No one sounds like Fleshgod Apocalypse. No one. Not even close. In a remarkably short time, over a span of only two albums and an intervening EP, the band have established a unique and immediately recognizable style. The second of those albums, Agony, fully and brilliantly achieves what the band have been moving toward since their inception — a remarkable union of classical music and blistering death metal, heated to a full boil. The album is a bombastic whirlwind that leaves you breathless and wide-eyed in wonder.
On Agony, all of Fleshgod Apocalypse’s signature ingredients are now firmly in place. The extravagant symphonic keyboards and piano instrumentals of Francesco Ferrini are now woven completely through the magic carpet of every song, a completely co-equal partner with the thunderous performances of the other band members. Although even the timing and power of the guitar riffing and bass rhythms give off the favor of orchestral composition, Ferrini’s musical creations, more than anything else, put an indelible stamp on the music, invoking the ornate classical masters of the band’s Italian homeland in their most extravagantly fiery moments — Vivaldi, Paganini, and Rossini.
Of course, other metal bands use symphonic keyboards in their music, though more often in an effort to add background ambience and atmosphere than as a co-starring role in the performance. But, as Fleshgod Apocalypse have explained, they view the classical music of the 17th and 18th centuries as the death metal of that era — as music that was (and is) powerful, dramatic, and heavy — and so their goal, now fully realized, has been to unite music from two very different worlds that nevertheless have in common the ability to produce (in my words, not theirs) complete emotional catharsis. And that brings us to the drumming. (after the jump . . .)
If Ferrini’s contributions invoke the baroque grandeur of one world, Francesco Paoli opens the door to the blast-furnace of the other. His drumming isn’t particularly intricate or varied; the vast majority of the time, it’s an unceasing barrage of blast-beats and double-kicks. But executing intricate patterns and tempo shifts isn’t the point, and frankly, I’m not sure there would be room for it anyway, given the blistering speed of the compositions.
The point is to capture the vaulting extremity of modern death metal, as both a complement to, and a contrast with, the tropes of classical music, and Paoli does that. His drumming is machinelike in its precision, and simply jaw-dropping in its speed. It’s a dominant presence in each song, and hearing what he does is like walking into the leading edge of a hurricane.
His performance is all the more remarkable given that he only began studying the drums before the recording of the Mafia EP (having been the vocalist and guitarist on the band’s debut album, Oracles), when the band’s former drummer left and they were unable to find a replacement who could contribute what they wanted. Apparently what they wanted was a drummer who would show no mercy.
In keeping with the furious pacing of the songs, guitarists Tommaso Riccardi and Cristiano Trionfera and bassist Paolo Rossi are fast as blazes in their riffing, executing technically demanding bursts of propulsion, and somehow designing the rhythmic starts and stops and melodic flourishes in a way that integrates beautifully with Ferrini’s symphonic compositions. The initial experience of listening to the album is a bit overwhelming, it’s such an onslaught of sonic power and fury. But the more you concentrate on the songs, the more complex and challenging you realize they are, and the more appreciation you’ll have for the skills of these three.
The guitar solos, principally by Riccardi, are another important ingredient in the band’s unique sound. Against the backdrop of all other instruments ramped up to jet-fueled speed, the spiraling solos unfold at a contrastingly slower pace, and with a soulful, emotional aspect that also contrasts with the machinelike brutality of the drums. Like every other ingredient in the music, the soloing integrates seamlessly with the rest of the instrumental and vocal performances, perhaps nowhere more evident than in “The Egoism”, when it blends and segues into the clean vocals so smoothly that the two sounds become one.
And that brings us to the final key ingredient of the music captured on Agony: the vocals. In keeping with the band’s goal of combining the music of two worlds, almost every song features both Riccardi’s vicious death-metal roars and barks and also the climbing, over-the-top, near-operatic clean vocals of Paolo Rossi. At times, his falsetto climbs so high that his voice comes close to breaking apart, but even then, it serves the band’s goals of achieving cathartic emotional power in an extreme union of divergently extreme forms of music.
Three songs step back (or sideways) from the explosive, house-on-fire pacing of all the rest. The dramatic, melancholy sweep of “The Forsaking” creates a change of mood and pacing, underscored by the unusually ambient-style synths, by piano instrumentals, and by the vocal sounds of a choir. Riccardi’s harsh vocals also change, lending a blackened feel to the song through icy rasps but also dropping even lower than usual in the register of death-metal roars.
The other departures are the album’s bookends — the opening track, “Temptation”, and the title track, “Agony”. “Temptation” is a symphonic overture that builds in intensity and power and then flows without pause directly into “The Hypocrisy”, as if to prove the point, without doubt, that classical music (at least some forms of it) and death metal belong together.
“Agony” draws the album to a close, much as the title track of the Mafia EP ushered us to the end of that record, with a moving, solitary piano instrumental. It is just as emotionally affecting as the rest of the music, but it allows the listener to recover from the onslaught of what has come before, while maintaining a connection to it as well.
The iTunes version of Agony includes a bonus track. By delaying this review until after the official U.S. release date, I was able to check out that song, which isn’t available on the CD. It’s a cover of “Heartwork” by Carcass. The FA version is still recognizably “Heartwork”, with the riffing and solo work much closer to the Carcass brand than to FA’s signature style. Yet, FA have put their own stamp on the song with Ferrini’s symphonic keys and Paoli’s full-auto machine-gunning. It’s a great rendition of the song and worth getting.
You knew I couldn’t close this lengthy piece without offering up some music. I have no favorites on the album — because they have all become favorites. I picked “The Hypocrisy” simply because it’s the way the onslaught begins. I only wish I were technically adept enough to blend together “Temptation” and “The Hypocrisy” into a single track, to give you the full feeling of how the album starts, and a true sense of the message the band are sending through their music — that the two worlds of music from which Fleshgod Apocalypse have drawn their inspiration belong together.[audio:https://www.nocleansinging.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/08/02-The-Hypocrisy.mp3|titles=Fleshgod Apocalypse – The Hypocrisy]
Nuclear Blast released Agony in the U.S. yesterday, but are making European metalheads wait until August 19. If you get as interested in this unusual band as we are here at NCS, I’d recommend listening to the 3 videos (so far) that they’ve recently made, answering fan questions. I linked to the first one earlier in this review. The others are here and here.
I had the pleasure of seeing FA perform on the still-ongoing SUMMER SLAUGHTER tour. That tour is exposing them for the first time to thousands of fans across the U.S. I expect/hope that it will do for them what the first nationwide tour of Gojira did for that band — vault them into the upper reaches of metaldom where they belong. When I heard Gojira on their first US tour, I had the same sense then that I have now about FA — that Europe has brought to our shores (yet again) something different and unforgettable, and we are witnessing a star that is about to rise rapidly.
UPDATE: The band have just posted the lyrics to all the songs on Agony. You can find them via this link.