There’s not much wiggle room left for metal to do anything more “extreme” than has already been done. Back when the genre as a whole was more visible, when the PMRC was in full swing and when Glen Benton had license to verbally abuse televangelists on the airwaves, the race was on with bands seemingly hungry for shock value competing to make things more extreme. Starting around 1981 when Venom were getting into their groove, each subsequent year seemed to bring a new wave of young acts eager to find out how far towards a pure wall of noise they could go and still be considered “music.” The dust from those tumultuous times has long since settled, with the baseline for aural brutality not really having moved since roughly around the time Cryptopsy showed up, if only because it has nowhere left to go. With gurgled vocals, blastbeat saturation, the total absence of melody lines and lyrics that would prompt an intervention if they were found in the diary of a fourteen-year-old established as the norm, there are only so many ways one can go about making metal sound genuinely unhinged and threatening again. Of the bands who accomplish this, only a fraction are actually good. Birmingham’s Anaal Nathrakh are those bands’ standard-bearer.
If you’re of the disposition required to enjoy Anaal Nathrakh, you probably already know what to expect from Vanitas, the band’s seventh studio release since their 2001 debut (and if you are and you don’t, then oh boy, you’re not going to believe the treat you’re in for). The duo, consisting of Dave Hunt on vocals and Mick Kenny on everything else, have long since found their niche and steadfastly dug in, delivering album after album at a commendable pace (it’s been a mere 17 months since their last outing,Passion). Each successive offering sees only incremental variation on the band’s template of apocalyptic heavy, industrial-tinged black metal and grindcore laced with acute and erudite melodic-ism. Knowing what’s coming doesn’t mean it will rattle your teeth any less though; Anaal Nathrakh’s formula is one that bears out restatement, their awesome tide of pure destruction throwing you around like a rag doll however you brace for it.
The actual sound of Vanitas is difficult to qualify in generic terms, Anaal Nathrakh functioning as they do as a sort of chimera, not so much blending various archetypes of extreme metal as stitching them crudely together. Passages of razor-sharp industrial black metal clash horrifyingly with bursts of electronic noise. Coldly majestic tremolo riffs are cruelly halted by halting stop/start power chords. Dave Hunt’s shrieks swing wildly and seemingly randomly between distorted, larynx-tearing wails and subhuman death grunts (and occasionally crazed, incantatory clean vocals), the only common factor being that they are always utterly incomprehensible. Mick Kenny serenades us with solos that could strip flesh from bone, played as though he’s barely hanging on to a demonically possessed plectrum moving of its own volition. This is an abnormally ugly album, a shambling, unnatural abomination flailing about as though in its death throes, and yet still a more efficient and dangerous killing machine than any of its component parts.
Rest assured though, Anaal Nathrakh (UK) have the monster’s reigns at all times, maintaining a steady hand on all the apparent chaos. Dig into all the sturm und drang, and you’ll find that these are immaculately constructed songs, melodies and hooks allowed to push through for just long enough to give us some sort of point of reference before being sucked back under the roiling surface. Moments such as the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it chorus of “Forging Towards the Sunset,” or the mournful, arcing melody line at the beginning of “Of Fire and Fucking Pigs” that momentarily resembles something like empathetic human emotion indicate the deftness and nuance of Hunt and Kenny’s songwriting. Much as it might sound at first like they’re just throwing whatever extreme metal conventions they can think of around in a wind tunnel, there’s a very exact equilibrium here governing their juxtaposition of contradictory elements. Nobility and righteous anger are allowed to make themselves known for just long enough that we can be disquieted by their futility before they are quashed by the pummeling industrial emptiness (an idea that’s reflected by the contrasts between literacy and vulgarity in their song titles). The aesthetic is one of corruption and perversion, generic conventions twisted like living things being made to function as part of a machine, screaming all the while.
One might almost suspect a note of satire on Anaal Nathrakh’s part. It’s hard to say, since they don’t publish their lyrics, but given that their demeanour and general aesthetic hints at an intense nihilism, I’m tempted to posit that their cannibalisation and reconstitution of metal conventions indicates that metal itself is included in their anti-life diatribe. Nowhere on the album do I suspect this more strongly than on “You Can’t Save Me, So Stop Fucking Trying,” which sounds for all the world like someone chopped up a Slipknot song and glued it back together in the wrong order, with necrotic tissue filling in for the missing parts, Dave Hunt’s screams briefly resembling Corey Taylor’s in a moment of scornful caricature. It’s as though Anaal Nathrakh are saying that extreme metal itself is inconsequential and meaningless and will eventually burn with everything else. So sort of like an English Strapping Young Lad, only with a much, much darker sense of humour.
Then again, I might just be blowing smoke. Nevertheless, the point stands: even among listeners hardened to metal’s most sordid excesses, Vanitas is not for everyone. Anaal Nathrakh’s is a darkness more sophisticated and profound than any goregrind act could hope to conjure, and it only gets more distressing and exhausting the more you delve into it. But what a trip! With the right attitude, Vanitas is a dreadfully compelling, powerfully lucid evocation of the very deepest darkness, and it achieves it without succumbing to self-parody like so many efforts to push against the limits of extremity.
Written By: Andrew
Label: Candlelight Records / Format: CD / Cat. # CDL520
1 The Blood Dimmed Tide
2 Forging Towards the Sunset
3 To Spite the Face
4 Todos Somos Humanos
5 In Coelo Quies, Tout Finis Ici Bas
6 You Can’t Save Me, So Stop Fucking Trying
7 Make Glorious the Embrace of Saturn
8 Feeding the Beast
9 Of Fire and Fucking Pigs
10 A Metaphor for the Dead