The Fleshgod Rankpocalypse

Written by Kep

A few weeks back on Twitter I floated the idea of ranking the discography of Italian symphonic death metal titans Fleshgod Apocalypse. I rank discographies via tweet thread periodically without issue, but this time when I started gathering my thoughts I quickly realized I had too much to say to be confined by a character count. And so, without further ado, please enjoy my somewhat longwinded and extremely opinionated rankings of all six releases!

Veleno (2019)

Artwork by Travis Smith

The band’s most recent outing (already three years old, so it’s likely about time for them to start teasing a new one) suffers oddly from a sterilization of the classic Fleshgod Apocalypse elements. The orchestra, which is usually goddamn massive, somehow feels thin and overprocessed, with the choir often overshadowing it, and the guitars have no edge despite at times being clearly heard through thinner textures. But perhaps more notable is the band’s decision to push their songs into more…let’s say stadium-friendly spaces with tracks like the ultra-melodic (comparatively speaking) “Carnivorous Lamb” and “Monnalisa” and the Veronica Bordacchini-led soprano ballad “The Day We’ll Be Gone”, which has a solo that feels downright pedestrian. Somehow despite coming after of one of their strongest releases, the songwriting is  inherently less interesting, retreading ideas they do better in King and exploring a few new areas that aren’t very exciting. Veleno is also one of only two of their albums that features an instrumental interlude despite being the entry in their catalogue that needs it the least (at ~52 minutes and with plenty of resting points), and it’s their first release since Oracles that doesn’t feature Tommaso Riccardi on vocals; his presence is sorely missed. This isn’t a bad listen per se, it’s just an uninteresting one without much to make it memorable, and for a band like this that’s a huge misstep.

Labyrinth (2013)

Artwork by Colin Marks

My feelings on Labyrinth are complex. It’s the album that introduced me to Fleshgod Apocalypse and the album that hooked me on their music. It’s also, objectively speaking, one of their weakest outings. From the massively oversaturated mix, to the forced overabundance of Bordacchini’s operatic appearances, to the particularly off-putting and head-scratchingly tuneless backup cleans by bassist Paolo Rossi (who sang much more stirringly on Agony and then again on King), to the near complete absence of the guitars in the riff material, this record is an extremely ambitious mess. This was the “we can take it further” moment in their discography, following first symphonic outing Agony, where they pushed the ratio of orchestral elements too far, both in production and in composition. It’s not that there aren’t plenty of good ideas, because there absolutely are a ton of them: the brutally bludgeoning verse riff of “Pathfinder” and the brilliant cascading violins that open “The Fall of Asterion”, for example, and the undeniably epic lead single “Minotaur (The Wrath of Posiedon)”. The bad simply outweighs the good, particularly when it comes to the guitars, which regularly disappear into a wall of orchestral noise for lengthy stretches, and periodically emerge from the churn to lay down one of several solos that all sound pretty much the same. Still, despite being overlong (and again, having an unneeded interlude), the cohesiveness and categorically epic nature of the record as a whole makes it a memorable listen, even if it isn’t a great one.

Oracles (2009)

Artwork by Marco Hasmann

Don’t get it twisted just because it’s in spot 4: this album slaps ridiculously fucking hard. “In Honour of Reason” is an all-time great entry in the “opening track of a band’s first album” category, wearing the influence of their countrymen Hour of Penance on the sleeve but with a fresh, beastly feel. It doesn’t take more than a track or two to drive home why Oracles blew so many people away back in the late aughts: it’s fast as hell, stupidly technical (and I mean that as a compliment, of course), and the guitar tone alone could sandblast every shred of skin from your skull. It has a meaner, rawer sound than anything that follows—relatively normal for debuts of any subgenre—and it really highlights the merciless brutality of the young outfit. Plus, there are hints of what’s to come in the sophisticated and often subtly melodic riff stylings and the orchestral (and choral!) moments from composer Francesco Ferrini, who wasn’t yet a full member of the band. The courtly waltz at the end of “As Tyrants Fall” is particularly delightful, as is the choral passage that closes “Infection of the White Throne”, but they’re also emblematic of what those symphonic elements were at this early juncture: merely transitional pieces, functionally separate from the songs themselves. Those songs are tightly focused and each of them is a powerhouse, though there’s very little dynamic or tempo variation within the tracks or from song to song. Oracles is a monster listen, but Fleshgod Apocalypse was just getting started.

King (2016)

Artwork by Eliran Kantor

Perhaps the most “complete” of their records, King is an intelligently executed concept with smart production that corrects the oversaturation of Labyrinth without reducing the gargantuan size of the sound, and it’s the best mix of their symphonic era. The guitar/orchestra balance is still tilted in the orchestra’s favor, as it has been in every album since Agony, but the guitars are audible and intelligently written in their mostly supportive role. The edges of their sound were expanding, taking the explorative ideas of Labyrinth and pushing them further, which leads to some truly distinctive moments in their discography. Tracks like “The Fool”, with it’s helter-skelter main riff and surprisingly emotional chorus, and “Gravity”, which has the most devastatingly heavy symphonic theme they’ve ever written, are high points on an album full of brand new feelings and sounds. The songs here are notably slower and more ponderous than in previous releases, which really plays into a cohesively stately and royal feel (although for my money the best song is “A Million Deaths”, the fastest on the album). Unfortunately it also makes the album as a whole ring just a touch less exciting to listen to, despite the pulse-pounding promise of the “Flight of the Valkyries”-inspired motif that kicks off opening track “In Aeternum”. I also think “Paramour (Die Leidenschaft bringt Leiden)”, the soprano/piano duo at the album midpoint, is a misstep; it makes sense conceptually but in execution it just doesn’t fit and probably ends up a skip for most listeners.

Agony (2011)

Artwork by Marco Hasmann

Here’s where it all changed, in a move that turned out to be as successful as it was bold. Bringing on composer Francesco Ferrini as full-time pianist and orchestrator, Fleshgod Apocalypse released an album that took their brutal take on technical death metal and made it bigger by going full symphonic. From an album-to-album viewpoint the shift in songwriting focus is quite stark: the guitars take on a role that’s much more supportive (and notably less technical than in Oracles and Mafia) while the orchestral motifs take the lead, resulting in a larger sound that’s substantially less riffy and features the orchestra noticeably forward in the mix. It’s a brilliant moment in their discography that still stands as the most evenly balanced release outside of King, despite the permanent reduction in focus on that technical guitarwork that was previously a hallmark. There’s wonderful clarity in the symphonic elements, while the guitars have enough of their own body to mostly keep them from being swallowed by the texture. Tracks like “The Egoism”—which goes as hard as anything in their catalogue—and “The Violation” showcase the band’s elements working ideally in conceptual sync, the latter the best example of a killer main riff that just couldn’t have existed before shifting the focus away from the guitars. I’m not a huge fan of Ferrini’s writing for Bordacchini’s voice here, and the runtime is a touch bloated and prone to causing listener fatigue with its consistent loudness, but it’s a triumph regardless.

Mafia (2010)

Artwork by Marco Hasmann

Following the success of OraclesFleshgod Apocalypse delivered what I consider to be a flawless EP in Mafia. Now, I can hear your complaints, dear reader: “An EP in the top spot? And it barely even has their signature symphonic elements? What a cop-out.” These are valid points, but here’s the thing: the tour-de-force that is Mafia is their best for *exactly* those reasons. With five tracks over 24 minutes (including an At the Gates cover and their standard solo piano closer), it’s the perfect no fat, no filler, no bullshit listen. The three original full band tracks, which take up 18 of those minutes—scorcher “Thru Our Scars”, towering monolith “Abyssal”, and the vicious “Conspiracy of Silence”—are some of the tightest writing they’ve ever done, where not even a second drags and each song runs seamlessly into the next. Why is this? It’s because their songwriting is laser-focused and unflinchingly ferocious, leaving behind some of that Hour of Penanceworship from Oracles and becoming more distinct, and the little touches of orchestral influence they weave in are deft flourishes rather than bombastic constants, which allows the guitars to continue showing off astonishing technicality. There are mindblowing moments aplenty: the speed of those blasts against the bludgeoning main riff of “Thru”, the soaring chorus from Rossi, the apocalyptic tremolo-picked opening of “Abyssal” and its breathless arpeggio-flailing bridge that leads to an emotive solo, the shred-filled chorus of “Conspiracy”, the almost neo-classical solo section and mournful clean vocal bridge, the bloodthirsty delivery of “Blinded by Fear”. Fleshgod Apocalypse aren’t the iconic act they are today without what came after Mafia, but for a moment back in 2010 they were the perfect entity of brutality, unwavering compositional focus, and technicality, tempered subtly with a hint of the progressive.