As I seem to do every so often, I wandered off into the weeds for a few months there. But it’s fall, and the election is almost past (PRAISE BE), and I can start to think about things other than politics, economic misfortune, and the unfortunate impossibility / undesirability of revolution in a post-industrial, media-driven and self-aware society. And Sarah Palin. Fucking Sarah Palin.
I’ve continued to trawl the MP3-blog depths, and am no closer than I was six months ago to figuring out how to describe what I’ve found. I’ve heard a lot of music that’s new to me this year, and I’ve found an intimidating amount of it interesting, entertaining, or weird enough to hold my attention. I’ve been emitting little drips of information on my Twitter feed, but I’m not sure there’s enough context there to make it interesting to anyone other than myself. In the end, I’ll just have to start writing here every day again, and see if that knocks loose anything interesting.
Of course, I’ve been continuing to buy music. I’m enough of a completist that I’ll probably provide a complete dump of everything I listened to over the summer at some point, but for now, here’s what’s most interesting to me, my October shopping trips to Amoeba:
- Antony & The Johnsons: Another World
- Arckanum: Antikosmos
- The Breeders: Cannonball
- The Breeders: Divine Hammer
- The Breeders: Pod
- The Breeders: Title TK
- Darkthrone: Soulside Journey
- Ladytron: Velocifero
- A Minor Forest: Flemish Altruism (Constituent Parts 1993-1996)
- The New Year: s/t
- Sparks: Indiscreet
- Sparks: No. 1 in Heaven
- Sparks: Propaganda
- Sparks: A Woofer in Tweeter’s Clothing
- V/A: Dubstep Allstars, Volume 6 (mixed by Appleblim)
- V/A: Uproot (mixed by DJ /rupture)
- Vivian Girls: s/t
- Akimbo: Jersey Shores
- Antaeus: Blood Libels
- Bass Communion: Molotov and Haze
- Loren Chasse & Michael Northam: The Otolith
- Coelacanth & Keith Evans: Wrack Light in Copper Ruin
- Darkspace: Dark Space III
- The (Fallen) Black Deer: Requiem
- Daniel Menche: Creatures of Cadence
- Slagmaur: Svin
- Urfaust: Drei Rituale Jenseits des Kosmos
- New Egypt: White Magic
Aside from the limp and lifeless new album by The New Year, these are all interesting records, worth further discussion, and if I can, I’ll say more about them. Right now, I’m listening to the Darkspace record as the band seems to have intended (i.e. listening to Dark Spaces I through III straight through, at which point they becomes something more than a churning blackened crust-metal soundscape and start living up to the grandiose, symphonic concept indicated by the album and track titles). And last night, I listened to the A Minor Forest record, and was delighted to know the songs deeply and immediately, despite never having heard this record before. A Minor Forest were a shambling mess at times (especially for a math rock band), but they put on a great show, and their studio records sound more live than not.
Also, since I last wrote here, I saw Polvo and My Bloody Valentine play live. Polvo were OK and deserve credit for trying to wrap their weirdness around “Mexican Radio” (one of my favorite songs), but My Bloody Valentine did things with sound I didn’t know were possible, and the experience was more satisfying to my inner 19-year-old than I really had any right to hope going in.
I’ve been busy, and I continue to be distracted, but it’s a really good time to be a music fan.
And oh yeah, if you don’t have these records, your musical experience of 2008 is sadly incomplete and you are probably a hollow shell of a person:
- asbestoscape: s/t
- Clark: Turning Dragon
- Fucked Up: The Chemistry of Common Life
If I had to choose a single word to describe Anaal Nathrakh’s style of heavy metal, it might be “unyielding”. Another good choice would be “totalizing”. From the very start, their music has been dense, noisy, seamless, enamored of production tricks that saturate the sound field. Whether it’s driving every single channel on the mixing board into the red or expanding and compressing the masters so whispers are at the same volumes as shouts, they don’t miss a trick to make their albums into massive stone walls of aggressive, violent noise. There are even a couple moments on Domine non es Dignus where a trailing sibilant in one of the vocalists’ words completely blows out the rest of the music, the compression’s amped up so far.
What this does is provide a Procrustean sonic frame into which Anaal Nathrakh can stretch the rest of their hyper-extreme music without you noticing how many different things they’re doing at once. They’re sonic magpies (or should I say stormcrows?), scavenging elements and tropes of just about every form of extreme music out there to create something that is both sophisticated and ineluctably British.
“Sophisticated” is not a word that immediately suggests itself when it comes to Anaal Nathrakh; the only time you can clearly understand the vocalists – when they break out into the declamatory tones of operatic power metal – the lyrics become clear in all their blunt misanthropic eschatology and pessimism. Consider narrative song titles like “Between Piss and Shit We Are Born” and “When Fire Rains Down from the Sky Mankind will Reap as it has Sown”. And the compression and unyielding sonic attack of their songs can make listening through entire albums a bit of a slog if you’re in anything other than the most amped-up frames of mind. The blown-out volumes create a sustained noise assault that erases any notion of narration, that creates an eternal suspended Now where a time before or after you were hearing Anaal Nathrakh did not exist.
However, when one of their albums comes up on my iPod, I tend to end up listening to the rest immediately thereafter. Part of it is that all of their albums have at least a couple songs that are brilliant at evoking precisely the frame of mind that makes their music sound good – they’re catchy and get you pumped. An important part of it, though, is that their magpie approach makes listening to any of their three most recent albums – Domine non es Dignus, Eschaton and Hell is Empty, and All the Devils are Here – akin to hearing a kind of greatest hits of extreme metal for the last 20 years. There’s a great deal of variety buried within the churn.
Considering the way they join chromatic, atonal death metal guitar solos (reminiscent of later Carcass) to overdriven drum machine blast beats (redolent of Brutal Truth), for instance, points to the fact that grindcore was just death metal with a punk attitude and a fascination with pathology textbooks. Or the way a soaring, epic power metal vocal (a lá Ulver at their most soaring) immediately followed by hoarse death metal growls (along the lines of Deicide) makes clear the dialectic between the majestic and the abject throughout metal. It’s pointless to try and hang a specific genre around Anaal Nathrakh’s neck: each album builds on ideas from the album that preceded it, and they move fluidly between styles within the same phrase, much less between songs.
What makes this all a very British phenomenon is the way a dour pragmatism seeps out from the edges of the frame: while there are frequent stabs at the epic in Anaal Nathrakh’s composition, they seem categorically incapable of pomposity. This is the main thing that separates their newer albums from the progressive metal madness of the last two Emperor albums (IX Equilibrium and Prometheus: The Discipline Of Fire & Demise): those records are full of fantastic compositions and heroic playing by some of the most talented musicians heavy metal has ever seen, but the whole enterprise is fatally undercut by Ihsahn’s irrepressible need to portray himself as the omphalos of Creation. By contrast, Anaal Nathrakh’s songwriting, production and musicianship, while not quite as accomplished, have a lived-in quality that evoke Blake’s 7 or Warren Ellis’s recent portrayal of the Battle of Crécy. Heavy metal as medieval trench warfare: a metaphor I think Anaal Nathrakh could appreciate.
What Anaal Nathrakh remind me of most, though, is something that is also deeply British, and probably close to the hearts of quite a few of Anaal Nathrakh’s English fans: their relentless downbeat cynicism, pessimism, and misanthropy-as-ideology reminds me of nothing so much as the miniatures-based wargame Warhammer 40,000, a game that impresses me more for its ambitious envisioning of a universe of eternal dæmonic conflict than the reality of the game itself. Warhammer subsumes the pan-dimensional evil and intergalactic deicide of HP Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos into a world of Roman prætors and legionnaires, and it’s easy to read Anaal Nathrakh’s eschatological death-lust as a soundtrack to neverending, metaphysically fraught strife.