Thursday, August 4, 2011

Fleshgod Apocalypse - Agony

Fleshgod of Fire

Fleshgod Apocalypse is a strange breed.  They're insane tech death, no doubt, but they take the intensity factor and turn it up to 11 as opposed to widdly-widdlying the living hell out of listeners.  Yeah, their drummer knows basically one beat and then just make believes a drum solo whenever he isn't blasting, but riff wise they're basically peerless in their genre.  As if that wasn't enough to set them apart, they interspersed their mind bending insanity with classical passages on Oracles and introduced clean, operatic vocals on Mafia.  Now there is literally no metal band on the face of the earth that sounds exactly like them, and they've built a pretty considerable fanbase at this point.  After signing to Nuclear Blast Records, they were officially at the top of their game, poised to become one of the world's most popular and creative death metal bands, what else could they possibly do?  They could either take the Krisiun route and stick to what they know they're good at, or they could continue to introduce the classical elements in their music and continue to forge this new path.  I would have said the correct choice was the latter, but now that they've released Agony, I'm only half sure it was the proper choice.

You see, their image and aesthetics helped them stand out as much as their creative take on tech death, and since the first details released about an upcoming album are purely aesthetical, it's understandable that I prepare for the worst when the aesthetics take a nose dive.  The band's stage gimmick hasn't changed (described as "undead gentlemen" or "Akercocke got in a car wreck") but let's face it, the album art and new logo really, really suck.  Worse yet, was that upon the release of the cover, the band commented on its meaning by giving this very long winded description of what it symbolized when really it was an extremely verbose way of saying "Mankind has a dark side that they must learn to control".  No, really?  I thought the raggedy man bound in chains symbolized the Disney's dominance of children's animation in the 1990s.  Silly me.  Also, every track barring the intro and outro is titled "The [Word]", much like Dimmu Borgir's fantastically hated In Sorte Diaboli... not the best precedent to go off of.

So the band is pretentious and artwork has been dumbed down, doesn't necessarily mean the music is gonna suck, does it?  Of course not, but the music here finds itself balancing upon a slack wire several stories in the air between "awesome" and "terrible".  I'm really, honestly not sure if I like this album or not.  The metal portion of the music is largely unchanged.  The percussion is extraordinarily loud and furious, almost never slowing down for a more relaxed beat.  Even the slower songs, "The Egoism" and "The Forsaking", are slow by guitar only, as the drums continue to blast and double bass their way along.  The riffing style has also been left fairly intact, consisting of hyperfast tremolo chords or hyperfast chugging chords.  I don't think any note outside the aforementioned slower tracks are longer than an eighth note, and considering the speed at which the songs fly by, that's pretty impressive.  "The Oppression" and the album's lead single, "The Violation" are probably the fastest tracks on hand, and some of the most intense that Fleshgod has ever put to tape, which is saying a whole hell of a lot.  The intensity is overwhelming, but that's exactly what made Oracles such an enjoyable release.  And when it comes to solos and leads, this is actually a huge step up, as they're both prominent, melodic, and memorable every time one appears.  When one focuses on the traditional metallic instruments, this is every bit as incredible as the previous stuff.

But therein lies the problem with Agony, the actual metal is buried under layers upon layers upon layers of symphonic overtones.  The classical touches that would occasionally appear for a few brief moments in Mafia have been given center stage here.  There is literally about a ten second section in the middle of "The Betrayal" where there are no strings or horns blasting through the speakers, and after repeated listens that ten second section is still the only piece of pure metal I've managed to find on the record.  That isn't to say the symphonic stuff is BAD, per se, it's just such a strange mixture with the hyperspeed tech death insanity that lies beneath.  It doesn't help that the synths are by far the loudest thing in the mix.  It isn't even like it's going on in the background, it's right in your face like David Lee Roth's nuts.  I want to compare it to fellow Italians, Rhapsody of Fire, but with my favorite absurd flower metallers the keys are always carrying the melody or building and epic atmosphere.  If the keys aren't building atmosphere or accentuating the melodic themes, what exactly are they doing?  The correct answer is nothing.  That's right, the symphonics don't really ever do anything. They rarely carry a noticeable, repeating melody, and whenever they're playing solo they don't do anything to build atmosphere or introduce the song's main theme or anything. They always seem to just be there for the sake of it and that's really irritating. I'd like to think I'm a pretty creative person, but using the symphonics on their own and in conjunction with the death metal as a backdrop, I can't imagine a scene in my head. It doesn't paint a picture of inner struggle like the band seems to imply it should convey, the symphonics make it sound neither epic nor foreboding, and the blasty blasty weedly woo is just as in your face and intense as it was previously, so it just seems like there's an annoying, unrelated orchestra playing completely different themes and ideas next door to the recording studio.  There's no cohesion, it's rare that the riffs and synths relate to one another in any way, so there's always this disjointed something-or-other happening in the foreground.

Fleshgod introduced another new aspect to their ever distinguishing signature sound on last year's monolithic EP, and that's Paolo Rossi's clean, high pitched vocals.  There seems to be a split amongst fans regarding the quality of his voice, and I stand firmly on the bad side.  This dude has an awful voice for what the band is doing.  I understand it's supposed to be this classy operatic thing over the chaos below, but it's done so poorly that I can't help but loathe it here.  On Mafia his two choruses were interesting touches, and while he didn't really sound all that great, they worked fantastically in the context of the songs and really helped give the band an identity.  What the band did with that identity is the equivalent of a man realizing that he's gay, and then proceeding to wear exclusively neon pink, see-thru mesh shirts, assless chaps, and Elton John sunglasses.  They took this one identifying feature and sculpted their entire personality around it.  It's annoying when a person does it and it's no different when a band does the same.  Virtually every track features his hilariously bad falsettos, and not a one of them keeps him within a reasonable range.  He is always straining his voice to go much higher than it can go, and it makes me wonder why he even did it in the first place.  His first passage on "Thru Our Scars" has him stretch for at least one note he clearly can't reach, but the rest stays in a range where his voice is at least bearable.  "The Violation", "The Deceit", and "The Hypocrisy" all showcase wonderfully how much of his lesson he didn't learn, as his note choice is even worse on this album and is overfeatured to high hell.  The worst part about it is that the vocals are weak in the first place.  It's bad enough that there's almost no power behind the screeching when he ISN'T spreading his voice far too thin.  They really ought to have kept this particular trait relegated to a track or two, and not given it a starring role.

Despite all this negativity, I still kind of like this album.  It's insanely hard for me to judge, as there is certainly a lot wrong with it, and my favorite aspect (the intensity) is overpowered completely by their newfound love (the orchestra).  And yet, I can still feel the old Fleshgod underneath, and even though it's fighting against meandering symphonics, it still shines through to this fan.  I think the lesson learned here is the age old "everything in moderation, kids".  The adolescent band experimented with a few substances and found one they thought improved them, and then proceeded to go completely overboard and OD.  Perhaps future works will show whether this particular overdose killed them or not, but it definitely addled them.  The once thundering juggernaut is now chumming around scuzzy old apartments, hitting up passers by for change.  You got your fix, Fleshgod, not clean yourself up and get back to being a weekend warrior.  You've shown that too much is detrimental to your abilities.

RATING - 66%

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