Back to Basics: Anatomia and Funerus

There’s still a place in this world for albums that exhibit all of death metal’s nuts and bolts out in the open, for all the world to see. I mean, I talk about this week’s picks as if they were released fairly recently, but alas, 2011/12 was quite some time ago now. But nevertheless, they fit with a very modern trend of old school revivalism. A more appropriate word would be ‘re-imagining’ maybe, as they both take the very familiar elements of older death metal, but manipulate them into a new take on an old form.

Straight from the book of emptiness itself, Japan’s Anatomia released their second LP ‘Decaying in Obscurity’ back in 2012, and it does exactly what it claims. This is slow, minimalist death/doom clearly designed to invoke that chasmic oppression that comes from down-tuning and REVEEEERB on everythIIIING. It is not overbearing heaviness – the guitars are in fact rather soft – but the kind that comes from spacious, minimalist riffs that are aided by a highly bespoke production a-la diSEMBOWELMENT et al.

Now, as far as creepy, subtle death metal goes, Anatomia know exactly how to get more from less. Everything is understated but stylised, from the riffs to the drums, to the lazy drawl of the guttural vocals. All this is intentional. It allows them to milk the simplest idea for much longer than polite convention would allow, because each riff, however basic, sounds weird and alien. It’s very simple, slow death metal for the most part, but some intelligent decisions at the mixing stage, and some well-placed minimalist synth lines, lend this music an additional layer of intrigue that is lacking in the basic components of the compositions.

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Now, the quality of the end result really depends on whether this is all atmosphere and no structure, and whether that even matters. Treat it like death metal and it really does matter. In terms of the actual riffcraft, this is incredibly basic, to the point of tedium almost. Maybe that’s a little unfair, a few of the riffs exhibit interesting use of the tritone, and turn some familiar ideas on their head. But even if we accept that simplicity can sometimes be a virtue, the riffs are simply not interesting enough to hold the attention. However, if we don’t treat this like death metal, and rather approach as say…an ambient album, then it succeeds.

All this really means is that this album succeeds in invoking a uniquely creepy atmosphere, and carrying this through various iterations of intensity and calm. Everything else – the riffs, the vocals, the drums – are then relegated to servicing this atmosphere. Now in terms of death metal – and metal at large for that matter – this has things backwards…with the exception of ambient black metal and maybe some funeral doom. Atmosphere should add to pre-existing musical architecture, not the other way around. So…I am left to conclude that maybe this fails – or to put it charitably – only just succeeds at being passable death metal. But as a work of ambient metal it is intriguing. Go looking for structure and riffs and you will be sorely disappointed. Go looking for unique, moody doom metal and it’s a real curiosity.

Funerus as an entity do actually hark back to the early 1990s, but their modern incarnation has only been around since the early 2000s. Their second post reformation LP ‘Reduced to Sludge’ (2011) saw them tighten up their very basic approach to doomy death metal. Drums are fat with a vaguely tinny snare which cuts through the mix but does not offer much impact on the slower passages. Guitars follow in the footsteps of Incantation (no surprises there given the clientele), in that they are sharp enough to lend clarity to some of the more complex leads, but with enough power and sustain to carry the doom riffs. Jill McEntee’s gruff vocals cut through perfectly with a balance of menace and clarity, making lyrics of gore and despair perfectly audible.

Musically this sits somewhere between the abstract doom of late Incantation and the more playful Autopsy, particularly in some of the guitar leads. Speed wise it matches mid era Bolt Thrower, and they follow a very similar pattern usually on the opening to a track, with a slow chugging riff set atop mid-tempo drums and pounding double bass underpinning it all. Simple leads will comment on the ringing chords of the rhythm guitar, which will either settle into a full-on breakdown, or pick the tempo up briefly before an ultimate collapse.

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This music is very basic, but there are just enough novel ideas to hold one’s interest. Although one can clearly hear two guitars on different tracks, it sounds oddly empty, in a good way. Despite everything making up this music telling us otherwise, this feels lonely, almost mournfully so. It lends a post-apocalyptic sheen to this death metal that so many have aimed for but few succeed in, especially with music that is – as a rule – chaotic. But the apocalypse is happening somewhere over there now, we are left as bystanders to witness it from afar. As opposed to much death metal that throws one into the middle of the chaos, the din of warfare sounds distant but ever present. This aura is aided further by the tinny yet echoing snare. It may be a mere fluke of production and the stop/start nature of their approach to death/doom, but it certainly works to give this otherwise average album an edge.

The results of pitting these two albums against each other will depend on which features we deem important. ‘Reduced to Sludge’ has the riffs and the structures with some possibly unintentional conceptual layers supervening on the end result. ‘Decaying in Obscurity’ is a masterclass in how to squeeze every last ounce out of each idea, however basic. The bare minimum is achieved in terms of moving the music forward and holding the listener’s attention, but with atmosphere this unsettlingly solitary, oppressive, melancholy, that’s all that is required. And it was certainly the effect that Anatomia had in mind when crafting this album. This edge of uniqueness is just captivating enough to make it my pick of the week. But ‘Reduced to Sludge’ is well deserving of a spin.

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