If someone goes on this tour, make sure to hand Justin Broadrick a telephone to signify that this album has been phoned in. As the term implies, when content creators are no longer focused on making their work significant, an “it’ll do” mentality results. This fits within what Godflesh and related Broadrick-acts have done through their careers.
To dispatch with Post Self, this album consists of hard rock riffs detuned and slowed down, accompanied by bangy industrial beats that have less swing and groove than mainstream industrial, but despite this aesthetic and stylistic distance the album still sounds like standard pop: verse-chorus, certain intervals work best, driven by vocals, no particular spark of form arising from within each song. Like our society, it is a managerial imposition from without, attempting to mass manipulate people toward a result.
This is not inconsistent with the nature of Godflesh and the career of its primary songwriter. The band started with a short album that demonstrated the aesthetic approach they wanted to take, “industrial grindcore,” but because it was so rhythm reliant it never gained much endurance with fans except as a proof of concept. Clearly something more was required, like melody.
Broadrick went to the back of his vinyl stack, way back there in the closet of the basement he was living in somewhere in the outer London fringe, and dug out his indie rock records — the ones he would never be able to show to his metal and punk friends — from behind the backup bong and a stack of THATCHER MUST GO posters from his turbulent childhood.
The result was Streetcleaner, an epic masterpiece which combined a metal outlook on the world, advanced grindcore mechanics, and just enough indie, synthpop, and maybe even English folksongs to have melodic development and atmosphere. This album made a career for Godflesh. In fact, ever since, fans have wanted nothing more than a return to the magic of this album.
Unfortunately, Godflesh had no idea why the album succeeded. The fans are mostly incoherent, you know, stuff like “it makes me feel like one time my uncle took me fishing and gave me a Bud Lite and told me that aliens were real and then we got chili dogs on the way home.” The labels, music writers, and hipsters tend to be the same oleaginous human beings who rave over novelty and surface traits, like “his transitions are smooth as vinyl, but then the crushing primal rhythm, like a voudon sacrifice by ageless space robots on a genocide-devasted future Mars, overwhelms your senses and, like Quasimodo, you must simply let go.” The mainstream journalists talk about how he must find it difficult to record such music in his cave, since it sounds like the mastodons he must hunt if they were driving one of the newer models of motorcar. His bank account and girlfriend — and of course you need one of those, or you are a loser — ask if he wants to live in a basement forever. Other bands praise his technique, but no one seems to know why this album hit a chord with the fans.
Of course, they will not like to hear the answer because it is artistic and not musical or production characteristics. Yep… that old troublesome idea… this album expressed something, which means the artist communicated an idea with the fans that resonated with them, and it seemed to them a more profound understanding than what they had, a greater intellectual tool for describing their world. In plain terms, it just felt like life. You could have Streetcleaner moments at your job, in the grocery store, at the Natural History Museum, while railing whatever flitty nitwit you were dating at the moment, or even at the doctor’s office. It made sense of what we saw on the news, and it combined raw grinding realism and misanthropy with a softer sense that life should have meaning, that there was a plan here or at least a goodness, buried somewhere in the human ruins of our egotistical casting about. But to the band, this was invisible, or at least unknown, and so they came away with the impression that people wanted more nihilistic grinding.
Consequent attempts missed what made Streetcleaner great. Two years later, Slavestate came out, in which Broadrick mixed two of his other influences, techno and hip-hop, somewhat unsteadily. This was in the early days of the 1990s when every good liberal — and coming from an abusive childhood and seeing himself as a victim, Broadrick leans Left except for the qualified eugenic misanthropy that periodically bubbles to the surface — wanted to embrace the postmodern idea of many viewpoints being absolutely and universally true at the same time (hint: they can be true, but only specifically, not universally, which is different from “subjective” and “objective”). So he mixed in some new aesthetic influences but missed the soulful sense of not just melody and atmosphere but what they implicate by forcing the composer to play with it, namely a sense of adventure, experience, journey, change, or any other manifestation of the poetic nature of life itself, in which the contrast between options plays out in mingled regret and hope. Poetry is about recognizing the limitations of reality, aspiring anyway, finding oneself somewhat doomed, but by discovering a realistic yet aspirational view, finding the soul saved and receiving the first tingling implications of something larger at work here than hand-to-mouth and help the poor.
Slavestate, when you strip aside the techno and more modern vocals, is essentially a rhythm album. The mystery does not reveal itself, or even introduce itself… Pure followed and did mostly the same thing, but we were full into the big fat 90s obsession with techno now, so phat beats and breakdowns were the order of the day. Pure does this very, very well but the guitar has been downgraded from leader of the pack who takes us on adventures to an accompaniment of rhythm and texture which is not particularly interesting. Streetcleaner picked up on the sentimental nihilism and naturalistic religion of that Druidic old heavy metal metal, before Led Zeppelin got in there and mixed in all the usual hippie rock babble about chicks and parties. It influenced everything that came after it, especially later death metal and black metal, to use melody like Iron Maiden and Metallica did on their second albums, or Slayer had on South of Heaven. This was metal maturing, which does not mean “becoming more like rock or jazz” but “becoming a qualitatively more advanced version of itself,” which means that the details knit together with the big plan and while that remains ambiguous, it is more vivid and less disordered. Metal was using more of music itself, and creating a more powerful effect, but it was harder to do. And so, with Slavestate and Pure we got more of what the labels wanted, which was texture, aesthetics, style, technique, and imagery. They promise great success while demanding these things, probably while also reciting “Me so horny… me love you long time” in pidgin Vietcong.
An interesting thing happened after Pure, however. Broadrick dug up “Cold World” and “Nihil,” the two most melodically advanced songs from the album, and released them as an extended single named not surprisingly Cold World. This remains a favorite of Godflesh fans to this day because the remixes bring out not the rhythm, but the melody, and you can see how these songs gesture at something greater… something more Streetcleanery… in Godflesh: a union of the realist misanthrope who recognizes that civilization has died, and the person who wants to find beauty and order in life, almost like a Platonic woodsman returning from the wilds of philosophy to ask what the point of everything is, really. Broadrick filed that idea and then played around with different elements of the Godflesh sound over the next three years, essentially sitting out the most important era of death metal and grindcore but, since most fans were just beginning to grasp Streetcleaner and it was more popular than ever, it probably was not a good time to try for something new and possibly fail. Sure, the band stayed busy releasing remixes and other rarities, but this kept the label off his back as Broadrick tried to reconstruct his life after having somewhat unnervingly served his purpose by releasing Streetcleaner. Give up, or go on? In 1994, Godflesh released Selfless and Merciless and a similar pattern emerged.
Selfless took the approach of Pure — big stark beats — and mixed in the Cold World inspirations just a bit, far enough to give the music some centering. The band did not take it especially far, however, and concentrated most of the tracks of the old Godflesh style on Merciless. It was as if the composers were saying to the fans, “We have to release something for the herd on the big albums, but we’re going to work in some of our secret hopes as well, and then release those as EPs.” This fit with what most techno and synth bands were doing at the time; their albums were for club kids, the EPs were for collectors. At that point in time, people still thought collectors cared about the music. Now we know that collectors care about collectors and basically want bragging rights and a hobby to keep them occupied when not staining the chairs at their jobs. Ask a collector if he would rather have his band release the best album ever on unlimited printing, or that he would get the only copy of their next release, no matter what the quality is. Collectors are how bourgeois respectability and commercial sensibilities crept into music via the backdoor. Speaking of which, here’s a handy chart:
This created a split in the Godflesh fan base. Some wanted what Merciless and Cold World offered, which was a reduction of the big beats and textures Godflesh to the songs where Broadrick worked in enough melody to hint at potential, and others — following the Cannibal Corpse and Cradle of Filth “more (technique) is better” — wanted him to go full-on brutal or full-on indie. The nerdy college kids wanted music that could hang with the pinwheels and lollipops set, and the underground metal people thought they wanted Tomb of the Mutilated with techno beats. If you combine the two EPs, you get an entirely different band than if you listen to the albums as a whole, even though these songs were on the albums, albeit mixed differently so that you heard less of the atmosphere and more of the aggression. But in the meantime, something interesting was happening: both underground metal and the music industry, based on selling $0.50 CDs for $15, were reaching their peak. Technically, 1996 was the cost/performance peak for record labels, and Godflesh dropped Songs Of Love And Hate into that foaming madness.
If you wanted to pick an album that is closest to Post Self, it would be Songs Of Love And Hate, although aesthetically it took a different approach. Gone were the radically detuned and massively distorted guitars, replaced by 1990s genteel studio distortion, sort of like what you heard on later Immolation albums. The hip-hop influences were back and stronger than ever before, which is too bad because hip-hop is moron music. Every genre of music imposes some limitations on the techniques and theory that can be used and at some point, the limitations ensure that you will get highly repetitive, zero imagination, mechanistic blarting of beats and ranting of keywords to the point that only a moron could be fascinated by it. For the record, most rock, jazz, blues, and pop are moron music as well, but I have yet to hear any rap that is not moron music, despite how fashionable it is:
National Public Radio, for example, can hardly go a week without featuring some young, articulate commentator as “rock critic” who’ll regale listeners with their observations on the profound significance of the latest release by whatever band is their current discovery. They’ll ascribe social and aesthetic virtues to awful music that should serve as cautionary examples of what results when musical instruments are given to adolescents without supervision. These reviewers are obviously intelligent, wordy, enthusiastic, and probably well-educated individuals who can craft beautiful paeans to simplistic, redundant, naive, crude, even offensive junk. Now I recognize that I’m sounding a bit like a curmudgeon, and that beauty is in the eye of the beholder; everybody has a right to listen to whatever they like, and that, for this person, the music means all those glowing things they describe. But WHY does it represent that to them? That’s what’s puzzling.
…But the mystery is why growth in musical taste becomes arrested at an adolescent level in so many accomplished, intelligent ADULTS. People who certainly have brushed against more worthwhile music in their lives and surely are aware that there is a universe of sophisticated, rewarding musical experiences available to them. They have advanced their tastes in other things. Why not music? And why don’t their simplistic tastes in music cause them embarrassment? Certainly few adults would want it known that their reading material consisted solely of comic books. Sure, we all enjoy magazine cartoons and the comic strips in newspapers. Often they’re tremendously insightful and clever. But they’re not our ONLY reading. Strangely, for many – perhaps most – adults, their collections of recordings consist of only rock-and-roll, or country and western, or rap, or whatever popular music style is their preference.
… Like the eighteenth-century Europeans, most notably the British, whose empire brought them in contact with indigenous populations of foreign lands, and who found fascination with the concept of the noble savage, perhaps contemporary yuppies experience vicarious satisfaction by attempting to experience, through the music of less sophisticated subcultures, some earthy life experiences they never had. We’ve seen it before: From the nineteenth-century mansions of the English landed gentry, to the forays of Manhattanites in the forties to the hot spots of Harlem, to the suburbanite professionals of today, playing gritty, funky, folksy blues on custom CD systems in their upscale luxury sedans, sports cars, and SUVs. . . it seems there is an inverse relationship between the social circumstance of some people and their attraction to the primitive; the more educated they are, the more privileged and sheltered their upbringing, the more they’re attracted to and assign virtue to less sophisticated things – music included.
There are very few exceptions to the moron music standard, and they generally occur on the level of specific albums by specific bands, but clearly some genres try for more complexity and insight than others. By the converse principle, other genres have simply given themselves over to the lowest common denominator, and rap and techno are in this light the most democratic forms of music imaginable. Punk at least had some standards, and to distinguish itself from random noise, tried to be musical in unconventional ways. Rap and techno are what happens when people make advertising jingles into genres. And yet, these were the things that Godflesh decided to mix into Songs Of Love And Hate, and in order to incorporate them, Broadrick needed the guitars to be a simple backdrop for all the gee-whiz shit the drums and vocals were doing, so he kicked back the riffs to hard rock and early heavy metal territory. The album tanked, and Broadrick immediately recognized his mistake as the old Godflesh fans streamed for the exits. His response should be a lesson for all of us in bravery and leadership.
Stopping by his favorite kebab shop for a half-pound of quality weed, Broadrick went back into the basement, fired up the drum machine, and started reworking the album more honestly. He knew that he would either make something like his longstanding side project Techno Animal or try to make a Godflesh record, and this time, he subtracted all of the nonsense tributes to the old Godflesh style from the album, layered the songs instead of trying to make everything harmonize, looped and relooped, and came out with Songs Of Love And Hate In Dub which is actually a good album. This is more like Techno Animal or Scorn — another post Napalm Death project — in that it is pure dub, with any metal or grindcore being entirely incidental, but in doing so, he got closer to the spirit of what he was trying to create and farther from the pretense and marketing. And yet, with this album, Godflesh also went into semi-retirement, releasing only a couple of more albums — Hymns and Us And Them — which flirted around with the Godflesh mix of grindcore, hard rock, techno, hip-hop, and twenty-five shades of industrial. Then the band fell silent.
In 2014, Godflesh returned with A World Lit Only By Fire, which was hyped by labels and music hipsters but ended up being a non-event to the old Godflesh fans who it pretended to be directed toward. It went back to the days of the self-titled album or Selfless in that it was mostly grinding primitive rhythm riffs with added texture and some sense of an epic confrontation, in the style of soundtracks that have informed the metal sound since its birth. You can see this being a good background sonic wallpaper to a movie about post-apocalyptic cops or giant rubbery lizards attacking Tokyo because of a decline in the quality of anime. Yet it did not achieve the atmosphere, worked in with melody and subtlety, that previous Godflesh had fostered. To understand why, we have to back up a minute.
Godflesh is best understood as one of several parallel projects. I have already mentioned Techno Animal, but there is also the noise project Final, and of course the indie-rock project Jesu, which underwent its own Godflesh-loop but in reverse. The first Jesu album was somewhat melancholic indie-emo, but not too much, with enough guts that people could appreciate it. The second Jesu album, in shades of Slavestate, went too much into the emo and lost the other elements that made the first album profound. In the same way early Techno Animal was like techno with depth of texture and melody, but that later left the equation, leaving behind generic hard club techno that inspired no one. Similarly, when Final was atmospheric noise it was interesting, but when it tried to be harsh noise, the project folded. These influenced Broadrick in the years before A World Lit Only By Fire, and when he returned to Godflesh, he still had no idea what made it appealing in the first place.
This brings us back to Post Self. Instead of focusing on the guitars with melody leading to a story told through riffs, as is the metal way that made the second Godflesh album so powerful, we are back to guitars as a pure rhythm instrument for an album that is based around pop-style loops driven by drums and vocals. The magic is gone, not in a sense of destroyed by removed, much as how entropy sucks the heat energy out of a system over multiple iterations. This album is not good, it is not bad, it is just there. This means there is little incentive to reach for it again. It is a sad late chapter in the story of a band who never quite rediscovered the mixture of phrasal narrative, grindcore texture, atmospheric melody, and compelling rhythmic motions that once made them great, and now haunts them like a white whale.