where "extreme metal meets extreme techno", apparently), 'Grave New World' is a relic from a different period. But one that still has it's moments where it flat out rocks. Stick it on and decide for yourself.
⏩ Christopher Owens was a reviewer for Metal Ireland and finds time to study the history and inherent contradictions of Ireland.