Friday, August 16, 2013

Fleshgod Apocalypse - Labyrinth (2013)

Perhaps it's just old age catching up with me, but I think it telling that Fleshgod Apocalypse's substantial third full-length album Labyrinth gave me a headache within about 10 minutes of the grandiose intro to "Kingborn". Funny enough, so did their last album. A few Tylenol later, I was armed and ready to return, and after giving this more of a chance, I found that I could appreciate it ever so slightly more than Agony. While they are still insistent on performing this symphonic re-branding of their debut Oracles (good stuff), I felt like at least this time they did a superior job of mixing the synthesizers in with the rhythm guitars, and created a greater depth of maniacal Mozartsian brutality. That's not to say that this is a step up or a step down in terms of songwriting, or not even remotely as unique as some will make it out to be, but as more or less a hybrid of Sigh's Hangman's Hymn, Septic Flesh's last three records, and Death Cult Armageddon-era Dimmu Borgir, it's at least functional.

The problem is, like with the last album, that a lot of focus here is on playing as quickly and intensely as possible with no regards to catchy rhythm guitars or truly brilliant dynamic shifts, and that's why it retains a sense of 'faux orchestration', like someone fast-forwarding an old black & white artillery march set to Wagner in an incessant loop of crescendo. Exciting in small chunks, but exhausting and uninteresting in the longer run. Probably a good eight of ten riffs, and about half the keyboards immediately depart the memory after entering, and so the listener is generally left to stand 'blown away' by the speed of the drumming and the spastic, spasming energy of the colliding and contrasted choirs and 'strings' flying around everywhere. But I wont' fault Fleshgod Apocalypse for not trying here. This isn't just a straight blasting migraine, they actually do embed the 54 minute track list with some versatility. There are a few 'breathers' among them, like the acoustic "Prologue" and the dramatic piano finale "Labyrinth", but I do wish they had come a little earlier in the run time. They also divvy up the importance of the orchestration and methodic guitar picking here, so while "Warpledge" might rely very heavily on the girly operatic screams and choirs over its raging substrata of kick drums, other tunes have plenty of surgical riffing harmonies.

But the intensity is a constant, and often a nuisance. We don't really feel like we're being allowed to travel on this journey of splendor and terror through Greek mythology, but rather, we're being kicked along, like by a cadre of annoying, bullying, brutal death metal ushers in a theater. 'You done with that popcorn yet?' 'Let me have those candy wrappers.' 'Shut up and LISTEN to the fuckin' choirs!' 'No making out in the theater!' 'This is the good part, now move along, nothing more to see here.' Any time I think they're on to some tasty flight of strings or pianos, or a delicious riff pops up through the surging bombardment, it's gone in a flash and I find it irrevocably frustrating. I won't doubt that many hours went into sharpening Labyrinth, crafting the densest and busiest recording imaginable, but when at the end of the day it sounds like Dethklok paying homage to Virgin Steele, I can't really give credence to this pushing the boundaries of 'extremity' like so many fans of Agony decried. And I'm not saying that as some crusty vest-metal advocate who defies everything that sounds like it came out after 1993 because it doesn't fit into my carefully-cultivated self image; I enjoy quite a lot of modern, triggered clinical tech death and always will. This has all been done: Fleshgod is simply filling in what few blanks remained in the phrasing, with symphonic overkill.

So, what DID I like about Labyrinth? Well, for one, considering just how fucking much is happening here, I was impressed that I could make out almost all of the details. Francesco Paoli, as usual, is a goddamned bull. Don't get me wrong, he's a 'mechanical bull', inhuman, and very likely to side with Skynet once our robotic overlords come to prominence, but if I were to watch this guy perform I'd have to untangle my jaw from my shoelaces. Meticulous, brickwork blasting and untiring kicks everywhere, I just don't see drummers going further than this without cybernetic implants. That's not to say the beats are interesting, they're really just setting the pace for the sum shitstorm of Labyrinth's components, but that he's incredibly driven and talented is impossible to deny. The soaring lead harmonies, where they appear, are also like a spike of sunshine parting the turbulent storm-clouds of orchestrated excess, rays of 'class' amongst the barrage of cheese. The screaming, wannabe King Diamond vocals here are consistently irritating, but hey, at least they try and break up the monotony of stock growls that, while loud, are nothing all that special. The bass lines are probably sick, but they blend in too well against the rhythm guitars and I often lose them altogether...

Ugh. I wanted to like this so much more than I did. Labyrinth might not be the most unique choice of Greek mythological concepts, but I think the lyrics are handled with some passion and knowledge of the subject matter. Minos, Daedelus, Icarus, they're quite thorough with this little subsection of the lore, even throwing in a reference to Procrustes the Stretcher. Not to mention, the title alone seems to gel well with Fleshgod Apocalypse's style, because there's much to traverse and pick apart here, even if most of the riffing ideas wind up at dead ends like Asterion's maze. 54 minutes is quite long here, and the flow of the record would have been bettered served with a piece like "Labyrinth" earlier in the roster, but then, this is not something I'm going to find myself listening to in its entirety very often (if ever). 1-2 tracks I can stomach, but even then there are few which really deserve the attention. Despite the sheer magnitude of the Italians' efforts and capabilities, I always had the feeling I was headed somewhere but never arriving. I guess that's the point of a 'labyrinth', to trap the aspirant into a sense of claustrophobic, unending dread, but unfortunately there's no aural ball of string, no Theseus to give us the comeuppance, the payoff all this chugging, banging and sweeping calamity deserves.

Verdict: Indifference [6.5/10] (for I will slay the shame of Crete)

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