Hailed as the first death/thrash metal band from the Netherlands and perhaps one of the earliest extreme metal bands from the country to put out a tape, Rotterdam’s Thanatos are a unique case in death metal history in that they’d disbanded at the peak of death metal’s popularity and regrouped as soon as the real shit had gone underground again. These guys are undoubtedly one of my favorite death/thrash metal bands to talk about but if you’d like a deeper dive through the 80’s and early 90’s, all of that can be delved into on a more detailed entry for Thrash ‘Til Death last year; Instead, it is the second life of the quartet that’ll be most relevant to their sound today on this seventh full-length album, ‘Violent Death Rituals’, as the band reaches beyond their 35th anniversary. Let me backpedal a bit, the spirit of this band circa 1989 is still right there in vocalist/guitarist Stephan Gebédi‘s hands and they’ve been alive and kicking since in one form or another. It’d be a far less exciting prospect if I could say Thanatos had ‘returned’ to their original sound because they’ve never shoved that original intent away, this is diehard stuff, death/thrash from metal minds on the attack since they’d first heard Slayer and Kreator in the early 80’s.
No doubt when Gebédi reformed Thanatos in 1999 with Cremation vocalist/guitarist Paul Bayaans (Asphyx) the aim of anti-religious thrashing death metal was still the supreme driver for the bands ‘comeback’ record (‘Angelic Encounters‘, 2000) but this wasn’t a band stuck in the early 90’s by any means, producing a brutal and fairly raw record in a time when so many cheap and sterile death metal albums were being made. The second time around (‘Undead. Unholy. Divine.‘, 2004) Thanatos were louder, more vicious and gave off a black/death vibe at the time due to some guest vocals from Melechesh vocalist Ashmedi adding a black metal rasp to a couple of songs alongside a drum sound that I would consider brutal for 2004, though this intensity was pretty standard for death metal in the Netherlands of the era. It wasn’t until they’d put out ‘Justified Genocide’ (2009) that it seemed like Thanatos had found the right balance between their first life in late 80’s death/thrash and their second post-millennium era thanks to Dan Swanö‘s mixing/mastering duties and a self-produced but polished sound that has continued to the present day. If ‘Angelic Encounters’ was a comeback record then ‘Justified Genocide’ was more or less the refinement of that new spark which soon found the band signed to Century Media and with remasters of their back catalog licensed alongside ‘Global Purification‘ (2014), an impressive place to end up as a well-oiled machine that many would consider “the Netherlands’ Vader” at that new high point. The missing context is of course the formation of Hail of Bullets and the reformation of Asphyx helping to boost the visibility of Thanatos along the way.
Why the recent history lesson? I suppose to point out that there is no ‘angle’ or story to build the event of a new Thanatos album up, they haven’t gotten lazy or taken any huge stylistic detours and generally haven’t changed in any drastic amount beyond some tweaks to the recording process over the years. If anything the band’s tightly wound style is more defined with each post-1999 record released. There are a few changes to personnel on ‘Violent Death Rituals’, though, as drummer Martin Ooms (ex-Liar of Golgotha) and bassist Mous Mirer (both ex-Melechesh, ex-Liar of Golgotha) join the band for this release. Their presence brings some faster tempos, the expected level of precision, and a bit more thrash influence than we’ve seen on the last two records. This is most evident when pressing a close ear to the compositions and riffs in general where “Unholy Predators”, “Burn the Books of Hate” and “Corporate Indoctrination” not only recall the late 80’s death/thrash attack of Thanatos but appear additionally guided by classic thrash structures. It really spanks the hyperbole out of me when I can’t say this is a ‘return to form’, because they never left, but there is some solidarity in being able to say that Gebédi and Bayaan‘s guitar work always evolves and finds different influences to pull into their well-established sound.
There is no way to miss the theme of ‘Violent Death Rituals’, as Thanatos brings their criticism of all organized religion to task and delineates the absurd savagery of the most prolific for-profit killing machine mankind has ever known, the seeming endless rule of monotheism. This has long been a focus of Gebédi‘s lyrics and here he repeats a lot of the sentiments of ‘Justified Genocide’ updated for the complete insanity of today and citing more clear examples of faith gone wrong: Human trafficking, murder, molestation, manipulation and exploitation of believers by corporations and other pursuits of religion’s most foul influence over law and society. Paraphrasing on my part but, you get the idea, the point focuses on defiance, resisting sickening traditions that allow for complete control over ritually devalued masses. These themes align pretty well with my first thought when firing up ‘Violent Death Rituals’, the sense that this record finds the band composing on the level of a record like ‘Coma of Souls’ and there are major riffs on “Unholy Predators”, “It Always Ends in Blood” and a few others that helped egg that notion on. The songs come with a bit more ease, atmosphere and a more deliberate pace than the last few records, which generally operated at breakneck speed. The speed is cranked here too but when Thanatos slow down to a mid-pace some of their most effective riffs jog out, reminding the listener that they are in fact part of the ‘old school’ Netherlands death metal pantheon.
The thunderous gallop that “Burn the Books of Hate” kicks into as it starts feels like it is building up to a bigger song, weaving in a dual guitar harmony before chunking out a few more big moments and tying things up around the four minute mark. This is pretty standard modus for the band, typically hitting 3-5 minutes and not messing with extended pieces or dragging any song out beyond the freshness of their impact. “It Always Ends in Blood” has an incredibly satisfying melodic style where the integration of leads is so slick it’d been the only song where I’d felt like they could’ve extended it to 6-7 minutes and kept going down that road. “Corporate Indoctrination” was only song that I’d tend to skip over, I appreciated the lyrics but didn’t really connect with its plain hardcorish chunkiness; Considering how much heavier Side B gets as it spins it felt like the least worked-over song of the bunch. The full listen is balanced between fire-starters and rolling death metal marches where the drums are definitely a major point of impact. Again, I appreciated some of the more mid-paced stuff as much as the ripping thrashers that served to highlight Thanatos‘ ability to whip out solid riffs despite having been at it so long.
Having been a fan of this band for at least two decades, collecting all of their stuff and whatnot, definitely made my initial reaction a bit rabid but I did eventually calm down and saw this as the ‘next Thanatos record’ rather than some career retread meant to revisit and rehash their discography old and new. It is cumulative in the sense that these guys have been honing their identity and refining their ‘second life’ work since 2000, as long as I’ve been listening to ’em and they’re not obsessed with the past so much as emitting their own mutated form of that old late 80’s/early 90’s radiation. Of course allow for some fan bias when it comes to my very high recommendation of ‘Violent Death Rituals’ but I think any death/thrash fan could find themselves enjoying most all of these songs.
Very high recommendation. 4.25/5.0
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