We all experience music differently. Most of that ought to be put down to genre preferences, listening habits, level of intoxication, and so forth, but you can’t necessarily pin it all on these subjective factors. Sometimes music is just straight-up bamboozling. Here’s what I mean: We’ve all run into those albums that make perfect sense from the word ‘go’, clicking and jiving and generally trumpeting their charms to all the high heavens. Then, there are albums that are almost completely impenetrable. Albums that you sit, and sit, and stare at, and listen to for days, weeks, months, trying all the time to climb their mountainous learning curves. And then, one miraculous day, they click. The fog of confusion clears and all the pieces finally make sense, like some marathon game of chess finally maneuvered into checkmate. But then, friends, there’s a third kind of album. An album that lives in a bizarre hinterland of ambiguity where, try as one might, there’s just no figuring out what in the hell to make of it. One of those albums where, you’ll be sitting there, bopping your head along to its dulcet tones, but when you turn your back for just a second something sours and you feel a great existential wrongness, like a deformed statue in a deserted museum whose eyes are now open, now closed. If you haven’t pegged it yet, this third bastard child of a listening scenario is almost exactly where I’m at right now with Septicflesh’s newest album, The Great Mass.
It’s nice to see Septicflesh continuing to be difficult to categorize, or at least occupying a somewhat singular position in metal’s crowded pantheon. Parts of this album take up the almost-industrialized death metal vibe so present on Sumerian Daemons, while others inject the intensely melodic, classic-metal-signifier-stealing take on black metal that dominated Communion. Where the songs on Communion were punchy and direct, or at least fairly traditionally pop-structured, many of the songs on The Great Mass follow a non-circular track, proceeding from one section to another to another without necessarily cycling back to repeat verses and motifs. This is not a criticism, per se, but it definitely means the album takes longer to sink in since there is less in the way of hooky immediacy to clutch grimly to one’s breast.
The Great Mass is a fully orchestrated death metal album, clearly intended to be heard as a symphony. The approach of the choir and orchestra is much more “Mars” than “Jupiter,” in Gustav Holstian terms. (For the uninitiated, “Mars” is what John Williams ripped off wholesale for his “Imperial Death March,” while “Jupiter” sounds, scientifically speaking, like a unicorn playing a French horn prancing through a meadow of flowers and meth-tweaking bunny rabbits.) For the most part, these dense orchestral elements are extremely well-integrated into the metallic fabric. Unfortunately, this often works to the band’s detriment. It’s a shame to say, but these songs work less well as metal songs precisely because the orchestration is so sophisticated. And that’s really the danger a metal band runs trying to use orchestral and choral elements as more than simply melodramatic embellishment: by reaching more to the canon of composition than songwriting, one risks successfully approaching the stoic shores of the orchestra pit while simultaneously upending the raucous boat of grumpy metalheads in tow.
Befitting its general ambiguity, there are plenty of moments of jaw-dropping brilliance throughout The Great Mass. One of the band’s best assets has long been the powerful harsh vocals of Spiros Antoniou, which combine the best aspects of Rotting Christ’s Sakis and Behemoth’s Nergal. The sophistication of the orchestral arrangements is evident in the excellent use of dynamics – the moody soprano vocals introducing “The Vampire of Nazareth” lead into drumming that flirts with the same kind of jaunty Mediterranean shuffle that graces so much of fellow countrymen Rotting Christ’s recent efforts before spilling into some high-octane blasting. This wonderful dynamism shows up not just within songs, but also between songs – witness how the quiet opening of “Five-Pointed Star,” though short-lived, is a necessary breather following the tedium of “Pyramid God.” The title(-plus) track “A Great Mass Of Death” sees the orchestra trade off melodic riffs with clean guitars before clearing the way for rhythmic choral chanting.
Communion saw Septicflesh strike the same vein of brilliantly catchy dark melodicism that Therion nailed on Lemuria/Sirius B, a bounty that pays off here as well. Most of the band’s melodies tend to be of a modal nature, circling tightly around a central note, rather than soaring and flailing at great intervals. This is neither a necessary weakness nor strength, except that the wider intervals occasionally resorted to then stand out more clearly. “Oceans Of Grey” is far and away the best song on the album, which unintentionally ends up being so damn good that it overshadows the rest of the album. The extremely classy and subtle drum fills round out the dense metallic bulk and brighten up the open spaces. The song also features the best balance between orchestra and metal, shifting fluidly between sweeping, engaging melody and head-down metal smashing. Brass, strings, stirring soprano vocals, and sensual overtones of reed instruments make this a sumptuous feast.
For all these strengths, though, the album is no unalloyed success. Plenty of the songs get way too repetitive. By the time “Pyramid God” gets to the moody, toms-marching mid-song break, it’s only been about three minutes or so, but it feels like six, or maybe six hundred. (Plus, for whatever reason, the song always reminds me of “Parasite God” from Mortiis’s The Smell of the Glove Rain.) I’ve already mentioned the modal feel of the band’s melodies, but while the fact that most of the guitar lines and soprano accompaniments are done this way is no problem, the fact that most of Sotiris Vayenas’s clean vocals follow the same logic is a problem. Honestly, the dude’s voice is annoying, so either give him some more interesting lines to play with, or fucking can his mic altogether. “Rising” overcomes some of these problems with its relentless forward drive, which is a nice contrast from the tendency of these songs to go through only sporadic bursts of blasting. The twitchy, nervy, strangely-intervaled adornments of “Mad Architect” are a prime example of the ambivalence-provoking tendency of the album as a whole. About half of the time when this song comes on I feel like chucking a shoe at the stereo, but the other half of the time I’ll gladly pull out the ol’ t-square and jam along. Album closer “Therianthropy” brings all of Septic Flesh’s latent goth urges synth-screaming to the surface. The rhythm guitars are given more interesting figures to spike through, but it’s still a lackluster close to an album that has scaled much greater – though maddeningly inconsistent – heights.
I’ll say it again: This album freaks me out because I can’t completely make sense of it. It’s not just that some songs are good and others are bad; there’s something else going on here, a dark undercurrent of confusion that sometimes pulls the entire enterprise toward brilliance, and other times toward bloated annoyance. I think that’s mostly attributable to the well-executed balance of symphonic flourishes and heavy metal ballast, which I might just be undecided on as an artistic style. I mean, every now and then I wonder if the guitarists get bored, and internally monologue: “So, wait, I either get to stand around while the orchestra gets down and gets busy, or I get to stand around and pick straightforward syncopations on a single note? Raaaaaaad.” But I kid, really. The Great Mass is great fun, once you’ve given it the time and space to live and breathe as its own thing. It’s not Communion, part two, and it’s probably better off for not trying to be. At its best, The Great Mass is sweeping, majestic, and thoroughly engrossing; at its worst, its grand gestures either fall flat or just become outright obnoxious through repetition (“Apocalypse,” “The Undead Keep Dreaming,” “Pyramid God”). Still, on balance, the sweeping majesty carries the day, and this is another (somewhat qualified) success. Serious Music For Serious People.