The Heretics by Rotting ChristRelease date: February 15, 2019
Label: Season of Mist
More than 30 years into their outstanding career, Greek black metal stalwarts Rotting Christ could be forgiven for taking a breather. But as our recent interview with them would suggest, nothing could be further from their minds. Not content with 2018’s release of a full biography and their own beer, or their world-conquering tours, their most recent album The Heretics is their thirteenth. It’s a number that’s unlucky for some, but is that the case here?
Far from it. The line-up first established on 2013’s Katá ton Daímona Eatoú is now firmly entrenched, and the formula they’ve come up with works very well. The black metal on which they built their name is still as blistering as ever, if toned down from the days of Non Serviam in order to build a more epic, stadium-filling sound. ‘Dies Irae’, for example, opens with just the same urgency and immediacy as Giuseppe Verdi’s composition, and feels just as electrifying. The chanting vocals add a hefty choral atmosphere to the song – as if this was the black metal equivalent of a Catholic mass. This is likely a deliberate move: the whole album is themed around heresy and those who practice it, so aping the sounds of one of the most famous pieces of religious music in the western world is very apt.
On a basic level, the meaning of heresy is simply a belief or opinion that goes against current orthodox, usually in a religious context. That’s certainly what Rotting Christ are going for here, quoting famous heretics from across history throughout the album. The best example of this is ‘Heaven and Hell and Fire’. It opens with a paraphrased quote from Milton’s Paradise Lost: “The mind is a universe and can make a heaven of hell or a hell of heaven.” Its meaning is relatively clear, but its context is more important to the album. This is a line spoken by Lucifer after he and his fellow rebellious angels have been cast out from Heaven and have fallen to Hell. It precedes the famous line “Better to reign in hell, than serve in heaven” – arguably the ultimate heresy. The lyrics of ‘Heaven and Hell and Fire’ are thus a celebration of heretics across the ages, from Lucifer – positioned as the first and ultimate heretic by Milton – through to Thomas Paine, another famed heretic. Paine’s famous line ‘My own mind is my own church” is quoted at the end of the song, and fits neatly next to Lucifer’s. Paine’s predecessor-in-heresy Voltaire was even more vociferous in his criticism of religion. Again paraphrased, his statement “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities” is quoted in an excellent spoken-word cameo by black metal scribe Dayal Patterson (who helped write the aforementioned biography) at the beginning of ‘Fire God and Fear’.
If the current line-up has a distinct sound, it’s of epic black metal designed to resound through a large arena. The music across the album is quite similar to that of its immediate predecessors. While consistency in a line-up is often a good thing for a band, especially one as long-lived as Rotting Christ, that doesn’t mean they should be complacent in their sound. Fortunately, this line-up has managed to push their own envelope on The Heretics. It isn’t pushed particularly far, but far enough for this album to stand distinctly on its own. For example, while ‘Vetry Zlye’ could slot neatly into Katá Ton Daímona Eatoú, guest singer Irina Zybina’s excellent clean vocals lend an emotive counterpoint to the guitars and drums, giving the song an emotional heft that hasn’t often been exhibited in Rotting Christ’s discography. Its heretical lyrics aside, the black metal of ‘Heaven and Hell and Fire’ sounds very much like the soundtrack one might hear in Hell itself: with the thunderous drums from Themis Tolis and the duel-guitar attack of Sakis Tolis and George Emmanuel, their sound is still as fearsome as it ever was. Fans of their early work may not enjoy the cleaner sound that Jens Bogren’s excellent mastering brings out, but it suits the majesty and grandeur of the songs here.
And it is grandeur that they’re going for. To outside observers, a Catholic Mass can seem quite an opulent occasion, so by aping that bombast and grandeur, the band really do lean into their chosen theme on a musical level. The pseudo-monastic chanting, notable on ‘In The Name Of God’ and on ‘Hallowed Be Thy Name’ (Iron Maiden this really isn’t!), lends the music that air of grandiose Catholic posturing that philosophers like Paine, Voltaire, and certainly Lucifer, would revile. Perfect for an album about heretics.
The only real stumbling point is the album’s closer, ‘The Raven’. Gothic literature is an excellent source of inspiration for musicians, and one this reviewer is keen to see more bands take inspiration from. Musically, the song is absolutely fine, but the recitation of Edgar Allan Poe’s famous poem by Stratis Steele of Endomain is slightly too overwrought and dramatic to be taken seriously. Compared to the eerie rendering of William Blake’s ‘Prologue’ from ‘Poetical Sketches’ on Rituals, as quoted on ‘For A Voice Like Thunder’, this falls a tad short.
But one stumble is a minor concern when set against the impressive offering that album number 13 represents for these elder statesmen of black metal. It may not push the envelope too far from the template laid down on the albums that went before it, but it’s still an eminently enjoyable affair. Fans of black metal and blasphemy should not miss out.