Experimentation is a double-edged sword – on the one hand, it’s a trait most often praised by critics, if not always loved by fans, and its converse, static repetition, is as sometimes decried by both as a lack of new ideas, or a lack of artistic impulse, or simply an unwillingness to try. But then there’s the age-old truth of not fixing what isn’t broken. And for all the rightful focus upon opening new boundaries, both genre-wide or simply personal – art is a shark, after all, and must keep moving or else it dies – there’s the often overlooked nagging question: What if your experiment fails?
Germany’s Atrocity often answers that question.
Of course, you can’t really fault a man for trying. Atrocity leader Alex Krull is a man whose career is defined by his willingness to experiment – not even merely to tinker with, but to drastically overhaul his band’s sound. He’s also a man whose career is defined largely by those overhauls failing to improve what wasn’t really broken, at least not until he broke it. He’s the mad scientist in a blood-splattered lab coat, with grandiose ideas of creating new life, sawing up perfectly good people but lacking the skill to assemble them into something bigger and better, and so he’s surrounded by the carcasses of monsters born dead, or more accurately, of those given life but unable to walk without falling, or to speak or scream or flap their wings, each half-grown and partly functional, but none capable of fight or fright or flight.
But like all good scientists, Krull keeps trying, and so here’s another Atrocity album, different than the one before, and maybe a hair or three better, if you’re splitting them, but still pretty much mediocre.
What’s most confounding about Atrocity is that, once upon a time, this band was underrated. Both 1990’s Hallucinations and its follow-up, 1992’s Todessehnsucht (released in America as “Longing For Death”), stand as great and mostly lost death metal albums. Hallucinations’ twisted subject matter and equally twisted technical arrangements would serve as inspiration for Gorguts’ also-underrated The Erosion Of Sanity, and Todessehnsucht introduced symphonic elements to Krull’s repertoire, and even utilized them well. Both of those records come recommended, but when exploring the Atrocity canon, it’s best to move forward from there with extreme caution: 1994’s Blut is almost unlistenable, a mix of nu-metal-ish rhythms, chuggy non-riffs, hardcore shouts, and… vampire lyrics? After that come the industrial experiments, the further turn towards gothic, and the 80s pop cover records, the latter of which might easily rank among the least essential metal records ever released. (The German-accented nu-metal cover of Duran Duran’s “Wild Boys” regrettably cannot be unheard.) After enjoying a brief German hit with 2004’s electro-goth-metal Atlantis, Atrocity fell off again with After The Storm, a folk-metal album that rolls light on the heaviness in favor of bouncy folk guitars and Krull’s flat baritone clean entwined with largely irritating ethnic-tinged vocals from his sister Yasmin, who was inexplicably chosen over his far more talented wife, Liv Kristine of Leaves’ Eyes.
Which brings us to Okkult, and of course, it’s primarily a symphonic death metal album. I mean, why wouldn’t it be?
The best thing one can say about Okkult is that it brings back Krull’s death growl – and that is a good thing, partly because he’s good at it, and mostly because his other options are terrible; his clean singing voice is awful and his hardcore barking shout only slightly better. Beyond that, Okkult attempts to literally cover up (and occasionally succeeds in covering up) its one-dimensional songwriting and lack of interesting riffing by smothering everything in orchestral arrangements and eerie choirs. In every manner save the orchestra layered atop them, Okkult’s first half is almost exclusively bland and uninteresting straight-ahead death metal – the riffs go nowhere, often just singular notes that are tremolo-picked and rehashed from a thousand such albums. The drums pound along to these half-riffs with as much energy as can be mustered, but ultimately, there’s not much to be done with the lack of solid guitar work. Lyrically, things fare little better: Songs titled “Death By Metal,” “Murder Death Assassination,” and “Satan’s Braut” (“Satan’s Bride”) are what you’d expect of them, though admittedly, some of Okkult’s songs aren’t thematically quite as dunderheaded, or at least, if so, it’s not readily apparent.
Okkult is ostensibly a symphonic death metal disc, though in its latter half, it briefly swaps that death for goth. In either instance, those symphonics are acceptable but really little more than window dressing around the metal within. In the death metal world, those orchestral flourishes are the kind of thing usually reserved for an album introduction or a few brief interludes. Here they serve a similar purpose, but they’re overused, and they’re really only effective in the few instances where they’re properly blended into the tracks, as opposed to just propped around them (“Death By Metal”) or sort of dumped atop them to serve as the riff (“Necromancy Divine”). “March Of The Undying” and “Murder Death Assassination” are both goth-tinted blends of metal and horror-soundtrack-leaning choirs and strings. Aside from opening track, “Pandaemonium,” which is respectable, if not brilliant, those two are probably the best examples of what I’d imagine Okkult’s master vision was meant to be, though neither is absolutely brilliant, merely better than the rest. Here, the tremolo guitars buzz appropriately, serving as the razor-edged drive they’re surely meant to elsewhere, and they’re offset well by the string flourishes.
By the halfway point, Okkult shifts gears temporarily into goth metal. “Satans Braut” harkens back to the KMFDM-indebted dance metal of previous efforts, to about the same results as Ilud Divinum Insanus, barring the complete unexpectedness of that disaster. For those few tunes, Okkult is a different beast, although still equally dull. “Beyond Perpetual Ice” brings things back to the symphonic death, but by then, if you’re still listening, it’s a grand wonder why.
Overall, as with most Atrocity efforts (the Werk 80 atrocities notwithstanding), there’s little fault to find in the overall idea – neither symphonic death nor goth metal is a new concept, nor is either inherently bad. But Okkult doesn’t quite succeed – it’s fine in vision, capably executed in many ways, but it’s lacking the touches that make it really catch fire. It’s better than After The Rain, worse than Atlantis, easily better than the 80s-cover records and the unbearable Blut, and far overshadowed by the records made two decades ago by an almost entirely different band. It’s incorrectly assembled, unfocused, and easily avoided, another faulty monster.