Although heavy metal’s musical hubs have shifted over time, Birmingham retains pride of place not only for being arguably the earliest forge (Black Sabbath), but for being both an incubator and an accelerator. Follow the timeline from Sabbath to Judas Priest to Napalm Death and Godflesh and beyond to see this mongrel music dig its heels in to get louder, faster, heavier, nastier. Fitting, then, that over the course of their nearly twenty-year career, Birmingham’s Anaal Nathrakh have felt like the apotheosis of several types of musical extremity.
With album number ten, Anaal Nathrakh seem comfortably settled into their role as disgusting noisemongers, which rather begs the question that many of those within our sensitive scene expressing grumblings about the band’s adaptations over time have yet to articulate clearly: If a band whose music is as fundamentally chaotic and unsettling as Anaal Nathrakh’s sounds comfortable, is that the end of the game?
The backdrop to these musings is the extremely… internetty response to the first single from A New Kind of Horror, “Forward!,” which seems to have taken the form of “Cry ‘havoc’ and let slip the tears of nerds.” Yes, “Forward!” spends much of its time in a musclebound, mechanistic chug with rifle fire and reload effects as part of its percussion. And yes, it could be compared to post-thrash Sepultura, Fear Factory, or even Slipknot. I am here to tell you, gentle reader, that I have heard the note of panic creeping into your voice yet do not share it.
I am also here to tell you that you are engaging in revisionist history if you think this is the first time Anaal Nathrakh has taken a trip to Chugga Chugga Land. Lend an ear to “This Cannot Be the End” from Domine Non Es Dignus, if you please, and consider that although Nathrakh’s style and songwriting has certainly changed over the years, the prevailing and visceral reaction I’ve seen from many suggests that what may have changed more is what exactly you want to hear from the band. (Reprising an evergreen theme from an earlier review: Bands don’t owe you shit.)
Chances are even if you weren’t wild about “Forward!” as a single, hearing it in the context of the full album may improve its standing. The first proper song, “Obscene as Cancer,” quickly erases any trepidation “Forward!” may have caused. Its intro uses bleary, smudged horn stabs and other sounds of merriment to put the listener off-balance, and it soon opens up into one of Dave Hunt’s most compelling clean-voiced choruses. “The Reek of Fear” is a blisteringly fast d-beat workout that pulls a King Diamond falsetto seemingly out of nowhere, and the electronically bolstered beats of the bridge are a flirtation but not a distraction. “New Bethlehem,” meanwhile, has some wonderfully fun keyboards backing the verse that sound straight out of Dimmu Borgir’s Puritanical Euphoric Misanthropia playbook.
Granted, many of these comparisons are likely giving a sour tummy to any black metal purist types out there, but those types will kindly remember that Anaal Nathrakh has never quite been a purist’s band. In any case, I’m not here to hold your hand and make nice with your metal phobias; this album is good and I like it. More importantly, though, I think there’s a legitimate reason why Nathrakh’s career feels both like one of great continuity and great change. The continuity, from this humble idiot’s perspective, is that the music is always chaotic. The change, however, has to do with how that chaos is embodied in the music. In the band’s earlier days, the chaos was baked directly into the formula; all the various elements of the music were fighting with each other to be heard, and felt sometimes like they were out to tear each other apart. While some of that tension may have been the result of the band’s learning curve, some of it was clearly due to the unhinged assault of their overall style.
Over time, Nathrakh’s craft has improved so much that they now seem to pursue that same electric chaos with a seemingly contradictory meticulousness. Early on, maybe the band didn’t know how (or care to try) to tame their most aberrant impulses. But now, the music feels chaotic because the band wants to tell you a very deliberate, methodical story about chaos. The end result, of course, is still overstuffed and violent and frequently electrifying, but there’s a difference that is less tangible: they used to live in that chaos; now they tell you what it’s like. The opening of “The Apocalypse is About You!” is a neat illustration, because it begins with blocky, mathematically precise clean chords that sound a little Moonfog-gy before quickly rocketing off into Mick Kenney’s trademark stew of blackened, melodic grinding mayhem.
Over time, Anaal Nathrakh has begun to feel less alien and more human. Consider that in 2004, for example, after Blut Aus Nord had recently released the towering Work Which Transforms God, Anaal Nathrakh released Domine Non Es Dignus and The Axis of Perdition released their Physical Illucinations EP. Those individual statements had the feeling of inhabiting a shared moment – an utterly harrowing corruption of black metal orthodoxy by the gnawing acridness of industrial decay. More than that, though, they felt like emanations from mysterious, malign entities. It wasn’t all that clear who these bands were, or just what in the hell they were doing, and that lent a not inconsiderable aura of wrongness and danger to their music. Perhaps it’s the increasingly all-seeing reach of the internet and social media to blame in the intervening years, but some of that edifice has been peeled back. Maybe the music hasn’t changed quite as much as we sometimes think, but it’s certainly true that the way we engage with the people (or their imagined avatars) who make the music has. Hell, Mick Kenney lives in Orange County.
All of this nonsense aside, across A New Kind of Horror, Dave Hunt continues to demonstrate his rightful claim to being one of extreme metal’s most powerful, versatile, and charismatic vocalists. Whether wreathed in horrific vocal effects or simply making some of the most naturally vile noises humanly possible, Hunt is always equal parts madman and prophet, perpetrator and victim, id and superego. Even on “Mother of Satan,” with its chorus that is almost laughably bad, Hunt sells the goddamned thing with such conviction that it almost works. Elsewhere, the main tremolo theme of “Vi Coactus” is pure Second Wave homage, albeit dredged through a satisfyingly grimy industrial sheen.
Album closer “Are We Fit for Glory Yet?” uses (and abuses) what sound like snippets of early 20th century patriotic music to rather effective ends. Nevertheless, as Kenney’s programmed drums and very familiar riffing blasts along, one wonders whether Anaal Nathrakh could have pushed this particular element a little further, in the spirit of such industrial trailblazers and iconoclasts as Laibach or Test Dept. Ultimately, that’s likely what will keep A New Kind of Horror from unseating your favorite (or, say, six favorite) Anaal Nathrakh albums: not the sense that a band like this can’t find a groove that works for it and continue operating admirably in that zone, but rather the sense that this particular band is capable of more, and seems to be holding something back.
A New Kind of Horror is a good and occasionally quite excellent album. It swerves and howls and clatters and accuses. It does a finely honed, professional job of making extremely unpleasant sounds. In fact, it knows more or less all the perfectly right ways to make exactly the kind of wrong sounds it intends to make. That, of course, is rare and laudable and should be praised. But still, gentle reader, if you find yourself wondering whether Anaal Nathrakh oughtn’t try just getting wrong again, well… you and me both, friend.