During the press cycle for their seventh studio album, Vanitas, I remembered hearing British industrial black/grind duo Anaal Nathrakh referred to as “apocalypse pop.” I had balked at this. After all, at that time, Anaal Nathrakh was still my go-to extreme metal act for the cathartic release of my more, shall I say, unpopular thoughts on mankind and the state of our world. They were far too misanthropic and noisy to be anywhere near the realm of pop, right? But by the release of their eighth record, Desideratum, I could no longer deny it: Anaal Nathrakh is pop—at least in that formulaic bridge-chorus-bridge structure of innocuous radio hits, alternating vocal styles, catchy riffs, and so on and so forth. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but as they say, familiarity breeds contempt. That formula was in danger of becoming stale, and on Desideratum, I personally felt that it had finally crossed over that barrier. Gone was that aforementioned catharsis. It felt unremarkable and was ultimately unmemorable. I also could no longer shake that this perceived decline had been slow but steady, developing since their fifth and highly praised full-length, In the Constellation of the Black Widow. At the rate they were going, I felt the band was in need of a shake-up in order to avoid risking becoming obsolete; extreme metal bands are not exactly a novelty. So, when The Whole of the Law was announced, I took notice but kept my expectations tempered. For a band that had been on a short list of favorites for almost a decade, I was not all that excited. The good news is that, after a half-dozen listens, I am more than simply excited. I’m hooked. However, that does not mean the band has made drastic changes or abandoned any established formula, for better or worse. Rather, The Whole of the Law seems like a continuation of ideas set loose in Desideratum but reined in and focused. There is renewed energy, and yes, it is still formulaic, but the best that formula has been in years.
For the uninitiated, Anaal Nathrakh is the bastard child of seemingly every existing metal genre, tamed and given purpose by multi-instrumentalist Mick Kenney and vocalist/philosopher Dave Hunt. They have consistently churned out releases every two or so years since 2001’s The Codex Necro, an album of far more traditional black metal fare that quickly mutated into the signature hybrid cacophony they are known for today. Perhaps their greatest success has been how well they execute their own brand of misanthropy and nihilism—a consistent and ongoing set of themes explored from album to album. The chaotic dissonance that Mick Kenney wields, so perfectly contrasted by majestic harmonies, serves as the perfect vehicle for Dave Hunt’s philosophical declarations. And while no lyrics have ever been printed, inspiration has been clearly drawn from such intellectuals and creatives as Jens Bjorneboe, Philip Zimbardo, Nietzsche, Thomas Hobbes, Baudelaire, and even Shakespeare and Mozart. This is especially important, given that The Whole of the Law is the first record they have produced to explicitly include any sort of liner notes and partial lyrics, greatly enhancing with context the feel of the record overall.
Things start off typically enough, in the fashion of just about every record they have released: a short intro of noise followed by one, if not the most bombastic tracks of the record (“Bellum Omnium Contra Omnes,” “Forging Toward the Sunset,” etc.). “Depravity Favors the Bold” is a tried-and-true affair in that it is still devastating and still catchy. But what sets it apart are the looping choral elements sampled throughout the song, and finally, industrial noise utilized for something other than static-sounding drum beats. When heard on its own, it does not mean much for the song, but the entire album embraces a stronger understanding of how to use industrial music and samples than in the past, and the looping choral arrangements are used throughout to great effect.
“Hold Your Children Close and Pray for Oblivion” kicks things up a notch, channeling the best of gone-but-not-forgotten gabber/grind outfit the Berzerker before releasing one of the most memorable choruses and closing melodies of the past three albums (and making it my favorite track on the record). Effective samples are used yet again for “…So We Can Die Happy”: an eerie recitation of “The Wheels on the Bus” sung by children, all the more disturbing given the context of the song’s subject matter described in the liner notes (of which I won’t spoil here). “In Flagrante Delicto” displays more improvements in their use of industrial noise. Choral loops return for “On Being a Slave” and greatly enhance the massive and mournful closer, “Of Horror, and the Black Shawls.” The stand-out this time around is that, unlike Desideratum, every track is laser-focused and memorable. My enjoyment of the album only grew with each listen. Even tracks that failed to impress on early spins managed to at least earn my respect later on (I am thinking of you, cringe-worthy power-metal vocals on “Extravaganza!”).
The Whole of the Law demands that the listener consider the intent behind the noise—the purpose behind the assault. Since Anaal Nathrakh have emerged onto the scene, misanthropy has become fashionable: a useful buzzword to describe edgy music with some harsh vocals and half-hearted blastbeats. But what is misanthropy but the sum total of disappointment after disappointment in a species capable of traveling to the stars, splitting the atom, love, art, freedom… and war, economic and social oppression, religious atrocities; content to look the other way so long as they have their distractions? Anaal Nathrakh’s philosophy-driven sound and fury continues to satisfy an ugly desire: no matter our potential as a species, we are fucked. And they manage to do this, with assured confidence and conviction, with catchy “pop” songs.
Before The Whole of the Law, I felt the only way that Anaal Nathrakh could stay relevant would be to reinvent themselves or to do something drastic to their sound. This is not that record. They stick closely to the formula they established over ten years ago. There are no tracks with the staying power of “Pandemonic Hyperblast” or “Do Not Speak,” but there is still clearly longevity in their approach. In fact, there are bands that do the whole industrial/noise/black/grind thing better (hence Anaal Nathrakh’s risk of falling into irrelevance), but few other bands are as smart or as certain as Hunt and Kenney’s monster. The addition of liner notes for each song is something I hope they continue to do in the future. Maybe it took nothing more drastic than doubling down on their industrial noise and the abuse of samples we have not heard since The Codex Necro days to set this album apart. There is a huge potential there as they continue to refine new additions to their sound.
If you were not an Anaal Nathrakh fan before this album, you won’t be now. If you thought their formula had grown stale, I could not say this one will win you over. But given the current state of the world, we all likely need a bit of cathartic release, and the comfort of an undeniable, uncaring oblivion.
01) The Nameless Dread
02) Depravity Favours the Bold
03) Hold Your Children Close and Pray for Oblivion
04) We Will Fucking Kill You
05) …So We Can Die Happy
06) In Fragrante Delicto
07) And You Will Beg for Our Secrets
09) On Being a Slave
10) The Great Spectator
11) Of Horror, and the Black Shawls