Maybe it’s the treacherous geography or all the active volcanoes, but there’s just something special about South American death metal. From Mortem’s sadly overlooked De Natura Demonium to the primal brutality of Atomic Aggressor, many of these bands have a certain other-worldliness that just isn’t found elsewhere – as if somewhere deep in a mountain rainforest, they brush perilously close to an unspeakable Lovecraftian horror that those of us sitting in our cushy climate-controlled apartments can only read about while we scratch our balls and munch on our Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. Add Chile’s Nar Mattaru to these dignified ranks. Formed in Santiago in 1997, the trio didn’t release debut Enuma Elish until 2011, a work which seemed largely lost amidst the myriad of other acts who sounded vaguely like Incantation. Four years and a new vocalist later, does sophomore effort Ancient Atomic Warfare fare better?
It turns out Warfare is quite the year-end surprise. Sure, Incantation is still an okay base comparison – the pace isn’t always the quickest, and vocalist Bliol rarely ventures from a dry, bellowing growl – but that’s about where similarities end. Instead, tracks like opener “Funeral in Absu” and follow-up crusher “The End of the Beginning” sound more like a mix of the monolithic heft and melodic sense of Sulphur Aeon with the lumbering rhythms of Bolt Thrower. “Funeral” thrives on an ominous marching beat and surging blackened-death tremolos that echo The Chasm’s atmosphere, while “Beginning” concludes with a riff that sounds like War Master reimagined for a final battle between Cthulhu and a horde of Sumerian gods (which, apparently, is actually the theme of the album).
Things only get better from here. It’s soon clear the real star is guitarist Franciso Bravo, who cements himself as an absolute machine of titanic, prehistoric riffing. Take again “Beginning,” whose main melodic tremolo could be the soundtrack to Earth’s first invertebrates clawing out of the primordial ocean, or “The Great Serpent of Knowledge,” which combines a huge Mesopotamian opening riff with open-sky black metal scourges that sound like something from the last Temple of Baal album. Later tracks like closer “Tribulations of the Gods” and the title track show Bravo channeling Formulas-era Trey Azagthoth with heaving, sickeningly melodic tremolos, often interpersed with Asphyx-style battering outbursts and earthquake-inducing chugs.
With the unearthly yet clear hum of Warfare’s stellar guitar tone, it’s amazing how heavy things can be while still sounding so melodic. Particular notable are the huge, clean leads of “Declaration of Supremacy” and aforementioned “Tribulations,” which evoke the weepiness and majesty of early Greg Mackintosh (Paradise Lost). At a DR of 7, the drums maintain appropriate resonance as they thunder across the scorched sonic landscapes with their steady, ritualistic beats and occasional bouts of blasting. The performance is tight without being flashy, perfectly suiting the theme and overall feel.
But things aren’t totally flawless. A few songs feature moments of choppy songwriting, where a riff will fade-out mid-song for a seemingly unrelated one to take its place, as if Nar were unable to create a proper transition between two ideas. Surprisingly however, for a six song album that runs 45 minutes, the song lengths never feel like an issue – I guess there are just too many great ideas stuffed in here, with each given just the right amount of time in the spotlight.
Ultimately, it’s terrific that an album of this caliber came out in a month that is typically barren of good releases, when most are thinking more about year-end lists and Christmas egg nog. For me, the endless onslaught of Warfare’s tremolos are delicious enough, and it’s all made even better by the occasional ritual chanting and Mayan sacrifice gang shouts. If you don’t mind the oft-methodical pace, Ancient Atomic Warfare is an album which satisfies the unholy trifecta of outstanding death metal: a dense and unique atmosphere, stellar riffs out the wazoo, and just enough melody to make the whole thing memorable. Bonus points for the goat on the album cover.