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Voidhead: Justin Broadrick on the End of Godflesh

on February 09, 2015, 2:00pm

Component is a section of Aux.Out. for one-off pieces, special editorials, and lost orphans of the music discussion. Today, Gary Suarez speaks with Justin Broadrick about the rise and fall of Godflesh, the influential metal band that begot Jesu and, eventually, reunited.

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Justin Broadrick couldn’t move, nor could he be moved. He needed to move, but the forces holding him in place — fear, disillusionment — were too great to combat, having rapidly metastasized over the course of several months. Instead, he lay in bed, afflicted by an emotional, existential paralysis that had turned suffocatingly real. He had lost so much already, and now his drive had slipped away.

It couldn’t have happened at a worse possible time. There was a record to promote, a tour to play, a plane to catch. As planned, his longtime friend and collaborator Diarmuid Dalton had arrived to drive him to the airport. No amount of reasoning could uncouple Broadrick from the mattress. “I can’t fucking do this,” he said. “Godflesh is done.”

Though the dramatic events of that day in April 2002 swiftly terminated one of the most pioneering bands in extreme music, Godflesh’s march to the gallows had in fact been a circuitous slog, as slow as the tempos of the group’s quintessential work. Since forming in 1988, the duo of guitarist/vocalist Broadrick and bassist Ben G.C. Green had been forging their own heavy metal alloy. Despite grindcore and punk roots, they favored a timing closer to that of hip-hop, largely by way of drum machine.

Not easily imitated, Godflesh were poseur-proof, a band whose credibility meant their fandom could hardly be questioned. After all, Broadrick’s CV had included mid-to-late-’80s stints in extreme metal acts Napalm Death and Head of David. With provocative song titles like “Christbait Rising”, their nihilistic 1989 album, Streetcleaner, came on with vicious bite and never let up. Their reputation and sound carried through subsequent releases like 1992’s Pure and 1994’s Selfless.

Though they had contemporaries in industrial hard rock acts like KMFDM and Ministry, Godflesh were essentially peerless — a status that poses a creative challenge over time. Bands with any shot of longevity inevitably have to choose whether to stay the course or experiment. Godflesh scarcely resembled any other band of their time, and weren’t as able to let the failures and successes of others around them inform their creative decision-making. Tragically, it was inspiration that led to their demise.

~

DESCENT

Throughout the 1990s, the UK had been a sort of petri dish for a burgeoning and overlapping series of electronic music subcultures. A common thread that ran through them was the “Amen break,” a fortuitous rhythm plundered from a song by Washington, D.C.-based R&B band The Winstons. Perhaps history’s most sampled drum solo, this archetypal breakbeat became the spiritual spine of countless records during these formative years. Compared with the straightforward 4/4 disco descendant that buoyed house and techno, Winstons drummer G.C. Coleman’s beat sounded complex, refreshing, and funky as hell.

The most reverent of its rhythmic progeny, drum and bass music sounded like the future, often a dystopian one. “There’s so much anger and fucking violence in that rhythm,” Broadrick tells me over Skype, punctuating with profanity as he is wont to do. “The way Technical Itch chopped that rhythm, the way DHR [Digital Hardcore Recordings] took that rhythm, bastardized it, and mutated it was fucking awesome.”

A native of Birmingham, England, Broadrick started going to London in the mid-’90s to frequent underground clubs and purchase records. “I liked the way these BPMs were being used,” he says. He exposed himself to ever-darkening strains of the sound. Risk-taking and experimentation with new, technologically advancing electronic instruments fueled the rapid growth of dance music, with producers, shoppers, and clubgoers all clamoring for the latest and greatest in the electronic realm. Not one for rose-colored nostalgia, Broadrick acknowledges that not everything he listened to at the time has held up. “I sometimes sit down and dig out some of the dance music I was buying in, like, ‘94, and it will sound fucking awful.”

Consciously or not, drum and bass had adopted the aesthetics of industrial, a label often ascribed to Godflesh thanks to the band’s preference for programmable drum machines over human percussionists. Artists like Alec Empire and Panacea made considerable inroads into the hearts and minds of a generation that otherwise turned on to Front Line Assembly and Wumpscut. It seems only natural that the cross-pollination would work both ways, but industrial’s rising conservatism made it a hard sell. Unsurprisingly, it was UK-based industrial acts like Cubanate and Pitchshifter that hopelessly peddled drum and bass fusion to their own fickle scene, on 1998’s Interference and http://www.pitchshifter.com, respectively. “It sounded more contrived to me,” Broadrick says of the latter. “It sounded less confrontational, less vicious, less abstract, less surreal.”

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Fittingly, Broadrick had his own ambitions for fusing the two styles. “I really wanted to take that rhythm and weld it to the Godflesh sensibilities of abstract, surreal, mutated metal.” The opening track to the band’s radical 1999 album Us and Them, “I, Me, Mine” sets metal riffs clanging against spliced, sped-up, distorted Amen breaks in a ballet of controlled chaos. Broadrick and Green had previously incorporated electronic sounds and hip-hop into their albums, but this was to be a different kind of animal. Though during the previous decade Broadrick had become best known for his work in Godflesh, no single genre could contain him. He made records in teams or under aliases like Techno Animal, The Sidewinder, Solaris B.C., and Curse of the Golden Vampire, among others. His diverse output covered avant-garde guitar manipulations, abstract electronica, and numerous surrounding data points. Given his and Godflesh’s interests over the previous decade, a defiant departure like Us and Them was an inevitability.

Broader than the remix and so-called dub versions peppering their discography, Us and Them was Godflesh’s first album to formally declare their appreciation for the flourishing urban club scene. Though tracks like “Nail” and “Witchhunt” fell in line with what they’d done before, the record was their most eclectic. Guttural, demonic vocals from the bleakest corner of the rave hovered above massively constricted breakbeats to make “Defiled”. “Control Freak” snapped and whirred, while machine funk mingled with guitar funk on “Endgames”. It was a wild ride.

It was also the band’s final record for Earache, the legendary metal label that had carried Godflesh’s music since nearly the beginning. Discontinuing their decade-long relationship with Earache would prove a critical part of the band’s unraveling.

~

ENDGAMES

Though in later press he’s expressed mixed feelings about the album, Broadrick insists that his hatred has been overstated; he attributes any on-the-record negative sentiment to Us and Them’s more cringe-worthy moments, ambitious ideas turning retrospectively into dated dead ends. With some lingering sheepishness, he recognizes many consider it “still, in some ways, a bit of a groundbreaking record.” An item distinctly of its time, “it was so informed by the excesses of dance music,” he explains with the defensive benefit of hindsight. “But as we know, dance music moves at fucking light speed relative to rock music.”

Arriving two years after the tumultuous torque of Us and Them, 2001’s Hymns is as pure a hard rock record as Godflesh ever made. While trace elements of the previous album’s aesthetic linger on “Antihuman”, the follow-up was an overwhelmingly organic record. As anomalous as it could’ve been without betraying the discography altogether, the album felt at the time like a repudiation or at least a demarcation. From the doomy grooves of “White Flag” to the volcanic swagger of “Voidhead”, Hymns could hardly be accused of sounding dated, making it comparatively safe from criticism, including self-criticism. “Nearly every Godflesh album, I seem to just tire of something,” Broadrick says. “I always seem to make a record and then contradict it almost immediately.”

 Voidhead: Justin Broadrick on the End of Godflesh

The most evident contradiction was the inclusion of real live drummer Ted Parsons, whose primary project Prong had wound down following 1996’s Rude Awakening. While somewhat shocking after Us and Them, the new addition wasn’t entirely unprecedented. Notorious for cheekily crediting “Machine” as the rhythm section in their liner notes, Broadrick and Green had worked with Praxis drummer Bryan “Brain” Mantia on 1996’s Songs of Love and Hate. Not long after that record, the formidable Mantia took Tim Alexander’s place in Primus, and, according to an interview with a Buffalo, NY, metal zine, Godflesh was keen on replacing him with Parsons. At the time, Broadrick expressed surprise and skepticism upon being told by the interviewer that Prong hadn’t yet ceased and in fact was touring with Type O Negative.

Eventually, the New York-based Parsons — who Broadrick affectionately calls “a very mechanical drummer” — did join the duo at their studio on the other side of the pond. This led to actual bona fide Godflesh jam sessions, something wholly alien to their process. “I found it sort of refreshing,” Broadrick recalls, “but simultaneously a little depressing. I’m such a control freak.” But there they were, a guitarist playing his riffs over and over while a rhythm section worked out their parts. This was the beginning of a new Godflesh, though after the studio cutups that comprised their prior record, the whole thing to him “seemed primitive.”

The rationale for this sharp turn was part artistic reaction, part reality check. No longer in Earache’s orbit, the band took stock of their situation in real time and found themselves professionally adrift. Record labels had clamored for Godflesh in previous years, with A&R reps bowing and scraping in the hopes of stealing them away. But the climate had changed, with digital piracy on the rise and a very different sort of metal appealing to the kids. What may have sold well enough in the past wasn’t going to suffice as labels needed to think more shrewdly as businesses to survive.

Shopping for a new home for Godflesh with Hymns demos in hand, Broadrick found repeated rejection, even with Parsons’ personal and persistent outreach. Some of the responses were downright insulting. “It didn’t make us feel very positive about the band,” Broadrick says with a self-deprecating laugh. “I remember somebody at Roadrunner saying, ‘Look, man, we got Slipknot now and shit like that, so you guys are done.’” The label they settled on was Music for Nations, a London-based operation with a long tenure in what Broadrick liberally defines as “mainstream” metal, whose roster at the time included Opeth and Hardcore Superstar.

Given his history and place in the genre, it’s understandable that Broadrick might’ve felt out of place among showy Swedes making vastly more agreeable music. He likens the overall experience to a dictatorship. When it came to making Hymns, their Music for Nations A&R go-between balked from the start. “This woman working with us basically seemed to have a panic attack at the idea of us recording our own record,” he says. As far back as 1991’s Slavestate, Godflesh had enjoyed this sort of control and comfort, producing much of their most heralded work at Avalanche, Broadrick’s home studio. “For all their hostile way of treating artists — which is essentially like shit — [Earache] at least gave every artist license to do what they wished on their records,” he concedes.

Arguments ensued, but in order to receive their advance, the band reluctantly agreed to uproot and record at Foel Studio in the Welsh countryside, some four hours away from Broadrick’s home at the time. Godflesh was operating in an alien way in an alien location, expected to produce another unconventional album of crushing industrial metal while tucked away in a rural idyll replete with actual cottages. “It all felt fucking wrong to me,” he laments. “I preferred the demos [to] the actual record itself.” (In 2013, The End Records released a special edition of Hymns with some remastered demos for comparison.)

Label woes are a common grievance among artists at nearly every level in music. Still, Godflesh’s problems were hardly limited to venue selection and difficult industry types. As Broadrick bemoaned his situation, he remained determined to complete the work, as had been his nature for so long. Ben Green, on the other hand, wanted out.

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WHITE FLAG

“Our biggest inspiration for the continued existence of Godflesh at that point was Ted Parsons,” Broadrick says. “He really was the driving force.” The origins of the Broadrick/Green team reached back to the early 1980s, when the two played in pre-Godflesh forebear Fall of Because. Coming after close to two decades of history and preexisting conditions, the drummer’s galvanizing presence opened up possibilities for the band’s future. “He was so enthusiastic about Godflesh making a record that I was really geared towards us being a rock band.”

By the new millennium, however, good things were happening for Techno Animal, Broadrick’s dynamic project with frequent collaborator Kevin Martin. Boasting both electronica and hip-hop characteristics, the duo had recorded for highly respected independent labels like Force Inc. and Matador, and teamed up with artists like dälek, Porter Ricks, and the aforementioned Alec Empire. Released just one month before Hymns, Techno Animal’s The Brotherhood of the Bomb included features from rap trio Antipop Consortium, El-P, and Vast Aire of Cannibal Ox, and remains a notable entry in the ill-fated subgenre known as illbient.

While Broadrick’s pursuits outside of Godflesh were mostly musical, Green’s were better categorized as life choices. He’d chosen a partner (in UK parlance, the sort you live with and/or marry) and had his eye on returning to study at university. In stark contrast to his aggressively prolific bandmate, Green had relied on other forms of employment over the years to help pay the bills. The proverbial writing was on the wall as far back as Us and Them, though it didn’t come to the fore until it came time to promote Hymns. “I think it was very unsaid at the time,” Broadrick recalls.

By 2001, Godflesh’s standing in the metal community was in that tricky purgatory that contains both respected veterans and discarded has-beens. The fans who supported you started to age out, while the new (or in this case, nü) metal kids were turning on to bands that spoke more to their generational segment. As a result, the proposed European tour to support Hymns supplanted Godflesh, demoting them from headliner to support act. To mix metaphors, playing second fiddle was the last straw.

Though it would take several more months for an official end, Godflesh essentially broke up with one phone call in October 2001. As Broadrick remembers it, Green called him at home, barely two weeks before the beginning of their tour opening for Strapping Young Lad and Fear Factory. “Ben felt like the band was in its death throes,” he says, going on to paraphrase his friend:

I feel like we’re stepping backwards. We’re opening for bands that I’ve got no idea who they are. We’ve been forced onto this tour. We’re playing the game by industry rules now. I don’t wanna spend months stuck in a van like a fucking 19-year-old supporting bands again. We’ve done all this. We did all this in the late ’80s. I’m really sorry. I just cannot do this. I’m going to go back to university. I’ve got a partner now, and I wanna spend time with her. I don’t wanna do this shit anymore.

Broadrick pleaded with him, tried to rationalize. He wanted to tour the record, for both personal and professional reasons. Both men in tears, their respective reasonings and sentiments were as hard to deny as they were convincing. Comparing this exchange to “the end of a marriage,” he says, “I remember literally putting the phone down, lying down on the floor in the hall of the house, just fucking bawling my brains out.”

Deeply unhappy, Green was quitting Godflesh, no question about it. What isn’t clear is if, after having founded the band together 13 years prior, he’d hoped his friend would give up along with him.

~

PARALYZED

Everyone handles loss in their own way. Within an hour, Broadrick was on the phone with Parsons to find a replacement. “I was suddenly quite duty bound,” he says. “I felt obliged not only to the label, but I felt obliged to the band, to myself.” No tour could be stopped by a bassist, even one as integral to Godflesh’s sound and dynamic as Green. Surely their rep at Music for Nations wouldn’t accept such logic to cancel a tour, and at least at this particular moment, neither could Broadrick.

Resourceful and ready, Parsons had the solution in hand. Paul Raven, his former bandmate in Prong, could be on the next transatlantic flight from the US. A few more calls and it was sorted. Raven arrived posthaste and began rehearsing at Avalanche with Parsons. Meanwhile, Broadrick headed to mainland Europe for some already scheduled Techno Animal gigs, leaving his then-partner alone to host the remainder of this new Godflesh at their home. Upon his return, the trio diligently prepared for the tour, leaving little time for Broadrick to address his feelings about losing Green. “I barely had any time to absorb this and to quantify the emotional impact,” he says.

On the surface, what followed is what’s often described as difficult rock star behavior. To an outsider, the final shambling months of Godflesh’s cut-down existence could be easily mischaracterized. Befitting their opener status, Godflesh’s sets were short, typically six songs, and mostly cuts from Hymns like “Defeated” and “Voidhead”, according to fans who turned out. Sometimes they didn’t even perform, or only played one track, for a number of reasons.

“I just started hitting the bottle as hard as possible,” Broadrick admits. “That was my only escape.” He was getting along well with the other bands as well as both Parsons and Raven. But four shows into the tour, he looked over at his bandmates in this new Godflesh and then at whoever happened to be in the audience for their set. “This is no disrespect to Raven or Ted,” he says, “but this wasn’t Godflesh anymore.” Nonetheless, Broadrick apparently left the stage each night with a solitary, perhaps cynical line of banter: “We are Godflesh.”

Green’s reasons for leaving hadn’t dissuaded Broadrick at the time, but they began to resonate during the tour. Godflesh clashed with the tour manager and sound guy, whom they shared with Strapping Young Lad. “We just didn’t share any of the same sensibilities,” he says. “‘I’m with Devin Townsend, and you guys are the support,’ that disgusting patronizing fucking attitude that loads of these cunts in this industry have.” It was exactly as his former bandmate had claimed it would be. Growing increasingly more disillusioned during those long weeks on the road, he coped in a self-destructive way. “I couldn’t hit the bottle any harder,” he says. He was coming to the realization that he didn’t want to do it anymore. Godflesh needed to end.

Koch Records had licensed Hymns in North America, which meant that another tour was being planned stateside, with former Sleep guitarist Matt Pike’s stoner metal band High on Fire opening. “There was so much already being laid out for me,” Broadrick says. “It was out of my hands. People were just pulling my strings.” He’d begun expressing his unhappiness in Godflesh to others to no avail. Rather than accept what he was saying, they tried to encourage him, as friends often do. “I was voicing my doubts as much as I could, but I clearly never voiced them loud enough, which resulted in a fucking breakdown.”

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WITCHHUNT

On April 10th, 2002, Diarmuid Dalton arrived at his friend’s home to take him to the airport and was met at the door by Broadrick’s partner. She informed him of what was happening, that he was not going to make that flight, nor the next one, nor any flight that would result in this tour happening. “I couldn’t confront it,” he says. “I was in so much pain. I did not want to do this anymore in any context.” At Broadrick’s request, Dalton instead drove him to his hometown of Birmingham, where he holed up with a friend and a prescription for temazepam. “I couldn’t sleep,” he says. “I was having panic attacks every day.” With Broadrick in self-imposed exile and hibernation, his partner was left behind to break the bad news to everyone he could not face.

Days later, a hasty yet official press release announced the cancellation of the tour, chalking it up to an “undisclosed illness.” It wasn’t a lie, per se, but it wasn’t quite the full truth. It wasn’t until May that Broadrick released his own statement, one that served as a declaration of Godflesh’s end. Its most poignant sentence was also its most loaded: “I found that without G.C. Green, Godflesh is not Godflesh, and him leaving proved to be an omen for me.”

Despite the apologies in his statement, Broadrick’s unwillingness to honor the tour dates and go on with Godflesh was viewed as arrogant, selfish, and egomaniacal by spurned fans and colleagues. People’s livelihoods were counting on his participation, and instead of doing his job, he’d hidden. “It was cowardly, by my own admission,” he now says.

The consequences were immediate and escalating. Having made many of the arrangements for the US tour himself, Raven passed along Broadrick’s contact information to those whose loss of wages he was responsible for. “He just said, ‘Fuck this guy’ and basically handed people my number, and they came after me,” he says. “Mostly I was just confronted with utter anger.” A particularly loose nut, the tour bus operator made what seemed a very real threat against his life if he was not properly compensated. Apparently a Vietnam vet, he told Broadrick that he knew former military members near where Broadrick lived and left the implication dangling. Panicked, Broadrick remortgaged his house and amassed some $30,000-40,000 in credit card debt to pay off Mr. Full Metal Jacket and everyone else he owed. His partner left him not long thereafter, compounding his losses further. “I think I deserved that,” he says.

It’s important to note that Broadrick made his living from his music. With Godflesh obviously no longer an active source of revenue, it took Techno Animal’s successes to pull him out of debt over the next two or three years. “It all just went to absolute shit in every personal aspect imaginable,” he says again with that self-deprecating laugh. “My only solace, my only escape at that time was recording the first Jesu album.”

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I, ME, MINE

In times of despair, people often turn to religion in search of God or some higher power. Broadrick looked inward and found Jesu.

A post-rock project that applied metallic tones to shoegaze drones, Jesu looked upon the void left by Godflesh and proceeded to fill it. Released in 2004, the project’s self-titled debut chronicled Broadrick’s depression in the wake of what had transpired in Godflesh’s final years and what he lost in the process. “It captured some of the most awful moments of my life,” he says. “It was a horrible reminder of the human psyche and what we’re all capable of doing.”

Of course, Jesu had been there all along, lurking as Broadrick’s very own Godflesh exit strategy. “Some of it was written even during Hymns,” he says, “because I knew. It was my escape. It was something I knew I had to pursue.” The final track on Hymns even bore the project’s pending name, but there are also germs of its strain to be found in Us and Them’s “The Internal”. Though ostensibly operating as a solo project, both Dalton and Parsons have joined Jesu for multiple releases, including 2007’s critically acclaimed Conqueror.

Lyrically, Broadrick needed to live through a personal tragedy in order to experience such a revelatory breakthrough, a beautiful and moving experience that would reinvigorate his career. On “Friends Are Evil”, he sings this refrain over the dirge:

And all the stones I’ve thrown, they come back twice as strong
And all the stones I’ve thrown tell me that nothing lasts

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Those lines turned out to be unexpectedly prescient. In 2010, Broadrick and Green reunited as Godflesh to play a handful of festivals. Three years later, they recorded a cover of Canadian death metal band Slaughter’s “F.O.D.” and released it through Decibel Magazine. Following their first proper US tour since that aborted 2002 run, 2014 brought a pair of original releases, the EP-length Decline and Fall and the A World Lit Only by Fire LP, both of which were hailed as a rejuvenated return to form by critics and fans alike. Nothing lasts, not even the end of Godflesh.

“It’s really great to clarify that period,” Broadrick concludes, “because it was a really painful period. I’m more than happy to document it. There’d probably be no Jesu without it, and Godflesh maybe would not be here again without that happening.”

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Gary Suarez is a writer born and raised in New York City. He tweets.

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