I have a love/hate relationship with concept albums. One one hand, a set of thematically unified songs appeals to my love of storytelling, particularly when each song is strong enough to stand independently. On the other, I can only take so much self-referential pomp, even if it’s accompanied by a high caliber of story or songwriting. I love digging deeper into an album to uncover underlying gems, but I hate dedicating enough hours to earn a post-doc just to appreciate an album. I’m a music writer, not an academic.
While Rotting Christ has long stood at the forefront of the black metal hordes (their 2007 album Theogonia rivals genre milestones like Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk), their confused 2010 offering Aealo made a significant enough dent in their honor for me to lose interest in the band. Consequently, my expectations weren’t awfully high for the The Heretics, and due mostly to a remarkable return to form, Rotting Christ has pulled an Evergrey and won me back over.
So why am I not writing as excitedly about The Heretics as I did about the rejuvenated Göteborgare? Quite frankly, I never doubted that Rotting Christ would bounce back. What’s most intriguing about The Heretics isn’t the excellent compositions (and f**k, are they excellent), it’s the subject matter. For this, their twelfth record, Rotting Christ honcho Sakis Tolis has decided to pen irreverent arias in honor of some of the Western world’s most influential Freethinkers.
“In the Name of God” triumphantly announces Rotting Christ‘s return in a manner founded upon heavier efforts like Thegonia with a healthy dose of the forlorn squall that gave goth-ier output like A Dead Poem its characteristic sepulchral gravity. The Tolis brothers deserve recognition for pairing Sakis’ minimalist, choo-choo train, marching chug with drummer Themis‘ absurdly well-timed double-kick fury and blast-beat battery while George Emmanuel‘s guitar gently weeps (really) over the tumult. It is the embodiment of the Rotting Christ sound: havoc strikes fear in your heart while mourning manifested as melody draws from it a lachrymal shudder. Beauty and Beast, together at last in unholy union. And if Rotting Christ classics like “Les Litanies De Satan” and “Sorrowful Farewell” also engaged in that unholy union, their spawn would very much sound like “In the Name of God,” a treatise that honors the writings of 19th-century giants Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Mark Twain. Solid album opener, guys. What else ya got?
They got a tune that commands us to “pray for the earth [and]for the forests,” that’s what. A mid-paced ode to nature-centric pagan religions, “Vetry Zlye” makes effective use of tremolo-picked melodies that have given black metal its distinctive tension, as well as Sakis‘ ability to make frighteningly good use of his limited vocal range. His terrifying baritone growl, menacing chants, and chilling mirolóyia howls counter the soprano-belted Russian refrain. Sakis closes the song with a reading from a book of John Muir (the Scottish-American naturalist who co-founded the Sierra Club) with such conviction and deliberate unease that I, someone whose disdain for spoken parts in music is a matter of public record, dig the hell out of it. Lots going in here in just over three minutes.
“Heaven and Hell and Fire” opens with Satan’s immortal observation in John Milton’s Paradise Lost that the mind “can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven” as the band ventures back into the melodic whirlwind that made Rotting Christ one of the most distinctive bands in black metal; it closes with a quip from Thomas Paine. “Hallowed Be Thy Name” is a brooding censure that pits the Lord’s Prayer against the bloodthirsty author of Levitical law while praising the Promethean heretic for bringing fire to the masses, quoting directly from Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale while so doing. You expected an Iron Maiden cover? Tough.
“Dies Irae,” a response to the rather f**ked up Catholic custom of singing about souls being cast into Hell at a person’s funeral, features Saki‘s admirable baritone chanting his own interpretation of the famous Latin hymn, completely free of any influence from Mozart, Verdi, or even Monty Python. “I Believe” is a throwback to the earliest iteration of black metal: accelerated, cyclical, monotonous, and not particularly exciting. The text is lifted directly from the writings of Cretan novelist Nikos Kazantzakis (The Last Temptation of Christ) and is sung and spoken entirely in the author and band’s native Greek; this provides the song’s only redeeming trait. While I cannot be consulted for interpreting the text, hearing the Greek language spoken always makes me think it’s Spanish that I can’t understand for some reason. This will surely someday make for some interesting, Non Serviam-fueled discourse in Thessalonian taverns and waterfronts. And yes, Rotting Christ do have their own imperial stout, brewed by Elis Brewery in Pyrgos. It sells for 6.66 Euros.
“Fire, God, and Fear” is another eerie cut, and opens with Voltaire’s warning about committing atrocities. Its wah-saturated, Paradise Lost-reminiscent guitar solo perfectly accompanies its anguished lyrics about a pious man ignored by the god he worships. “Voice of the Universe” is a curious inclusion, as it examines Zoroastrianism in three languages, one of which is the language of the Muslim conquerors that ended a millennium of Zoroastrian rule in present-day Iran. A sick cut to be sure, and Sakis‘ expert transitions between Latin, Arabic, and English say a thing or two about the impact of European multilingual education, but thematically odd nonetheless.
“The New Messiah” is perhaps the most relevant thesis on The Heretics, as it explores the seedy world of televangelists and prosperity preachers, a group of men and women whom I hold in particularly iniquitous contempt. While compelling cases can absolutely be made about the good that literally any religion can inspire and the genuine righteousness that several religious leaders display, “The New Messiah” focuses on the hucksters and con-artists who shamelessly separate their flock from their earnings; who lobby to influence legislation; who justify hatred, prejudice, and ignorance with a holy book; who personify the need for a Freethought movement; and about whom no kind words can be be uttered. Yeah. Rotting Christ wrote a song about those f**kers. It is, in a word, sacrilicious.
The Heretics ties the bow on this weeks-late Christmas present with a shockingly fresh and eerily unnerving retelling of Edgar Allan Poe’s signature poem “The Raven.” I can already hear the skeptical groans of fans reviled by the thought of Rotting Christ covering such obviously obvious ground. I groaned that exact way when Therion covered “O Fortuna” from Carl Orff’s famously evil-sounding Carmina Burana. It’s such a duh move. Why would they even bother? Especially since Eluveitie and Tristania successfully covered Poe decades ago?
To you, I say: “chill the f**k out.” “The Raven” opens with a mostly unmuted riff reminiscent of Moonspell‘s “Alma Mater” cutting off some Gregorian chants. Before we know it, Kýrios Tolis and his menacing growl retell the American Romantic’s ominous verse before reading directly from Poe himself with masterful delivery, to say nothing of his freaking cool-sounding accent. Like Maniac‘s performance on Mayhem‘s scathing Grand Declaration of War, Tolis speaks with the authority and charisma of a gifted orator, a trait sorely lacking in many of our elected officials. (I won’t name names). “The Raven” is a veritable journey of a song, veering on both progressive and gothic territories while maintaining a sound that is recognizably Rotting Christ. The song is a fitting tribute to an iconic poem, and it does not borrow from Eluveitie, Tristania, or even The Simpsons. I give it an A.
Thus, The Heretics is a noble and honorable ode to the minds that made the modern Freethought movement possible. As an atheist activist myself, I cannot help but imagine what killer canticles Rotting Christ bandleader Sakis Tolis might have written about lesser-known figures like Robert Ingersoll, an Illinois Attorney General and Union veteran of the American Civil War who famously refused to hide his agnosticism while his party (the party of Lincoln, in case you were wondering) urged him to seek the governorship; the notorious English scholar Christopher Hitchens, whose legendary debate skills were lovingly called the Hitch Slap; and the Saudi intellectual Abdullah al-Qasemi, who is regarded as the father of Arab Freethought. Nevertheless, The Heretics oozes with reverence for the forefathers of irreverence to whom Heretics, Freethinkers, and Iconoclasts everywhere are deeply indebted.
Oh yeah, and the music kicks ass.
Released by: Season Of Mist
Release Date:February 15th, 2018
Genre: Black Metal
- Sakis Tolis / Guitar, vocals
- Themis Tolis / Drums
- George Emmanuel / Lead guitar
- Vaggelis Karzis / Bass
“The Heretics” Track-Listing:
- In the Name of God
- Vetry Zlye
- Heaven and Hell and Fire
- Hallowed Be Thy Name
- Dies Irae
- I Believe
- Fire God and Fear
- The Voice of Universe
- The New Messiah
- The Raven
A scathing citation of the supposedly celestial and their fraudulent flunkies by the heroes of Hellenic heathenry