Credit where credit’s due to Fleshgod Apocalypse: you couldn’t accuse them of stringing their audience along. “Labyrinth” begins as it means to continue. Opening track “Kingborn” starts with a sample of a man laboriously climbing a rocky slope while waves crash behind him. A pair of heavy doors is opened, closing out the sound of the waves, leaving only the man’s heavy breathing. A chorus of ominous chanting builds in the background. At around 75 second in, the guitars introduce themselves with an overture of massive downstrokes while the drums charge up with a series of increasingly rapid fills. At just under 100 seconds, the band finally begin in earnest, and… well, remember the giant alien laser that leveled New York in “Independence Day”? Yeah, the musical equivalent of that.
This Italian death metal troupe, founded in 2007 by Francesco Paoli (formerly of scene stalwarts Hour of Penance) turned a lot of heads in 2011 with their sophomore full-length “Agony.” Although the combination of brutal technical death metal with bombastic orchestration was not strictly a new one, having been explored at length already by Greece’s Septicflesh, it had rarely been conducted at such intensity. Whether or not the band’s creativity is matched by their strenuous physicality is still an open debate, but that they play technical death metal of a sort that nears the limits of human ability can scarcely be denied. Similar to his contemporaries in Origin or Brain Drill, Paoli’s drumming demonstrates astonishing speed, precision and endurance and he applies it to a heedless wall of blastbeats. His bandmates keep pace with a torrent of dementedly relentless riffage and barked, subhuman vocalisations. The harmonic gaps are filled in with synthesized orchestrations seemingly on loan from Dimmu Borgir, transforming what would otherwise be a routine tech-death workout into a sound with apocalyptic connotations.
“Labyrinth,” the group’s third LP, follows on from “Agony” in most respects, save perhaps for more stately and ambitious song structures. The menacing buzzsaw guitars and bludgeoning percussion share the stage with plaintive soprano wails and Francesco Ferrini’s delirious piano. The band’s promotional photos featuring themselves dressed in the soiled attire of classical musicians would seem to bespeak an attempt at gothic pastiche, but don’t be fooled. All of this cod-classicism is part of a calculated attempt to push everything as far over the top as it can possibly go; the music lacks the restraint or the sophistication to attempt anything as rhetorically sophisticated as pastiche.
Paradoxically, although the great gobs of orchestration slathered all over everything have the effect of making “Labyrinth” seem far more portentous than it otherwise would, it also has the effect of making it more palatable to a casual listener. For all of its concussive fury, the equal of any brutal death metal act, this is a surprisingly easy album to listen to from second to second, the symphonics taking off the hard edges like so much aural bubble-wrap. It goes down as easily as candyfloss and it tastes as sweet, and this may go some way to explaining why Fleshgod Apocalypse are able to get away with such a relative lack of dynamics. Technical death metal – even modern, clinical tech-death – is capable of considerable structural and melodic eloquence, as recent outings from Obscura and Beyond Creation have proved. Fleshgod just strap a lead brick to the accelerator. Even when the drums consent to let up, it’s usually only to make way for equally tense and frantic orchestral interludes.
There are moments of melodic clarity, yes. The elegiac twin tracks “Prologue” and “Epilogue” in particular represent a high point for “Labyrinth,” the one moment where the orchestration and instrumentation combine to express something more emotionally nuanced than cataclysmic destruction. The guitar solos also frequently work in some pleasant and intelligible dual harmonies, such as in the songs “Elegy” and “The Fall of Asterion.” More often than not though, these oases are swept along in the constant percussive barrage, fading into the larger bombastic miasma.
I don’t want to understate Fleshgod Apocalypse’s capabilities. The imperious grandeur on display in “Labyrinth” is easy to get swept up in in short bursts – I’m personally very fond of the massive middle section of “Pathfinder” in this respect – but it all tends to blend together after a while. Francesco Paoli has tried to have his cake and eat it, attempting to combine the unrelenting nature of death metal with the scale of symphonic metal, but I fear that this may be an aesthetic dead end. Death metal, going back to the early output of Deicide, has made a virtue of being unrelenting – by denying the listener respite in melody or room to draw breath, it achieves an alien, disorienting quality. Fleshgod Apocalypse evidently want to create something epic, but they undermine themselves by refusing to relinquish death metal’s suffocating density. It’s just too constantly loud to offer any sense of sweep or scope. “Labyrinth” is fun and entertaining and it packs a hell of a wallop, but it’s also rather exhausting and kind of shallow. There’s more to epic metal than simply bowling the listener over.
02) Minotaur (Wrath of Poseidon)
04) Towards the Sun
07) The Fall of Asterion
10) Under Black Sails
Technical/Symphonic Death Metal