All Hail the New Fleshgod
Italy’s Fleshgod Apocalypse started out as a technical death metal band with separate symphonic interludes. As the years passed, the group integrated those symphonic elements into their sound, eventually ending up with a fully blended attack. 2016’s King finds the band following up 2013’s Labyrinth, a polarizing album that had some fans ecstatic, and others decrying its bombastic excess (an uncommon gripe in metal). A loose concept album, King is concerned with power, war, religion, succession, death and a whole bunch of other epic shit that cannot be properly expressed without the use of orchestras.
Overture “Marche Royal” sounds just like the song from those rousing U.S. Navy commercials… until the metal comes in. And man does it ever! Powered by prodigious blastbeats and the crushing guitar tones, it practically ripples with menace. There is some restraint though, primarily in the way the album is mixed. While Labyrinth was an echoey, overloud mess, King finds a way to layer its many elements harmoniously. This allows the listener to digest the songwriting without distraction.
Several early tracks boast unique songwriting features, which makes them distinctive and memorable. “In Aeternum,” lays out the parameters for the album, with choirs, clean vocals and deep growls all rising atop a violent storm of symphonic metal. “Healing Through War,” boasts a distinctive hook (“ I / Believe in nothing,” growls guitarist Tommaso Riccardi). “The Fool” opens with a frenzied, whimsical, harpsichord-precipitated passage, before slowing notably (but don’t worry! The song regains its manic energy as it progresses). “Cold as Perfection” uses call-and-response vocals from Veronica Bordacchini to vary its texture, and also features a spoken-word section. “Mitra” dials back the orchestration, allowing the band to loosen its collective collar for a truly pummeling assault.
Unfortunately, by the time the second half of the album arrives, (minimally-backed soprano piece “Paramour (Die Leidenschaft bringt Leiden)” acts as an intermission) permutations in the arrangements feel exhausted, and the ensuing songs mostly rehash previously explored territory. The three songs after “Paramour” drag, despite offering some pretty decent stuff. Mitigating the royal decline is “Syphilis,” a suitably epic closer whose amplified drama brings the concept to an unmistakable climax. “King” is essentially a postscript, with wistful piano inviting the listener to reflect on the narrative as the lights go down.
Fans of Mediterranean symphonic death metal may be reminded of 2014’s Titan, from Greek outfit Septicflesh and the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra. While King boasts a more cohesive concept, and moderately less cheesy lyrics, Septicflesh’s album was more deftly written, and reached greater heights of symphonic bliss.
King is encouraging, in that it shows Fleshgod Apocalypse taming the overindulgences that marred their previous release. The eminently more listenable mix and decluttered compositions go a long way. However, the result is not sublimity just yet. The album’s length dilutes the impact of the individual songs. The experiments in songwriting that appear early in the album could certainly be pushed much further. Nonetheless, King is a step in the right direction, and perhaps a sign of an artistic maturity that will pay dividends in the near future.