I like the beats and I like the yelling: Anatomia, Hagel, Thanatomass

Anatomia: Corporeal Torment (2021)

Veteran Japanese death/doomsters Anatomia return with their latest LP ‘Corporeal Torment’, and what a treat it is. If previous efforts from this outfit were a compellingly creepy blend of Autopsy and diSEMBOWELMENT, this album sees them flirt with drone. The underlying formula may still be intact, but Anatomia seem intent on placing it on the rack and stretching it into a contorted mutation of itself. Predecessor ‘Cranial Obsessions’ (2017) was a weighty survey of the many darkened corridors of death/doom that stretched to well over an hour. ‘Corporeal Torment’ is far shorter, but it sees them zero in on the darkest, slowest, murkiest aspects of this subgenre. They have essentially washed themselves clean of death metal for the sake of pure doom riffs, darkly immersive atmospheres, and chasmic production values.

And seeing as we’ve mentioned production, we might as well start there. I believe it would be most instructive to view this as a dark ambient album posing as metal. The guitar tone is a down-tuned dirge incapable of articulating anything more precise than slow, droning chords. On the rare occasions that the tempo does pick up, any musical artefacts that were present in the guitars are completely lost beneath the fuzzy inertia. Clean tones do crop up, issuing echoey and minimal note clusters, acting as a lament to the amoral distortion beneath. This colours the music with a sombre, funereal vibe which oozes from every pore.

The reason I wish to look at this as ambient album is the simplicity of the drums. They are fairly weak in the mix, and the patterns are very basic, for the most part following each chord strike with scant fills to link the vast chasms between each beat. In this sense we see percussion reduced to its most rudimentary elements, with any joy in creative rhythms long since departed. Beats serve no other purpose than to remind us of the passage of time.

But the guitars, in their mastery of tritones and drably minimal harmonies are aided heavily in their textural qualities by the vocals. With both Jun Tonosaki and Takashi Tanaka bringing their own vocal ejaculations to the table, they become one of the defining aspects of the album, fleshing out the riff textures with their throaty fuzz. It’s frankly unsettling. The chief voice articulates slow, guttural drones that act with rhythmic independence from the rest of the music. But a whole array of ghoulish drones and throat singing creep out of the mix as the album progresses. And they seem to compound on each other over the course of the album, growing in intensity and number as multiple vocal tracks are layered atop one another and reach for the ears from all sides.

There are fragments of traditional metal buried within ‘Corporeal Torment’, an Incantation riff here, a warped stoner riff there. But Anatomia seem bent on supressing the riff-based qualities in their music in order to recentre their style toward pure atmosphere. The riffs, such as they are, are well written and could easily stand on their own despite their simplicity. But in being stretched out over such slow tempos, supressed by a guitar tone with almost no attack, and at risk of being completely buried beneath the verbal monstrosities that wade across the mix, we simply cannot look at this as a metal album.

It is a dark ambient album that seeks to express the rotting process. The guitar/drum/bass setup of metal is not simply being pushed to new levels of murk, it is decaying, losing all solidity before our ears. The sharp forms and distinct materials that define all stripes of metal are rotting, merging, combining into an indeterminate mulch.

This finds its final expression in the twenty minute closer ‘Mortem’. There is a drumbeat, the guitar appears to be moving between notes, and vocals are still articulating symbols. But these things are only just within the grasp of our perception, slowly fading into the void. It’s as if we’re witnessing their final cry in this reality before submerging into compost. In letting go of riff philosophy on ‘Corporeal Torment’, Anatomia are linking up with the strong ties already present between metal and dark ambient, and finding new ways to strengthen and flesh out this artistically unique bond.

Hagel: Veneration of the Black Light (2021)

Allow me to coin a phrase.

“Doing an Entrails”:

Step 1. Start a band which never gets off the ground

Step 2. Reform decades later

Step 3. Act like music never moved on in your many years of absence

Just as Entrails pretended that Swedish death metal was stuck in 1992 when they released ‘Tales from the Morgue’ in 2010, twelve years after their original incarnation split, so Hagel have re-emerged from one of history’s hidden highways to release their first album, entitled ‘Veneration of the Black Light’. Their original incarnation bore no fruit in terms of recorded output. So it seems even more fitting that their debut album released in 2021 embodies a retro vibe so genuine that it’s as if we’ve discovered a lost classic of the 90s.

Think of all the classic melodic black metal to emerge from southern and central Europe, from Mortuary Drape to Varathron to Bethlehem. In line with these dark and romantic works, Hagel tap into a branch of extreme metal that bypassed the punk/thrash route entirely, reaching back to the heady melodic ambitions of classic heavy metal, with no small degree of symphonics chucked in for good measure.

The mix itself couldn’t have done a better job of capturing that mid-90s aesthetic. This is not so much a call back to the old school as it is a carbon copy. The drums are earthy, a little weak perhaps, but clear and crisp and able to bolster the energy of each piece. The guitar tone is lightly distorted, just enough to push it over into extreme metal territory whilst shunning the rampant excesses of anything that can trace its roots back to thrash metal. There are plenty of rich symphonics thrown in courtesy of keyboard player Luis Galindo. They stick predominantly with string effects that take up the lead melodies of the guitars and flesh out the rhythm section, but there are plenty of delicate piano melodies thrown in, expanding the expressive range of the album’s instrumentation.

The music itself is rhythmically diverse, jumping from bouncy and highly melodic passages to slower marching tempos fleshed out by tonally centred chord progressions. These provide a sturdy foundation for rich keyboard harmonies and nuanced, melody driven guitar leads which leak classic romanticism in their stylistic leanings. There are also plenty of nods to folk music worked in as an additional adornment. This takes the form not just of frequent acoustic guitars  which add warmth and subduing reassurance, but also in tracks like ‘Whims of a God’, the jaunty intro of which calls to mind Nokturnal Mortum’s ‘Sky of Saddened Nights’.

But all these heady musical traditions and the epic, romantic, almost cinematic scope that Hagel are reaching for are brought to heal by well balanced, varied compositions that embody that mellow, ethereal vibe that early Hellenic black metal used to excel at. By combing the best elements of early Rotting Christ and Varathron with their own unique character and willingness to push the compositions in new directions, utilising a broad range of timbres along the way, Hagel have reached beyond the surface level old school aesthetic that decorates ‘Veneration of the Black Light’. The result is an accomplished piece of mature and fantastical metal with hidden layers of depth that reveal themselves upon each new listen.

Thanatomass: Black Vitriol and Iron Fire (2021)

Well this is a bloody racket. A superfluous statement for an extreme metal review perhaps, but apt all the same. Thanatomass of Russia offer their second EP with half and hours’ worth of material in the form of ‘Black Vitriol and Iron Fire’. As if seeking to solidify the blackened-thrash-rendered-as-noise-rock approach of Teitanblood, Thanatomass operate on a similar trajectory of blunted noise, but with just enough restraint to allow some riffs and drum patterns to leak into the listener’s subconsciousness.

For all the wanton chaos of this style, the lack of subtlety, the rampant barbarism, to make it succeed artistically requires a rather nuanced mind. Dial the chaos up too high and you do indeed end up with something like Teitanblood, a project more interesting as a statement on the limits of sonic expression than for any re-listenable musical qualities. But if you don’t take the extremity far enough you could fall into the realms of the bland, or worse, the ridiculous.

The importance of nuance is down to the fact that one has only two or three musical levers to pull at. There is no melody, just an atonal barrage supplemented by keyless fretboard murder as a stand-in for guitar solos. Droning chords may occasionally be arranged into what we call a “chord sequence”, but the melodic qualities are so supressed as to be negligible. Drums have no room to stretch their flair for a variety of time signatures, or even creative drum patterns. There are two settings: nonstop blast-beats, or ultra-slow doom. Fills are given no chance to breathe. Vocals – rather unsurprisingly – are an unhinged barrage of outbursts that explore the full spectrum of the distorted range, often with little regard for whatever rhythmic qualities are present within the music they are set to.

But limiting the creative levers one can pull at is a good way to separate musicians from artists. A lot of people find prog distasteful because it gorges itself on music, leaving no plate untouched when it comes to musical excesses, until the final output looks vulgar, crass, extravagant (some people…not me). But Thanatomass – for all the excesses of extremity to be found on this EP – are frugal by comparison to the Emerson, Lake & Palmers of the world. They are a single bowl of gruel, into which they must pour all their passion, creativity, and imagination to render it as music worthy of the name.

And that is precisely what they have achieved on ‘Black Vitriol and Iron Fire’. By pitching their take on extreme blackened thrash just beyond Slaughtbbath and just below Teitanblood, they have created a sound that is at once exhilarating yet deep enough to warrant multiple listens. The switches between tempos, basic as each rhythm is, occur frequently enough to keep the music in constant churn whilst allowing us to grow accustomed to each moment. Each individual riff is simple enough, but they are so frequent and numerous that they compound on one another, resulting in something that could pass for complexity.

The barrage of distorted guitars is broken up by screaming leads at one end, and doom at the other. Once the drum battering loses its lustre we are gifted a brief respite in the form of dark ambience. Vocals may be a constant presence, but they never settle on the same pitch range for longer than is welcome. All this rather paradoxically means that Thanatomass have offered us a demonstration of the virtues of restraint within this style. Musical excess is the real vulgarity, and there is absolutely none of that here. The hyperbolic theatrics that are associated with this brand of blackened thrash are all for show, covering what is in fact a sober exercise in the virtues of fragility.    

One thought on “I like the beats and I like the yelling: Anatomia, Hagel, Thanatomass

  1. Oh man, spot on review of Hagel. My first impressions was that I had stumbled on some long lost gem from 1991. I love it. What an unusual and pleasant surprise this record was.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s