- Rotting Christ
- The Heretics
- Melodic Black Metal
- Athens, Greece
- February 15, 2019
On the list of countries with an extended history of black metal, Greece would definitely not be among the first options that would come to mind. Yet, their banner-raisers Rotting Christ, hailing from Athens for over three decades, have ever since been a solid name of estimable repute within the community. They recently released their 13th offering, so aptly named The Heretics. As the name suggests and as you might expect, the whole album revolves around the notion of heresy; kind of an accolade to those freethinkers and revolutionaries of enlightenment who have, through their payment in blood or at the cost of their own sanity, laid the foundations of modern free speech. From Nietzsche to Voltaire and everything in between.
The album opens with such a reference; Fyodor Dostoyevsky is the first name that appears on the itinerary. A line from him is narrated over some chanting of a choir, then the gates of hell are kicked wide open with drum-and-guitar bombing duo. Somewhere mid-song Mark Twain comes to life and right around the end of the song, Friedrich Nietzsche’s famous quote about the “will to power” is recited. This starter, ironically called “In the Name of God,” is a little bit of an intro and a fair amount of a mid-album track; it makes me wonder what they had intended it to be. Maybe both?
Following “In the Name of God”, the nature-inspired, pantheistic “Vetry Zlye” is presented. A very strong folk black metal effort, like of which very few bands who have dedicated themselves to the genre can produce. This folk effect is even supplemented by the Russian soprano female singer Irina from the folk metal band Grai. Once again, and this time from the Scottish-American environmentalist and literary figure, John Muir, several lines are delivered.
The most cinematic song on the album, “Heaven & Hell & Fire”, comes third. I called it cinematic mostly on the account of the way the song opens: the screeches of some wooden torture device, the shrieks of anguish from somebody who is being tortured by being pulled apart (!), the burst of some bubbles (probably of some hot boiling liquids), some evil squeals in the background, some demonic laughter, and all of it topped by the famous line from John Milton’s Paradise Lost, uttered by “the lost Archangel”: The mind is universe and can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven. Crushingly heavy guitar riffs and drum beats can cause ear-bleeding; though it’s not only strength that pushes the song ahead, it is also the melody, coupled with a solo that makes this song a feast to remember. Then it is closed by a line from Thomas Paine.
For a black metal song, “Hallowed Be Thy Name” is rather slow-paced and uneventful. Coming to an end with Shakespeare, it leads to the Latin-filled “Dies Irae”, when things pace up a bit and set the ground for “I Believe”. The fastest track on the album is the recitation of verses from Nikos Kazantzakis, the world-renowned author of The Last Temptation of Christ, Zorba the Greek and Christ Recrucified. This song is closest to their earlier efforts in having a raw and unrefined sound, much like the pure outburst of anger in early black metal productions.
Having finished the aggression, the last thing one would expect is the jolly sound of birds chirping gaily and monks chanting soothingly, Sakis Tolis reciting a line from Voltaire. But be not fooled since the song soon takes you back to hell, this time even deeper in the fire, fed by the melodic-death-styled solo that aims right for the skull. Staying where you are, you can hear “The Voice of Universe”, a multi-lingual effort sung in Arabic, Latin and English. With references to Heaven and Hell and Fire, the chorus here is another melody-driven part of the album. Other examples of intertextuality can be spotted on “The New Messiah”, the internal one leads us back to the opening track and the external one to Gospel of Matthew, where there is a mention of false prophets.
And at last, there comes my personal favorite: “The Raven”. Taken from the eminent poem of the same name, composed by the legendary Edgar Allan Poe, which might be the most covered poem of metal, this song lends its own unique style to the poem and makes it the best version there could be. Maybe a bit off-topic I agree – what does The Raven have to do with Heretics? – but the band has tried to compensate for that by adding their own chorus in an attempt to reconcile these two poles.
But how does the album strike overall? In brief, it has high standards of production, musicianship and singing, especially the heavily accented style of Sakis Tolis with his /p/ and /h/ sounds standing markedly out to a charismatic effect. His brother, Themis, on the drums is my second favorite choice of the line-up; wherever fit, he catered for the overall evil atmosphere and in times he smartly kept a low profile to avoid overriding other musicians’ momentum. Just in line with the theme and to parody what this album stands against, various Gregorian-styled chants were frequently utilized to create an ecclesiastical ambience.
The only drawback of the album, at least to me, was the lack of attention given to the lyrics. With such an expansive subject matter, I expected to see many more concerns and struggles of the like-minded people covered and in more details. Many areas were left untouched and even those which were brought to surface, being the cliché hell and fire and all, were denied a more critical and diligent scrutiny; not to mention most of the lyrics were too short and several words, such as “fire”, “hell” and “pyre,” were used too often. I can’t help but think they just didn’t care enough for this aspect of their craft. Music-wise they were colossal; lyrically speaking, they fell miles behind, only salvaged by the lines taken from the literary masterpieces.