While the comparison is likely not one that death mavens will really appreciate, I feel that the Fleshgod Apocalypse sophomore Agony has very much in common with the past few works of the divisive Norwegian band Dimmu Borgir. The Italians initially hit it big with their 2009 debut Oracles, a forceful and competent work of semi-technical death somewhere between their countrymen Hour of Penance and Poland's Behemoth in execution, before adding some minor symphonic elements on their underwhelming Mafia EP that showed the roots of a new direction. With Agony, the expanded lineup has transformed into an all out blast of symphonic death, also expanding their vocal array to include manic, cleaner tones alongside the predictable gutturals, and some female vox for a slightly schizoid atmosphere
The obvious ambition here is not at all reproachable, but like the aforementioned Dimmu Borgir and their latest Abrahadabra, Agony is another example of too much effort reaping too little reward. The sheer technical ability of the Italians is enormous, in particular the robotic fortitude of the drummer, blasting and filling on the drop of a dime as if it were an effortless spectacle of human machinery. The vocals are admittedly rather dull, never offering anything of worth or interest but typical, layered growls that we've heard a thousand times or more before. No 'agony', no weight, and certainly nothing memorable there, even when the cleans open the asylum gates. The production here feels a little forced, in particular the symphonic elements, which are largely straightforward Wagnerian charges accompanying the vapid selection of guitar riffs which serve nothing else but the actual rhythmic momentum of each track. There are some clinical muted sequences in tunes like "The Imposition" that seem as if they'd stand out more without the orchestral backdrop, but it's all so rushed and inconsequential that I had a difficult time remembering even a single guitar line for the majority of the album...
In fact, I found myself eagerly awaiting each bridge sequence, to alleviate the monotonous surge of steamrolling that the band mistakes for actual aggression. Almost all of the core conceptual songs outside of "The Egoism" and "The Forsaking" seem to pull the same trick, with those exceptions simply slowing the pace. Concrete battering rams of an empty, eloquent flourish borne solely of the orchestration, heavy only in the level of volume and the thudding in your ear, with nary as single diabolic moment of composition that TRULY feels a menace. Granted, the prior album Oracles never exactly manifested such moments itself, but I still enjoyed that album for what it was: modernized European death metal with 40 minutes of solid entertainment and headbanging. Instead, this is more like a symphonic Dethklok alternative, and none of the additions to the backbone of the debut work in its favor: not the sweeping, tiresome symphony ingredients, the trendy female vocals, or the passive-aggressive writing.
I'm not opposed to the idea of orchestration in death or black metal. Bands like Hollenthon, Therion, Sigh and Septic Flesh have pulled it off magnificently in the past, due largely to their ability to actually compose unforgettable material, rather than ride the 'novelty' of the instrumentation. But this is more like one of those trite 'look Ma, no hands' efforts in extremity, a cavalcade of boring guitar riffs glossed over with the string sections, pianos and so forth, failing to breech an additional dimension of sound. Even the cover art is weak. Style over substance. Every Metalocalypse-stoked ADD kid's dream. So much going on, but so little of value. So much musculature over such a frail skeletal frame.
Verdict: Indifference [5.75/10]