Tuesday 5 January 2021

Anna Pest - Dark Arms Reach Skyward with Bone White Fingers (2021)

Country: Canada
Style: Progressive Death Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 1 Jan 2021
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Here's something wild and wonderful. Anna Pest is one woman whose name is not Anna Pest but April Hutchins and she hails from Montreal. She plays all the instruments here and provides the vocals too, with the exception of a few guest appearances. Jason Evans of British death metallers Ingested, sings on one song; Duncan Bentley of the similar South African band Vulvodynia sings on another; and the mysterious d.are sings on a third. A couple of others also provide spoken word.

Initially, I thought it was completely out of control but I didn't want to stop listening. Gradually, the songs started to coalesce into something fascinating and I can't help but wonder about the influences that Hutchins brought to bear. Certainly, they're not all what we might expect because this is appears to be a concept album, based for the most part on the anime Neon Genesis Evangelion. And if that has you picturing kawaii pop music, you couldn't be more wrong. This is... well, I'm really not sure what to call it.

There's certainly death metal on the opener, Nadira, though the bass is low in the mix and the drums are high. There's a dissonance that suggests a lot of industrial too, though you're not going to hear this on a dancefloor any time soon. The rhythms are not all straightforward, so I'd throw progressive metal in there too, a mid-period Voivod feel coming out of slower sections. The vocals are interesting too, because I caught three different voices but it seems that they all belong to Hutchins.

I should also mention that Nadira runs four and a half minutes, a standard sort of length for the Anna Pest album that came out five years ago. That was entitled Forlorn and its eight similarly one worded songs ran pretty consistently from four to six minutes. Not so this time around! This second album is only a little longer overall but it boasts fifteen tracks, seven of which are under two minutes and one that wraps in only forty-one seconds, lengths that suggest grindcore and deliver it too. After Nadira, only Of the Black Moon and the Red Earth exceeds four minutes and that runs over eleven.

I wish I had a clue how the concept plays out, because Thundering Angel won't leave me alone. It's an overt industrial death metal song that seems to fall apart completely about half a minute in but still makes it through another fifty seconds, even with a dramatic shift in tempo from near grindcore to almost funeral doom. It makes no sense at all, but it seems to bring its title to life magnificently. It's one of those songs that might be garbage but also might be genius. I loved it.

Skyward follows it with another dramatic shift, moving from the routine industrial death metal to a sweet pop melody. Twice. This time it only threatens to fall apart completely but never does. This is a dangerous form of extreme metal, in the sense that it feels like it was performed in a junkyard amidst piles of metal so tall that the machine gun drums will surely prompt the whole thing to collapse. It's appropriate because, even though the style here seems futuristic, because I can easily believe that the drummer is a killer robot who's beating the shit out of lesser killer robots instead of drums, it's just as out there on the edge as Hellhammer or Bathory were forty years ago.

In lesser hands, this could have been a truly awful album. The core sound that combines death growls, a schizophrenic bass and that insane killer robot drum machine would outstay its welcome in no time flat if the songwriting wasn't versatile enough to keep things interesting. And I think it does. There's a consistency here at the heart of it all, but also a mad genius flicking a radio dial to see what else can be added into the mix. What are those first two seconds of Pathetic Consummation?

At points, this almost becomes a traditional brutal death metal album but, every time it does, there's something new to wake us up from that dream. It might be a military call to arms or a catchy alt rock bridge or a bit of electronic manipulation, maybe even the band who booked the studio space before Hutchins being fed through a woodchipper as she records her next song. Whatever you can say about this, and surely a lot of people will absolutely hate it, not one of you can call it boring.

I should talk about that long song. It's surely the most calculated piece of music here, emphatically a prog metal epic. There are fast sections, slow sections and slower sections, getting downright doomy on occasion. There are clean vocals as well as harsh ones, and there's a gloriously prowling bass that's often a replacement for guitars that are so downtuned they sometimes vanish entirely, only to show back up with emphasis. Yet this song never feels long, even after so many short numbers before it; it lasts a couple minutes longer than the previous five songs put together and arguably does a lot more.

This certainly isn't going to be for everyone, but it's a fantastic reminder that extreme metal can play just as progressively as folk, rock or regular heavy metal.

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