Anaal Nathrakh’s seemingly permanent problem — that it will never top it’s brilliant debut, the filthy The Codex Necro — isn’t unique to them, nor even unique to metal. Like Nas — who arrived with Illmatic, one of the hip-hop’s most influential albums, and has subsequently tried to top it for almost two decades, at best coming somewhat close and at worst falling embarrassingly short — their first official effort set an impossibly high watermark. But unlike Nas, the band have never given the impression that they’re trying to recapture lightening in a bottle, which could be why The Codex Necro feels less like a fluke and more like a sturdy foundation for the band’s career. After introducing clean singing on their next album (Domine Non Es Dignus), it was clear if they couldn’t shoot past their debut’s excellence, they could fire to the left of it. So while Anaal Nathrakh have never been as good as they were on Codex Necro — and arguably never will be — their catalog has been remarkably consistent in its wake. Nas positioned himself to have to compete with hip-hop’s brightest stars while his was on the wane; Anaal Nathrakh have only had to compete with themselves. Even in a relatively diminished capacity, there are few that are more fierce and eviscerating as them.

So while the band have been wobbling back and forth between great albums (Eschanton, The Constellation of the Black Widow) and spotty ones (Dignus, Hell is Empty and All the Devils are Here), they haven’t come as close to the viciousness of their debut as they do on Passion (oddly enough, their most subdued album title yet). Though it lacks Codex’s red-eyed anger and grime-caked production, it tweaks the band’s post-Necro additions — big choruses and tempos below that of “ridiculously fast” — to seeming perfection. Perhaps it’s unfair to hold them to an impossible standard, but if one must, Passion is as good as the band can get. “All killer, no filler” feels literal in its context.

Obviously the band haven’t been slouches in terms of brutality: their blackened grind has been reliably vicious since their inception. But there’s something about the riffs on Passion that hearken back to their roots, where the line between grindcore speed and black metal atmosphere was blurred into obsolescence. From the latter-day Mayhem-sounding chords that open the album to the Gnaw Their Tongues-penned closing instrumental, the album never relents. But like all good music as deeply rooted in extremity as Anaal Nathrakh, it doesn’t relinquish your attention at any point, either. It’s killer song after killer song, from grindy blurs (“Post Traumatic Stress Euphoria,” “Locus of Damnation”) to Emperor-chorused teeth gnashers (“Paragon Pariah,” “Le Diabolique est L’Ami Du Simple”). Guests are employed sparingly, but effectively: in particular, the guy at the helm for “Tod Huetet Uebel” gives on of the most ridiculous vocal performances I’ve ever heard in metal, both in terms of being absurdly angry and simply absurd. At thirty-six minutes, Passion should be too short; in fact, though, it’s their leanest yet, militaristically to the point. But everything is packed in tight and dense. Another few songs and perhaps vocalist V.I.T.R.I.O.L.’s throbbing forehead vein would have exploded and blinded some schoolchildren.

But while the riffs’ precision recalls the band’s unparalleled beginnings, the biggest improvement is the slower parts, in that they actually seem to be thought of as something that matters in lieu of, “Oh shit, we can’t play fast all the time, can we?” Passion is Anaal Nathrakh at their HEAVIEST, employing grooves so deep and lumbering one could almost call them breakdowns (the last 45 or so seconds of “Ashes Screaming in Silence” blow the last two or three Bury Your Dead albums out of the water). In particular, “Who Thinks of the Executioner,” arguably the album’s best song, utilizes the band’s penchant for the apocalypse in thick, chunky chords rolling slowly over the Earth. Of course, because this is Anaal Nathrakh, they’re enveloped in a tremolo-picked blackened death riff, gift-wrapped in melody but still deeply unsettling. Their last few albums have been great, but none of them really leave you out of breath like Passion does. They’re the kind of band that when some asshole makes a statement like, “(band x) are the heaviest thing you’ll ever hear,” you throw Anaal Nathrakh on and prepare to watch said asshole not get it. This is a master class in extreme metal, the outer reaches of anger and ferocity. As much as I liked their previous album, it left me thinking they’d probably never top their early stuff. With Passion, I’m afraid to see what will happen if they do.

(4 ½ out of 5 horns)


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