Godflesh guitarist and leader Justin Broadrick. In listening to his music, Broadrick seems to be the bastard factory spawn of Tony Iommi and Jimi Hendrix, full of dark experimentalism and the need to do radically new and even unspeakable things to the guitar. In person, he is as quiet, introspective and unassuming as anyone in their mid 20's can be. He speaks knowledgeably about both his instrument and his equipment, and he is no slouch when it comes to discussing what he has in mind when he has six strings in hand.
"Our music is about hitting an emotional core in people with brutal power. At first all we wanted to do was crush our listeners, but then we wanted to hypnotize them. It's hard to put that into words, and I really can't put it into words. The two of us [Broadrick and bass player G.C. Green] are rather introverted and reserved as people; maybe even sensitive. I find that I can convey our emotions only through the guitar."
For someone who rarely puts any vocals on his records, Broadrick conveys some extremely devastating emotions. His guitar playing makes most of today's metal guitarists-- and I do mean most-- sound like fairies with harps. Wimpy harps. Godflesh doesn't need words to get its point across, because the guitars do all of the talking. In a perverse way it is one of the purest, most direct forms of guitar playing to emerge since the perfection of acoustic ballads.
When you have ballads or even guitar tunes, the lyrical quality of the acoustic guitar can convey emotions without words usually something sad or genuinely hopeful, or (worst case) even sappy. With most rock music, on the other hand, you need words to define the precise feeling behind the music. Rock guitar tunes can be about almost anything: sex, drugs, power, love, violence, and a host of other topics-which are defined by the lyrics. But the lyrics of rock n roll are by and large interchangeable over the top of any chord progression. Look at how many topics have been slapped over the top of traditional I-IV-V or I-VII-VI progressions.
With Godflesh there is no need for words-you know the doom and despair is there just by experiencing the pulsing rhythm and horrific tonality of the guitars. In this way, it is at the complete opposite end of the spectrum from melodic acoustic guitar playing, but it has the same straightforwardness.
"Our music is sad music; it's almost anti-rock," admits Broadrick. "But it's the purest rock music we can make-- so simple but so emotional that it hits people in the heart." He pauses, and then adds, "You know, it's such a cold fucking world, and the things that we play are about reaching the pain in that world; even the resignation in it. The way we use guitars relates to pain, because the guitar is the only way we can communicate that."
What kind of influences have led Justin Broadrick on a quest to express fear and loathing with nothing more than an electric guitar? "I was obsessed with music from an early age. My natural father was a bassist and guitarist, and my stepfather was a Pink Floyd/Hendrix obsessive who always had a Strat around the house. I used to sit around and watch him--just being a lad soaking it all up like a sponge-- and the physicality of it really impressed me. I finally picked up the guitar when I was 10, and my stepfather taught me the basics. I got right into punk music, and it was so easy to do because any kid with a guitar who knew three chords could be in a punk band. I was really influenced by Hugh Cornwell, the guitarist for The Stranglers. There was no showiness in his playing, only pure chords and pure tones. The band also had the guitar and bass playing different parts from each other, finding other notes and dissonances that weren't obvious on the surface. The Stranglers' music had more to it than the simplicity of punk songs, but it had that punk rock ethic."
After taking the time to broaden his horizons beyond U.K. punk to heavier bands like Black Sabbath and Killing Joke, Broadrick joined the lineup of what was arguably the first grindcore band, Napalm Death, at the age of 16. (slate's note: he joined at an earlier age, but released the first demo at 16. He joined around 13/14) Spending time with that band long enough to record its debut LP scum he soon left due to boredom. Wanting to explore other avenues, he teamed up with the little-known Head Of David-- as their drummer. "I'd always had a flair for a lot of different instruments, and it seemed a good chance to play drums." He left HOD soon enough, complaining that the band was going in a pop-metal direction a la Whitesnake and Bon Jovi.
In 1988, Broadrick formed Godflesh. Immediately heralded as the future of all things metal, Godflesh attracted attention for the originality of its sound: metal hammering copulating with industrial angst. The setup was as simple as Broadrick's single-minded drive-- one guitar, one bass, one drum machine, occasional vocals. "I had been listening to a lot of German guitarnoise bands, the very experimental stuff [e.g., Einsturzende Neubauten.] I liked the idea of replacing machines with guitars, imitating that clinical preciseness and pounding of different machines with just a guitar. At the same time, I wanted to create a trance-like feeling in the music. That's why we always have something dissonant in our songs way in the background."
The band's debut, Streetcleaner, was followed by 1991's Slavestate, 1992's Cold World and then the Pure LP. Along the way, Broadrick & Co.(which grew to include an additional guitarist and an occasional drummer) flirted with doom-laden, techno-style dance rhythms, samples, MIDI, and even more intense waves of sound, never once forsaking the apocalyptic power of the guitar.
"When I first started listening to guitar music, I could feel the heat coming out of the speakers,, which is a feeling that has always subconsciously influenced me. Since then, I've tried to make our music sound like it comes out of a Marshall that is actually sitting in your room. We're not quite there yet, but we're getting closer with each album."
Indeed, the summer release of their Merciless EP and the new Selfless album come as close to Broadrick's goal as anything in rock music ever has. In particular, the swelling riffs from Merciless' "Flowers" coupled with catchy but cranium-piercing harmonics played in alternating time signatures seem to grow louder and louder with each second, although it is impossible that they could continue to get so loud without eating away at even the best speaker circuitry. In order to force that Marshall abuse into your room(and ultimately into your skull), Broadrick uses an eight-year-old custom-made Fender Strat with fightgauge strings. But he tunes the entire guitar, and the bass, down to Cs to minimize the bottom end of the sound. Then he uses a metal pick to elicit Wgherpitched squeals from the strings. The signal goes through a Boss digital delay (set just low enough to give the guitar some extra room) and a Boss Heavy Metal pedal. He sets the low and high EQs so that they face each other (Low is 3/4ths up, high is 3/4ths down) and then runs the entire setup through an old Marshall JCM-800. "I use the JCM because it has those high and low inputs, and I can only get the sound I want through that high input."
Despite his decidedly low-tech rig, Broadrick is a firm believer in using digital recording equipment. "It's the only way to get the sound of the albums as close to what the guitar sounds like when I play it through the Marshall cabinet. There's a more accurate representation of my sound when it's digital." The sound of Godflesh-- the distortion and the extreme high and low frequencies important to the overall strength of the guitar playing, but it is Broadrick's riffs that carry the weight of his vision of despair and desolation. He mixes heavy nitone chords seamlessly with hallucinogenic-sounding samples so that with repeated listenings you hear different guitars following different paths, each as entrancing as the next. So deft is his ability to use all the nuances of the guitar that "we use the guitar for everything. Sometimes we just repeat a little rhythm thing or make a bit of noise and just keep doing it over and over again. You don't even realize that there's nothing but guitar until it's pointed out."
The deft mix is one of Broadrick's fortes, and it has earned him good standing in the remix community, where he has worked on releases by bands as diverse as Pantera and Lemonheads. The mixes on Merciless are called "Biomechanical" mixes, a term derived from the works of Alien creator and Swiss painter H.R. Giger. There is perhaps no better and no bleaker visual counterpart to Godflesh's sound than Giger's tensely pristine images.
Ultimately, Godflesh is a band that has to be heard and not just seen in a magazine. Words do not do justice to the work that Justin Broadrick is doing in pushing the guitar past the comfortable boundaries it has assumed in the 1980's and 1990's. You may not like the monochromatic desolation that is his own particular outlook on life and music, but there is no denying that the guy is up to something that very few other guitarists have tapped into.
And for those of you who think that Broadrick might be too far out and too depraved to be taken seriously as a guitarist, allow me to refer you to the two guitarists who suggested to me that Godflesh was a band worth checking out: Joe Satriani and Kirk Hammett.