Aealo, the 10th full-length offering from Greek extreme metal band Rotting Christ, is by far the most interesting listening experience we’ve encountered to date in 2010. It’s a coherent compilation of lush, passionate, densely layered songs that establishes a new milepost in Rotting Christ’s fascinating musical evolution. When the year ends, something tells us this album will still be in the forefront of our memory.
Thematically, Aealo is organized around concepts of battle, destruction, death, and mourning. And in exploring those subjects, songwriter (and vocalist/guitarist) Sakis Tolis has tapped into ancient Hellenic culture and events. More than any other Rotting Christ production, Aealo incorporates the sounds, rich musical traditions, and mythic history of the band’s homeland.
It accomplishes this feat in part by the use of guest artists, including a female choir from Ipiros called Pilades, Greek-American performance artist Diamanda Galas, and musicians from Greek pagan folk band Daemonia Nymphe. But while incorporating the sounds and ancient musical traditions of their homeland, Rotting Christ have not forsaken the powerful, signature style of their previous discography. Aealo is an intensely emotional and wholly remarkable blend of traditions, and we venture to say the result is like nothing else you will hear this year. (read more after the jump, and listen to a track from Aealo . . .)
Rotting Christ was formed in 1987, when the original members were all teenagers, and it didn’t take long for the band to establish itself as a striking component of the European black metal scene. But over the last 20 years, the music has evolved to a point where it can hardly be called black metal at all any more.
The band’s last album, 2007’s Theogonia, was the product of a four-piece line-up featuring founding member Sakis (guitars / vocals), his brother Themis on drums, Andreas Lagios on bass, and a new lead guitarist, George Bokos. Lyrically, Theogonia was based on mythical Greek stories about the origin of the world. Musically, the album was melodic while still recognizably preserving Rotting Christ’s own special take on black metal. It was filled with infectious songs and was one of our favorite albums of the last 5 years.
Aealo features the same stellar lineup of musicians but is a significant step further along the road of Rotting Christ’s musical progression. Given the album’s thematic focus, many of the songs have a martial air, driven by hammering drums and grinding guitar rhythms. At the same time, many of the songs are infused with dark, pagan melody emanating from a variety of sources — the plaintive wailing of ancient laments by the Pilades choir, the chanting of men (as if marching to battle), and beautifully constructed guitar solos.
While the songs have a more folk-oriented, ethnic sound than many of the band’s previous efforts, and although the black-metal tremolo picking has been greatly reduced in the mix, the music is still recognizably Rotting Christ. “Santa Muerte,” in particular, would have been right at home on Theogonia.
The pace of the songs is as varied as the musical elements they incorporate. They include thrashy, high-speed attacks in songs such as “Aealo” and “Eon Aenaos”, as well as grim, mid-tempo songs such as “Noctis Era” and “. . . Pir Threontal”. You’ll find infectiously headbanging riffs and blast beats coexisting with funereal laments, but you won’t find any two songs that sound quite alike. And for that reason, among others, Aealo is an album that stands up to repeat listening. The mood, the rhythms, and the instrumental and vocal elements are so richly varied that each new listening reveals something new.
And speaking of vocal elements, Aealo includes not only the immediately recognizable, viciously furious howls of Sakis Tolis, but also guest appearances by the The Magus (Necromantia, Thou Art Lord, Diabolos Rising, and more) providing even more evil-sounding companion vocals on “. . . Pir Threontal”, Alan Nemtheanga from the Irish band Primordial providing gothic baritone vocals on “Thou Art Lord”, and of course Diamanda Galas — about whom we need a separate paragraph.
The final track on Aealo is a cover of a Diamanda song called “Orders From the Dead” about the slaughter of Armenian, Assyrian, and Anatolian and Pontic Greeks by Ottoman Turks during and after World War I. It’s a cover in the sense that Rotting Christ uses Ms. Galas’s vocals from the original recording, but then adds its own instrumental accompaniment. The vocals consist of spoken words that build in intensity and power as the lyrics become even more graphically horrific in their description. And as the vocals build in intensity, so does the backing guitar and drum work. Together, the vocals and the instruments express bitter grief and furious anger, and a resolute message that is a clarion call for all victims of slaughter and genocide: “Never again!”
When some bands bring in guest artists for a recording, they’re doing nothing more than drafting on the fan appeal of their guests in an effort to expand their own attractiveness or to create a PR splash. That’s not what’s going on here. The guest artists on Aealo aren’t household names in extreme metal. They’re here because of their unique sound, and because they contribute something vital to what Sakis imagined in his mind — something that the band members alone couldn’t fully achieve on their own.
In some circles, calling a metal album an ingenious work of art would be the kiss of death, but that’s what Aealo is. The album uses the unmatched emotional intensity of extreme metal to reinvent ancient forms of musical expression and to express elemental aspects of the human condition. The songs on Aealo are best heard as a collective whole — in fact, it’s evident in listening to the album that the songs were meant to be heard together, in the sequence in which they occur. But we’re only going to give you a single track as a sample. If you like it, you can buy all the songs now on iTunes, and the CD will be available for shipping shortly from the usual retailers. So, have a listen: