Monday, July 25, 2011

Rotting Christ - Sleep of the Angels (1999)

While Sleep of the Angels does take its queues from both Triarchy of the Lost Lovers and A Dead Poem, it's also the most accessible work in all this beloved band's history, if not all of Greek black metal. In fact, I have a hard time even defining this as 'black metal' with a straight face, because it's essentially atmospheric, melodic metal with the added furor of Sakis Tolis's rasp, which he fuses here with more whispers and cleans than any of their prior full-lengths. Clearly they were leading up to this point through all prior evolutions, but the soul train has arrived at last. That's not to say that I don't enjoy Sleep of the Angels, because for at least most of its duration, it's downright brilliant and memorable, but those who have characterized this as Rotting Christ 'lite' are certainly entitled to that opinion. The thing is, I'll take Rotting Christ 'lite' or even Rotting Christ 'disco' or 'calypso' over most music, because this is a band which rarely disappoints.

Never has their moniker been more of an aesthetic contrast to their songwriting than on this work, but in the end it's the songs that count, and Sleep of the Angels is not short on them. A glorious, repetitive sweeping keyboard line inaugurates the thundering, melodic mutes of "Cold Colours" while tinges of ambiance rise and fall in the landscape, and you'll note that the focus here is immediately placed on a fantastic guitar line that snares the listener while providing a fluid counterpoint to the thicker chords. There's almost a glorious, martial groove here enforced by the synthesizers leading up to the bridge, and it flows perfectly into the even more 'pretty' riffing of "After Dark I Feel", which might qualify as one of the gentlest songs in this band's discography...but phenomenal regardless. Like "Cold Colours", it uses dour, clean, whispered vocals to offset Sakis' snarling in the verse, playful and seductive with a malevolent reminder riding undercurrent, and the understated keyboards throughout this are placed perfectly.

And then comes "Victoriatus", my personal favorite on the album, with an unforgettable guitar melody and groove which burns itself into the mind just as quickly as anything off the preceding pair of albums, a solid rock chorus with whispered vocals that remind me of what Samael were writing at this time (Eternal). It should come as no surprise, since master orchestrator Xytras was the producer for this album (and its predecessor, A Dead Poem). After this, the album does take a slight dip in quality, with songs like the single "Der Perfekte Traum" and "The World Made End" following a similar ethos, just not as ear catching. "You My Flesh" is interesting, but some of the chords used in the bridge are essentially a refrain to "Victoriatus". "Delusions" has more of a swagger about it, while "Imaginary Zone" and the title track veer briefly back into the band's charging black metal roots, only glazed in the same synthesizer atmosphere as the slower pieces. Perhaps the best of the album's remainder are "Thine is the Kingdom" and the bonus "Moonlight", both epic and immersive with heavily resonant bridges and inherent Gothic groove.

Not just another nail in the crucifix, Sleep of the Angels once more reminds us of how Rotting Christ are in a class of their own, constantly mutating and exploring the parameters of their genre and even defying it, without actively insulting their audience or forgetting where they came from. The minimal, effective imagery of the lyrics conjures an emotional relationship with the listener, without abandoning the band's lust for magic, myth and the natural world. Xytras does an amazing job of drawing out power from the guitars, vocals and synthesizers while he maintains a rather natural vibe, without needless excess distortion or processing. It's not really a black metal album, sure, and as it was the first time I got to see the band on tour here in the States, it was interesting to see the crowd reaction (not that most of them had half a clue who these Greeks were) to this material when they sharing the bill with more aggressive bands like Shadows Fall and Sinister. Coincidentally, this is a great 'gateway' album to mold your girl or boyfriend, grandmother or any other 'square' into the darker climes of music. A baby step to oblivion. But it's also pretty grand for the rest of us.

Verdict: Win [8.25/10]
(I live up to our culture)

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