Friday, June 20, 2014

Septicflesh - Titan (2014)

I'm a sucker for symphonic death and black metal arrangements when produced and performed accordingly, so it's been a real trip over these past few Septicflesh albums as they continued to forge ahead and transform the largely synthesized operatics of their old material into genuine orchestrated escape. Granted, I still cling dearly to 90s records like In the Nightside Eclipse, Ophidian Wheel, Passage Lepaca Kliffoth and so forth, where there just wasn't the budget and exposure for the labels to front out the cash for the 'real deal', but having a genuine host of musicians does carry the benefit of a more vivacious stereo sound, and richer intricacy to all the individual strings, horns, woodwinds and percussion. Although a divisive effort in some corners, The Great Mass achieved for me the peak of marrying those exotic Middle Eastern aesthetics redolent of To Mega Therion or Theli with simple, dense, effective riff construction and broad, resonant guttural vocals which catapulted me into new visions of antiquity.

This is bombastic, sweeping music, often of the Wagnerian school, or perhaps the more brazen of the Mediterranean composers, no doubt a massive inspiration for Christos Antoniou, the band's resident composer. There is plenty of attention to detail, though the rhythm guitar components are strikingly simplistic as they shift from the pummeling chord progressions that dominated The Great Mass to tremolo picked passages that seek to cycle the Greeks full circle to the original death metal that influenced them in the mid 90s (featured prominently in tunes like "The Order of Dracul"). These are of course mixed within a modern, melodic context...Septicflesh is not a band that has shied away from the technological imperatives of the recording industry, and that's going to provoke endless enmity from the old school stalwarts who want Mental Funeral, Dawn of Possession and/or The Mortal Throne of Nazarene over and over and over and over again unto endless redundancy, but while I wouldn't outright preclude the possibility of approaching the symphonic death from a more 'filthy' vector, I just don't imagine Septicflesh and Season of Mist are going to shell out the big $ for an album that sounds like it was recorded in Spiros' garage. Not at this point in time.

What it all boils down to, is that the last three full-length albums moved me, some songs more than others, but in general they brought such new life into a band that had really been starting to slack off near the end of the 90s. Upon first hearing the Titan samples, I was apprehensive that Septicflesh had unraveled into the jumbled, chaotic mess that their neighbors Fleshgod Apocalypse have been trying to sort through ever since decided they'd become the fastest symphonic extreme metal act on the seven continents. But hearing those same sequences in the context of the full 45 minute experience, they gel together and make a lot more sense. That's not to imply there aren't misfires here, because a number of symphonic sequences and riffing patterns border on the lamentably generic, but there is no question for me of the love and effort the Greeks placed into assembling these songs, which are more or less a more 'harried' and complex followup for The Great Mass, with a greater note count from both the orchestra and the guitars, in a comparable framework. The symphonics evoke everything from belligerent mythic warfare suites to cheesy haunted house organs, but the guitar writing is just so much more focused and important to the 'fore' of the production than the aforementioned Italians who just saturate, saturate, saturate the compositions into sheer suffocation.

Special credit goes to Fotis Benardo, who on the surface performs his double bass rhythms and blasts with the same mechanic fortitude we'd expect out of Polish death titans Vader and Behemoth, but seems to have a knack for exploring grooves and fills that immediately draw my ears to the snap of his skills in lieu of the swelling choirs and atmospheres riding above them all. I think it's so difficult for a drummer to stand out on this sort of disc, and he does it. Elsewhere, the guitars deserve praise for imbuing some spikier little melodies (akin to early Septicflesh) in among the sliding octave chords and chugs that the band has continued to develop, while Seth's growls achieve that same impermeable gruffness they had on past works (a good thing, because while his bass tone is audible, it doesn't feel terribly important to the work as a whole). As for the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra, they deliver precisely what you'd expect here, a level of bombast that would quite easily sweep the entire death metal mechanism beneath the rug if it weren't so carefully pieced together in production. The riffs are decent, but not so blindingly interesting that they can compare with the rising and falling tides of strings and operatic choirs.

If I had a major complaint here, it's that for much of the playtime, Septicflesh are merely treading on ground that they had already mastered with the previous three albums. There are probably technical details, processes in the writing and recording prowess that have changed, but having an orchestra at your disposal gives you almost infinite capacity with which to experiment. To explore. Just think of the wide range of ethnic and aesthetic versatility in film scores? The Greeks sadly 'go all out Godzilla' through almost the entire track list, which might have seemed novel and acceptable years ago but is starting to dull the blade. I'd love if they would further embrace their imaginations, because frankly even an older record like Ophidian Wheel seems more inspired than this. You hear a few hints of change, like the woozy and weird intro to "Ground Zero" with the punctuated clean guitars and ghostly wails; but in summation, it's all more of the same that we've gleaned across all the post millennium Septicflesh releases, only a little more labyrinthine and involved. The tunes here, while solid and often excited, have not stuck to me the way a "Pyramid God" did, or Hollenthon's "Y Draig Goch". Titan is a pretty good album, worth my money, but I don't want to hear it again in, say, 2017. 'We've done this, let's move on.' Here's hoping they've shaken this evolutionary phase out of their systems and will ensure that the future once again belongs to the brave.

Verdict: Win [8/10] (your soil will have our seed)

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