Opera Diabolicus: '1614' – CD Review

Stories don't get more chillingly gothic than Umberto Eco's Inquisition-era whodunit The Name of the Rose, so it's no surprise two darkly-inclined gentlemen would be creatively inspired by a 2006 stage adaptation of that tale – and since they happened to be in Gothenburg, Sweden, one of the modern meccas of metal, a configuration of evil constellations must surely have aligned, resulting in the formation of the group Opera Diabolicus. From that time, composer David Grimoire and lyricist Adrian de Crow began collaborating on a gothic metal opera, ripping the bloodiest pages from history as their subject. Their debut album 1614 is far from the first musical exploration of Hungary's notorious "Blood Countess" Elizabeth Bathory (from the legendary Swedish band who adopted her surname, to Cradle of Filth's concept album on the subject), but it's definitely one of the most elaborately presented depictions of her sadistic reign of terror ever recorded. Hit the jump for a review, and be sure to watch their music video at the end!

While the tortuous tale of Elizabeth – often described as history's first documented serial killer, who allegedly bathed in the blood of young women to maintain her youth – is most associated with the black metal genre, Opera Diabolicus take a more melodic '80s-era approach, along the lines of Mercyful Fate and that band's frontman King Diamond; in fact, former Fate member Snowy Shaw contributes vocals to this album, along with Shaw's former Therion bandmate Mats Levén and Dream Evil's Niklas Isfeldt. Shaw even mans the drumkit on 1614, and you can behold his brand of awesome (dig that epic 'stache!) in the video for the track "Blood Countess Bathory." Their voices interweave with vocalist Camilla Alisander-Ason in a way that draws equally from traditional opera and classic metal (this one's not your typical "Beauty/Beast" combo), and Grimoire's arrangements reflect a classical structure that, ironically, is often lacking in many keyboard-enhanced symphonic metal bands.

Of course when it's time to bring the heavy, this team comes through like heroes, while not pushing the metal aspects into the extreme realm – as opposed to the recent (and excellent, I might add) symphonic metal releases by Cradle of Filth, Dimmu Borgir and Septicflesh, who along with Therion have pretty much staked out that turf (no pun intended). Stylistically, 1614 feels like a fusion of progressive, doom and black metal, but with the rich melodic touches, riffs and leads I usually associate with King Diamond and company. It never ventures into unfamiliar musical terrain, but still feels much edgier and darker than Christopher Lee's symphonic metal interpretation of another blood-soaked historic figure, Charlemagne (check our review of that one here).

The album begins as most traditional operas, with an instrumental overture, here handled mainly by a grand piano, giving way to massive layers of orchestration and vocal chants as we enter "The Gates," a chilling magnum opus that showcases the band's sense of grand-scale drama, drifting from acoustic guitar and piano into beefy power chords. While the backing orchestration mainly consists of sampled instruments, the arrangements are lush and elegant, with production effectively creating the illusion of a vast stage space, while keeping the guitars and bass hefty and providing solid punch to Shaw's rhythms. The following track "Blood Countess Bathory" is the most flamboyant, showy and cinematic piece on the record – naturally, a prime selection for the music video at the end of this review.

The tale continues with a silky solo by Alisander-Ason in "The 13th Guest," which opens the curtain on a supernatural element, represented by chunky riffs and interlocking demonic/melodic male vocals. The midpoint instrumental "In Memoriam" is particularly chilling, a down-tempo piece with harsh breathing and evil laughter as the only vocal elements, making it a sure-fire track for your next Halloween party mix. The martial beat of "Mythos Lamia" provides some of the most energetic, crunchy head-banging moments, and the the core metal players get to demonstrate their skills. The climactic "Forbidden" thrashes along mightily, accented by the album's best vocal layering, making it one of the most memorable cuts. The coda "Stone by Stone" embodies the final fate of the countess, and is suitably one of the album's doomiest passages... though I personally would have preferred a clean conclusion to his track rather than a slow fade out.

Dense but beautifully intricate, crushingly heavy but also lush and dreamlike, 1614 is a rich banquet of gothic spendor that brings old and new genres together in ways so many past rock operas have tried but failed. It took six years for the band to bring this epic from concept to reality, but to my ears it was time well spent.

Without further ado, it's time to rock yourself to death with the music video for "Blood Countess Bathory"... all hail Sir Snowy!