A question that is not as off-topic as it likely seems: are nihilism and humanism necessarily incompatible philosophical doctrines?
Should we continue to believe in reason and progress when presented with constant suffering and apparent meaninglessness? With unlikely deference to Irving Kristol, are nihilists simply humanists who have been mugged by reality? Or is humanism always an aspirational state, striving – but more often failing – to rise above the ambient nihilism of the world?
When a band’s calling card has always been the pursuit of the most violently aggrieved noises possible, there comes a point when extremity itself no longer suffices. Enter Anaal Nathrakh, stage left. If the tremendous advances of Domine Non Es Dignus and Eschaton found their ferocious streamlining in Hell is Empty and In the Constellation, it’s tempting to say that Anaal Nathrakh’s subsequent three albums found themselves in something of a holding pattern. Approached as an independent entity, each of the three was still an impressively discordant racket, but longtime fans of these corrosive miserablists were left to consider whether there was anything left for the duo to explore beyond their admittedly singular but increasingly predictable plateau.
The answer offered by ninth album The Whole of the Law, thankfully, is a resounding – if paradoxical – yes. The paradox is that while The Whole of the Law presents no great expansion of Nathrakh’s sound – no stylistic left turns, and no real surprises – but it is an album so outrageously destructive, so cannily constructed, and so absurdly enjoyable that it just might be their best since Eschaton. For lack of anything more precise, Anaal Nathrakh simply sound hungrier here than they have in years. Dave Hunt’s vocals – already the stuff of both legend and nightmare – are even more lunatic, Mick Kenney’s riffs are more melodic yet still razor-sharp, and the overall intensity is maintained at dangerously claustrophobic levels.
Of course, Anaal Nathrakh’s modus vivendi has always been manifestly unhinged music. Nevertheless, the ruthless discipline with which they execute that manifesto throughout The Whole of the Law marks the album distinctly apart from their recent output. “Hold Your Children Close and Pray for Oblivion” demonstrates the band’s extremes brilliantly, with some of the album’s harshest, blown-out electronic beats and Hunt’s severely unwell vocals butting up against some legitimately uplifting melodic guitar work from Kenney in the midsection.
Nathrakh’s black metal is a mongrel as ever, laced with industrial noise, chunky breakdowns, hugely distorted electronic beats, and the hairpin transitions of grindcore. The programming is most effective on “The Great Spectator” and “In Flagrante Delicto,” but throughout the album it adds an effective layer of simmering rot. Interestingly, while on the last few albums the fact that there were few definitively standout tracks was a detriment, the fact that no single song on The Whole of the Law stands out to the degree of a “Do Not Speak” or “Between Piss and Shit…” ends up working to the album’s benefit. Much of this is due to the way that Dave Hunt’s clean vocals – more present than ever – are processed differently from track to track, and not always to levels of even prominence, which has the effect of making the clean choruses serve as simply another disquieting trick in the arsenal, rather than a relief from the punishment.
Still, to say that there are no songs head and shoulders above the rest on The Whole of the Law is not to say deliriously enjoyable moments don’t extrude from every corner of this busily efficient album. The squealing guitar solo on “…So We Can Die Happy” drops into a huge – if brief – breakdown, and album closer “Of Horror, and the Black Shawls” absolutely nails its big, sweeping, melodic coda move, with some beautiful soloing from Kenney. Late-album highlight “On Being a Slave” is a perfectly composed song, stampeding through a dizzying variety of speeds and moods, from an expansive intro to a classically second-wave pre-chorus and jackhammering d-beat chorus, and from a roughshod breakdown into a melodeath bridge and wailing guitar solo. Early-album knockout punch (and future sing-along classic) “We Will Fucking Kill You” gives the album its title from a repurposing of the Crowleyan maxim “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law”:
“‘We will fucking kill you,’ /
Shall be the whole of the law; /
We will say we love you, /
As we scythe you down like grass.”
The occasion for the challenge of those twin definitions up top is that Anaal Nathrakh’s animating principle has long been uncertain. Nathrakh’s puckish classicism has frequently nodded – however tangentially – to Enlightenment sources, although the band’s reticence to foreclose the listener’s own interpretations has lent an ambiguity to the material: is this hideous strength offered in support of Enlightenment principles, or in subversion and rejection of them? (Of course, the fact that the band has perhaps been even more likely to litter its work with references to post-Enlightenment and modernist figures such as Nietzsche, Baudelaire, and Joyce is suggestive.)
Not that there should be any doubt about whether you ought to pony up some of your hard-earned cash for this album, but the CD booklet contains notes and reflections for each song, written by Dave Hunt. And although The Whole of the Law presents no definitive answers, Hunt’s writing gestures more forcefully toward the notion that Anaal Nathrakh’s motivation just might be to insinuate itself in this struggle between nihilism and humanism. In an introductory note, he writes, “Most of the material on this album can be understood as the point of view of a demon… [F]or all the repulsive, malicious, sardonic glee it sometimes displays, the demon is merely holding up a mirror.” That is, if the album uses horrible, nasty sounds to illustrate horrible, nasty things, it hardly represents an endorsement of those horrible, nasty things.
I interviewed Dave Hunt after Passion was released in 2011. One of his answers in particular has always stuck with me, and in fact suggests that a similar ethos has inspired Anaal Nathrakh for some time:
Q: Do you think of Anaal Nathrakh as being a reflection or an indictment of the world around you?
A: The reflection is the indictment.
The Whole of the Law is a stunning album, and triumphant by nearly any metric imaginable. That it seems also to be a deeply thought and deeply felt effort to reject nihilism (only, perhaps, to be again swallowed up by it) makes it both touching and tragic. It would be very wrong to call this protest music, but I think it would be equally wrong to call it music of resignation. Aren’t we all stuck somewhere between those two poles?