I'm not too surprised anymore when a band compares their latest work to a horror film soundtrack, and I'm also not surprised at how many bands fall short of that mark. That, dear FEAR fiends, is why this is a very good week: the new album The Great Mass from Greek symphonic death metal unit Septicflesh not only hits the terror target, it blasts right through it and into a whole new world of epic darkness. If they turned this thing into a movie, it would cost about a billion dollars and probably get banned in 40 countries. But you can always create that evil epic in your mind's eye, and this record will make that very easy to do. Read on for a full review of one of this year's best metal releases so far...
There's something about the combination of extreme metal and massive orchestral compositions that seems to click, at least when it's done right. Bands like Dimmu Borgir and Cradle of Filth built their careers on the formula, often upgrading from sampled instruments to full studio orchestras and choirs to achieve the most colossal and cinematic sound possible. Some of the metal faithful think all this bombastic stuff just distracts from the pure brutality of a straightforward band setup, but sometimes you just want to be crushed by a massive monolith of epic-ness, and Septicflesh will satisfy that urge beyond belief.
Arguably the band really locked into this style with their previous release Communion, which became a cult classic among fans of symphonic, gothic and death metal genres for its ritualistic feel and wall-to-wall orchestra and choir. Those elements aren't just spooky window-dressing, but integrated completely with the band's instruments and vocals. I daresay these cats have upped the ante with The Great Mass, which is one of the most terrifying and beautiful metal albums to come out in a long time.
Just like Communion, the band enlisted the talents of the famed Filmharmonic Orchestra of Prague (totaling 80 musicians and 32 singers) to help build what the band describes as "a funeral concerto," this time bringing aboard new elements like grand piano, harpsichord and a boys' choir soprano. Guitarist & composer Christos Antoniou wrote the orchestra parts first, which were recorded one section at a time, then blended those elements with the band in the studio. The result is a seamless union of moods and textures that call to mind Lovecraftian landscapes and nameless horrors, summoned from beyond by crushing riffs and rhythms.
We got our first taste of evil last Christmas, when the band released the first single "The Vampire From Nazareth" – which is also the album's opening cut. It's a perfect introduction, because nearly every element that comes into play on this album is evident here: the savage growls of heavy vocalist Spiros "Seth" Antoniou, blistering high-speed riffs, furious blastbeats, ceremonial chants, tribal drums, blasting brass and even the eerie touch of a boy's angelic soprano. If you like what you hear, I guarantee you'll stay on for the full journey...
One thing becomes clear as you move on to the awesome track "A Great Mass Of Death," and that's the variation in intensity and texture throughout the album, slipping easily from earth-shaking riffs to pensive melodies while maintaining a constant feeling of dread, even in its quieter moments. The low-tuned guitars on this one are very effective, synched perfectly with the orchestra's string section, and clean male and female vocals are also introduced into the mix.
The higher-tempo "Pyramid God" begins with an unforgettable riff and never lets up, zig-zagging from crusty lo-fi effects to a wall-of-sound fusion of doomy guitar and soaring violins – definitely one of the album's standout tracks. The ethereal female chant that begins "Five-Pointed Star" is immediately challenged by Seth's demon roars, reverb-heavy guitar layers and some snaky lead guitar work, closing with a steel-and-brass death march. "Oceans Of Grey" opens with deceptively calm acoustic guitar and gentle violins, but that doesn't stick around very long; soon we're plunging from a simple but breathless riff to a ghostly operatic vocal and huge stabs from the entire orchestra, punctuated by a rhythmic breathing.
"The Undead Keep Dreaming" takes on a sort of storytelling feel – that is, if that story is being told by an ogre who plans on devouring you later. Instrumentally, it's a looser piece, but the interplay of heavy and clean vocals is nicely nightmarish. "Rising" feels more like straight-up power metal, and doesn't play so well with the others, but the guitar work is still excellent. The well-named "Apocalypse" kicks you right back into the sonic devastation, transitioning from choir and harpsichord to a Middle Eastern-style melody, calling up images of Abdul Alhazred inking the pages of the Necronomicon.
"Mad Architect" is a disturbing but fascinating track, kind of a mashup of Bernard Hermann and Igor Stravinsky, combining a manic piano with dissonant strings, shifting rhythms and madly sawing riffs, finally tearing off into a terrifying high-speed climax. The album closes on an odd nostalgic note with the '80s-style ballad "Therianthropy," which strangely ditches the epic orchestral elements in favor of keyboard pads. But there's a surprising warmth that makes this song appealing, with a smooth lead line and strong clean vocals from Sotiris Vayenas.
So here's the deal: you hear the word "epic" thrown around all the time by a thousand different bands... but this time that description is not only fitting, but it's almost inadequate considering what you're up against here. If you don't like massive, chilling cinematic elements in your metal, or if you find the blackened death metal genre too harsh for your fragile brain-case, then stay away or you'll suffer like you just won't believe. But for those of you who think these are two great sounds that sound great together, you are hereby commanded to pick up The Great Mass immediately. You'll never forget it.