Anaal Nathrakh's New Album Is a Soundtrack for the Horrors of War
Stream the Birmingham black metal duo's WWI-inspired new album, 'A New Kind of Horror,' and read our interview with vocalist Dave Hunt.
Photo courtesy of Metal Blade
Birmingham, England’s Anaal Nathrakh has been producing extreme metal music that is as sonically intense as it is sophisticated since 1999. Multi-instrumentalist Mick Kenney takes riffs that are at times reminiscent of black metal and at other times grindcore, and juxtaposes them with electronic elements culled from industrial, gabber, and other genres. Meanwhile, vocalist Dave Hunt’s vicious growls and shrieks alternate with an operatic singing voice that calls to mind beloved classic metal singers like Rob Halford or King Diamond. The resulting cocktail is definitely “in your face,” but their songwriting is at often tuneful as well. Anaal Nathrakh is catchier than it has any right to be, especially on their latest record, A New Kind of Horror, streaming below.
“To me, the word interesting is probably the highest adjective you could apply to something that is praise. We try to do something that's interesting for the listener,” Hunt said in an interview regarding the band’s overall artistic direction. For he and Kenney, that means not only rabidly exploring the most abrasive elements of multiple genres, but also giving their listeners the opportunity to question what they’re hearing, as well as the wider world around them. Where many metal bands are introspective, Anaal Nathrakh is interrogative.
“We write albums, not exams or manifestos, but I do like there to be something that seeks to engage the listener's mind and personality a little bit," Hunt says. "It doesn’t always work but when it does I think it adds a lot to the experience of listening to music. We will hold up things from the world and say, ‘Maybe you knew about this, maybe you didn’t, but you’re going to have to think about this now.’”
On A New Kind of Horror, Hunt holds World War I up for the listener's consideration. “It is appropriate to reflect on World War I right now, I think.” he says, noting that it’s now been 100 years since peace was declared, but much of the world’s suffering has not ended since the so-called War to End All Wars. Previous Anaal Nathrakh songs have dealt with the perils of corrupt politicians and other hardships that affect real people, as opposed to the occult fantasies that many of their peers engage with. A New Kind of Horror, though, has the clearest theme in their discography.“One of the important things that come out of thinking about all of that is how similar those people in that situation were to us in the situation we are in today," he says. "The people then seem quite modern to me, quite relatable in many respects. It brings out parallels between then and now.”
Those parallels include the wartime atrocities that are some of the most indelible images in documentaries and works of fiction set during that time — atrocities which are by no means a thing of the past. “WWI was a new kind of horror in many ways, including the scale of the slaughter. It was the first time that chemical weapons had been used on that scale,” Hunt explains. “A few weeks ago I was reading about chlorine gas being deployed somewhere. Do we learn over time? I don’t know, but we haven’t learned not to do that to each other.”
Anaal Nathrakh isn’t the first metal band to center an album thematically around the First World War; their fellow West Midlands natives in Bolt Thrower wrote their celebrated final album, To Those Once Loyal, about it as well. Hunt toured the US alongside Bolt Thrower with Benediction in 2013, and calls himself a fan of the band, but denies that his former tourmates influenced A New Kind of Horror, though he admits the two records could be seen as companion pieces.
“Their take on things all things military is a bit different than ours,” he says. “When we come in we're focusing on the poetic side. The conflict itself doesn't have much to do with what we're doing; we want to represent the more microcosmic level of what’s happening with these people.”
When Hunt says the poetic side, he means it literally. While Anaal Nathrakh rarely publish their lyrics (Hunt wants his listeners to be able to draw their own interpretations from his music), intelligible pieces of his singing, song titles, and film samples in the band’s past often have literary origins. For example, the song “Waiting for the Barbarians,” from their 2006 album Eschaton, shares its title with a novel by Nobel Laureate J. M. Coetzee. “Do Not Speak,” from their 2004 album Domine Non Es Dignus features a sample from a film version of 1984.
Anaal Nathrakh are part of a long tradition of metal bands who draw from literature for inspiration. Metallica reference Hemingway and Thoreau on “For Whom the Bell Tolls” and “Of Wolf and Man” respectively; Iron Maiden, whom Anaal Nathrakh has covered, quoted Samuel Taylor Coleridge's “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” on their beloved song of the same name. From that perspective, Anaal Nathrakh are carrying the torch of literate heavy metal out of its classic era and into the new millennium.
“When I think about that topic [WWI], the first thing that comes into my mind is always ‘Dolce Et Decorum Est,’ the Wilfred Owen poem,” Hunt says. “This poem describes being subject to a gas attack, it isn't the kind of thing to revel in, it’s not something to glorify, but it’s a point to reflect on. The poem is such a powerful evocation of a particular place and time that it went straight into the mix of ideas to draw from for the album.”
Owen fought in the trenches during the war while writing poems, and died nearly one week to the day before the final ceasefire was declared. Quotes from the poem surface as lyrics in “Obscene as Cancer,” the first proper song on A New Kind of Horror, and are reflected in the album’s final song, “Are We Fit For Glory Yet?”, which is based on the poem “Aftermath” by Siegfried Sassoon, Owen’s friend, and mentor. In between those two songs, album highlight “The Horrid Strife” is an even more overt reference to celebrated poet D. H. Lawrence’s “Kissing And Horrid Strife.”
“He writes in a dreamlike way, he repeats things and so on to create a feeling inside the reader that’s more than simply reading what's on the page. To me that seems similar to what one should hope good music could be,” Hunt says of Lawrence’s influence. “Another thing of his was balance, and when things are in balance there is happiness, so you have kissing and also the horrid strife in one poem. But when things are out of balance that is a great evil as I understand it. So ‘The Horrid Strife’ is just pulling out one side of what goes on in that poem and using that to maybe ask questions—possibly are we in a world where things are tipped to far in one direction?”
100 years ago, tanks treads rolled over entrenchments and ushered in the age of modern warfare. Combat has long been an inspiration for many metal bands’ finest work, from Iron Maiden’s “Aces High” to Slayer’s “War Ensemble"—but neither of those songs capture the human cost of war the way A New Kind of Horror does , and few musical acts of any strike embody she sheer havoc of the battlefield the way Anaal Nathrakh do.
Maybe the scales of society are tipped entirely too far in one direction, still causing us discord after the cannons have faded. If so, it’s cold comfort that Hunt and Kenney are making music amidst the madness, blowing us all sonic kisses through the horrid strife.
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