Courier Classics: Streetcleaner (1989) by Godflesh

Film Editor Joe Holloran looks back at an album that comes straight from the depths of Hell (via Birmingham)

Joe Holloran
16th March 2020
I'm going to guess that maybe 90% of you clicked on this article despite not having a clue who this band are. Perhaps you had a bit of morbid curiosity based on the name. But let me assure you Streetcleaner is one of those albums that all metalheads have listened to at some point, & members of that sub-culture know why this album was such a game changer. So, who are Godflesh & how can an album seemingly named after a local council job be considered an all time classic?

Godflesh are a British metal band formed in Birmingham in 1982. The band consists of guitarist/vocalist Justin Broadrick and bassist G.C. Green. Alongside the punk movement in the late 70s/early 80s was the growth of an underground and avant-garde scene of bands who mixed the punk ethos with experimental attitudes to things like sampling, repetitive beats, electronic soundscapes & an emphasis on visual imagery for live shows. This style of music was termed 'industrial' by the press. Broadrick and Green took inspiration from bands such as Killing Joke & Throbbing Gristle and a wide array of heavy & extreme metal acts that were emerging at this time. The end result was a new genre - industrial metal. Bands such as Nine Inch Nails, Ministry, Neurosis & Rammstein would all go on to have great success with the genre in the 90s & beyond. But it all began with Godflesh & Streetcleaner.

Vocalist/guitarist Justin Broadrick is also the frontman of shoegaze indie/post-metal act Jesu. Image:Wikimediacommons

Streetcleaner is without a doubt one of the heaviest albums I have ever heard & in 2017 was voted #64 in the 'Top 100 Metal Albums of all Time' by Rolling Stone magazine. The album and band have been credited as a major influence by artists including Metallica, Faith No More, Danzig, Korn, Fear Factory and Type O Negative. Mike Patton is such a big fan of the band that he invited Broadrick to join the Faith No More in 1993. An invitation which Broadrick politely declined.

With such a reputation surrounding the album you are probably asking yourself "What makes it so good?" Well, the simple answer is that this album is unsettling, sinister & foreboding from start to finish. Unlike most metal of the time, Streetcleaner's power comes from its slow pace & atmospheric layers of sound. Broadrick's guitar acts only to create distorted, echoing walls of noise that are the backdrop to Green & the drum machine's driving beats. There is limited use of vocals but the times we do hear Broadrick pop up he makes noises that sound like the strangulated howls of a constipated demon. In the best way possible, of course. At a time when metal was becoming increasingly mainstream, commercial & personality-driven (Lee Roth, Rose, Neil etc.) Streetcleaner was the response of the hardcore underground. A scene that wanted metal to return to its roots as the music of the outsider. The music that terrifies the uninitiated. Needless to say, the underground embraced Godflesh with open arms.

Bass player & co-founder G.C. Green. Image:Wikimedia commons.

To add to the un-easiness of the whole experience, the band added soundscapes & samples from a variety of sources to the album. The most prominent & effective of these comes during the opening dissonance of the title-track when we hear archive sound bites of convicted serial killer Henry Lee Lucas explaining why he killed. Yeah, they did it before T. Swift!. This is an example one of the key strengths of this album, that its darkness is based in reality. Rather than tell stories of murder, gore, devils, monsters or any of the other common subjects heard in extreme metal genres such as black metal & death metal, Streetcleaner is one relentless wave of nihilism & misanthropy that is based in the banality & horror of real life. That is bleak enough without the need for ghouls, ghosts or zombies.

There are many cinematic influences on this album, the most clear of which is the cover itself which is a still image from the Ken Russell movie Altered States (1980). In that film, William Hurt takes psychedelic drugs & then cuts himself off from reality in an isolation tank. That is the effect Godflesh want their music to have on the listener. To close them off from the outside world & become totally immersed in the Hellish landscape created by their music. On Streetcleaner they certainly achieved that.

Streetcleaner runs at 66 minutes-long & features 10 tracks. Here are my top three.

Song #1 - Like Rats

The opening track of the album sets the tone for the whole piece with its unrelenting doom-iness & sense of hopelessness. Welcome to the first circle of Hell. We are met with a the wailing-whine of Justin's guitar before the pounding drum machine kicks in while we hear those demonic vocals for the first time. "You breed. Like rats. Breeding stylized deformity. Don't look back. You were dead from the beginning". The phrase "Stylized deformity" I always read as being a comment on how mankind sees itself as this civilized, advanced species, yet commits horrendous acts of destruction every day. We are stylized (narcissistic, proud, superior) deformities (broken, ugly, wrong). Maybe this song is an attack instead on the reproduction of a shallow culture? Who knows, with so few lyrics to interpret your guess is as good as mine. What is clear is this is Justin starting as he means to go on. Misanthropy at its best.

Song #2 - Christbait Rising

This song musically is very similar to pretty much every other song on the album. What makes it stand out is the guitar-free opening which showcases how effective a drop-tuned bass can be as a lead instrument in metal. Justin's guitar appears & disappears throughout, always with that high pitch feedback he is known for. This track has the vocals double-tracked with one vocal line cleanly sung & the other mixed to that demonic level. The result is the most Hellish duet since Robbie & Kylie. Lyrically this song is about the joys of childhoods spent frolicking in the sun with all your friends..... Just kidding. Godflesh, despite their name, are not particularly an anti-Christian or even anti-religious band. Over their many albums they have maybe half a dozen songs dealing with the topic & although the title may seen blasphemous, to me this song is not an attack on religion in a broad sense but is actually about depression & self-medication through drugs & alcohol. 'Christbait' is a reference to addicts & the fact that many people who become clean turn to religion either during or afterward. What Broadrick is saying is that he finds no solace in religion the same way some people do & can't use it to "Escape my own hell".

For him & for many fans of 'extreme' music that other people find incomprehensible, the music itself is the medication, the reflection & the salvation.

Song #3 - Streetcleaner

Finally we come to the title track & my favourite song on the album. This song opens with an audio recording of serial killer Henry Lee Lucas in which he claims he "Didn't hear voices. It was a conscious decision on my part" & that his killing was a "Power thing". Underneath this we have a ominous keyboard soundscape of droning, bulidng noise. Then that majestic bass & drum combo kicks in. The guitar joins soon after, gradually getting louder with each loop before all three elements come together in a raging flood of noise that increases in tempo before falling again only to re-rise. This is easily the fastest song on the album, & the one that features the best use of the drum machine.

Overall, Streetcleaner is 60-odd minute journey of unpleasantness, but one with an ultimately positive purpose. Like a great, engrossing but bleak movie, this album is both depressing & uplifting. There are times in life where we all feel the weight of the world crushing down on us. Some will turn to drink, drugs & self-pity. However, I truly believe that in those moments the best thing to do is face yourself head on & engage with those issues rather than numb them in a cycle of self-destruction. For me listening to this album from beginning to end is like coming out the gym after an intense session of boxing training. Your body is hurting & your mind is still kind of disoriented. But all the negative energy is gone & what you are left with is a smile on your face.

Maybe I'm weird in that sense. But hey, I'm not the only one.

Godflesh performing in 2019. Use of moving images projected onto a large screen in the backdrop often feature at live show. Image:Wikimediacommons

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  1. Clicked because i was searching news about the band. First sentence makes me think this article not even aimed at me...hehe

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