(Andy Synn reviews the highly anticipated new album by Fleshgod Apocalypse.)
It’s amazing to think that these Italian extremists, who only really started to make waves within the underground with 2009’s Oracles, are now already on their third album.
Following the over-indulgence of Agony, Labyrinth finds the band more at ease in their own skin – not exactly comfortable, in the sense of resting on their laurels, but definitely imbued with a quiet confidence – something that allows them to simultaneously both push the envelope in terms of their symphonic embellishments and give more depth to the crunching, death metal aspect of their sound (something that critics have, in the past, criticised for being almost a secondary concern behind the orchestral and operatic frippery).
Fundamentally a brutal and brilliantly punishing listen, Labyrinth is actually far cleverer and more delightfully esoteric in places than the band are often given credit for. And, despite the devastating shock and awe on display, it’s also more interested in leaving a lasting impression, rather than simply impressing, and is all the more impressive for it.
Once you’re past the initial shockwave, you’ll find that the key to the band’s success is not just a product of their blitzkrieg sonic assault, but an often underappreciated ability to find a balance point between operatic pomp, symphonic melody, and death metal brutality, allowing the subtle undercurrents of each song to insinuate themselves into your subconscious.
One thing you’ll immediately notice is how much more powerful the guitars are this time around. There were times, every so often, when the guitars on Agony were swamped by the sheer symphonic overkill of that album. But that’s not an issue here. The riffs are heavier, more intricate, and more distinctive. You will remember them, long after the album is over.
The initial opening triumvirate of tracks immediately demonstrates how this careful rebalancing works in the album’s favour, each one a chaotic cavalcade of rampaging death metal ferocity and bombastic orchestral excess. Yet thankfully, each also possesses several elements that make them distinctive: the haunting solemnity and captivating female operatics of “Kingborn” separate it from the chugging violence and stabbing strings of “Minotaur (The Wrath Of Poseidon)”, and even the demonic symphony of “Elegy” (probably the most Agony-esque track on the album) is set apart by its buzzsaw guitars and clean/death vocal interplay.
So far, so awesome. Yet it’s at this point that things become even more… intriguing.
Though the band have arguably gotten even more extreme in places, this has actually opened up a wealth of alternative possibilities and elements to their song-writing. Paradoxically, the faster they go, the more time there is in each song to breathe and stretch. Riffs are given more chance to develop a character of their own, untainted by symphonic exuberance. Moments of (relative) calm and quiet allow tracks to brood in their own malice between eruptions of face-melting sonic force. Even the vocals seem to be delivered with more conviction and character.
With this in mind, “Towards The Sun” is a defining moment for the band, extreme yet measured, moody and morbid, a majestic death march that showcases perfectly the aggressive architecture and sublime subtleties that underpin their sound. It’s the cornerstone upon which the album turns.
The razor-sharp melodic death metal guitars and utterly devastating rhythmic punishment of “Warpledge” soften the listener up for a series of grandiose, operatic embellishments that open up whole new vistas of luxurious symphonics, while the biting, Carcass-esque riffage and spine-tingling keyboard orchestrations of “Pathfinder” encapsulate all that is good and right about the Fleshgod sound, revealing a band who have finally grown into a true titan.
“The Fall of Asterion” is a merciless barrage of explosive death metal and rapturous orchestration, whose interplay between cutting, technical guitars and sweeping, elemental strings is nothing short of mesmerising, while the unexpected acoustic melancholy of “Prologue” acts as a welcome interlude before “Epilogue” seizes the reins with its gargantuan, storm-tossed guitars, rippling keys and choppy, snaking drum patterns. It’s an absolute behemoth of a song, which primes the listener for the utterly monolithic “Under Black Sails”. It builds from an ominous, tolling intro into a climactic conjuration of all the best aspects of the band’s sound. Its menacing orchestral overtones and haunting choral malice wrap themselves around a core of iron-clad riffs and ravenous, blasting drums, breathing and uncoiling with malevolent intent, a perfect melding of murderous efficiency and magnificent excess.
After this, the simplistic beauty of “Labyrinth” comes as something of an anti-climax, despite its soothing twilight ambience. A small point perhaps, but one worth making, as it really is my only criticism of the record.
Symphonic Death Metal is a complicated formula, and balancing the various elements that combine to make it such a vibrant, and vicious, concoction is incredibly difficult. But I think Fleshgod Apocalypse have finally got it perfected.
It helps of course that they’re working with some absolutely magnificent ingredients, each member superfluously talented in his own right, yet all sharing the same distinctive vision. However, even that would only take them so far if they didn’t so clearly possess an undeniable, and indescribable, feel for the style.
Is it a more ambitious album than Agony? Probably. But even more than that it’s a testament to a band finally capable – truly, emphatically capable – of fully, and flawlessly, realising those ambitions.
Labyrinth is a perfect name for this album. The initial headlong rush down pitch-black corridors of symphonic death metal malevolence is dizzying enough, but the sheer density and calculated ferocity of each twist and turn means that you’re going to get lost in the torrent of sound again and again. In fact, you’ll want to get lost. You’ll want to keep going back in, retracing your steps, learning the paths through the chaos, teasing out the threads to guide you toward the centre of the maze.
And, in this case, the journey itself is just as rewarding as the destination.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Labyrinth is due for release on August 16 in Europe and August 20 in North America via Nuclear Blast Records. It was mixed and mastered by Stefano Morabito. The cover artwork was created by Colin Marks, who also created several neoclassical pieces of art for the album’s inlay. Below you can listen to “Elegy” and view a recent (comical) album trailer.