Given that heavy metal as a discrete set of sounds and practices has been around for roughy as long as the duration of the Cold War, the casual music fan can be forgiven for assuming that the form has settled comfortably into a kind of stolid predictability. Peer just inside that perceptual edifice, though, and myriad cross-cutting trends are visible. The most interesting and consequential fact, as has recently been remarked, is that we are on the cusp of losing many of the men and women who were there to midwife heavy metal into existence. Lemmy’s death has been the sharpest recent exclamation point, but it has become increasingly clear that these recent losses are simply the leading edge of what will, sadly, be a large winnowing.
A somewhat less existentially troubling factor that still has interesting ramifications is that extreme metal has now been around for thirty years, give or take. Although pinpointing the exact birth of extreme metal is likely an unresolvable question, perhaps we can accept this constellation of albums as a fuzzy t = 0:
– Bathory’s self-titled and Celtic Frost’s Morbid Tales in ’84
– Possessed’s Seven Churches in ’85
– Death’s Scream Bloody Gore and Napalm Death’s Scum in ’87 (not to mention I.N.R.I., Deathcrush, etc., etc.)
That yields an average extreme metal birthday of roughly 1985. And while the fasts have gotten faster, the slows slower, and the blasts blastier, the question confronting a nontrivial number of the bands who were pivotal in the development of extreme metal’s various offshoots throughout the late ’80s and early ’90s is: how do you age in extreme metal?
Leaving aside for the moment challenges both physical (i.e., how long is it possible to keep the body in shape for the demands of such intense, kinetic performance?) and logistical (i.e., how long is it possible – if at all – to sustain this as a career choice given the punishing economic reality of the music industry?), the a priori question almost must become: is it possible to maintain extremity as extreme music advances to middle age and beyond?
Rotting Christ‘s latest album Rituals maps rather nicely onto these very questions. (Please, friends, feign surprised credulity and ignore that the writer of the questions is also the writer of the mapping.) Since helping to design the template of Greek black metal in the early ’90s, Rotting Christ has forged a bold, singular path, leaning hard into goth metal at the tail end of the decade, reclaiming some of the early fire as other stalwarts burned out in the lean early aughts, and then beginning a precipitous ascendance to maximum grandiosity with 2004’s Sanctus Diavolos, culminating in the career high point of Aealo, which remains a heart-pounding, blood-boiling monument to black metal as it approaches the limit of epic heavy metal.
Rituals, however, consolidates a worrisome development that had yet to represent a trend with previous album Κατ? τον δα?μονα εαυτο?: predictability. In fact, Rituals comes dangerously close to feeling like a carbon copy of the previous album with its practice of adopting different languages and cultural traditions for each song (here they sing in Greek, English, Latin, French, Hebrew, and more). More importantly, though, Rotting Christ’s music has settled into a much too recognizable pattern: verses that start-stop simple chugging chords over straight blasting drums, which eventually tumble into theatrically dark choruses of relatively simple but powerful single phrases. The effect they’re aiming for might be a wide-eyed, devotional minimalism, but the impression just as often is that they are under-written: most of the songs are crying out for more song.
The third song “Elthe Kyrie” is the first one that really captures Rotting Christ at their most regal, and the guitar solo that jumps perfectly in time with the choppering drums is an especially nice touch. “Agape Satana” and “Tou Thanatou” are each stolid and stirring in their own right, but placed back to back they only serve to highlight the self-limiting palette Rotting Christ seem to have imposed upon themselves throughout Rituals. Taken as a whole, the album is impressively monolithic and, indeed, ritualistic, but over time, it’s hard not to wish for greater rhythmic and melodic variation.
There’s no question that Rotting Christ is capable of evoking power and majesty, so the only quibbles here are actually with their choices, not their abilities. Even the album’s most triumphant moments get in their own way, like the minute-plus spoken word intro on the otherwise marvelous “For a Voice Like Thunder.” “Devadevam” features sitar and guest vocals from Rudra’s Kathir, but it feels like it goes on for approximately seven million minutes, and by the time album closer “The Four Horsemen” pulls way back for a hushed, patiently stalking change of pace, it’s a little too late to redeem an album of individually fine ideas smashed into a lethargic, undifferentiated paste.
Is it fair to extrapolate from Rotting Christ’s particulars to diagnose extreme metal in generalities as it ages from hungry upstart to established iconoclast (an oxymoron if ever there was one) to bloated, decadent patrician? Probably not. But if we consider Rituals (and perhaps similarly positioned albums as Enslaved’s disappointing In Times), it’s at least worth asking if we might not be seeing the leading edge of another trend.