Nuclear Blast, 2016
I was initially sceptical about the idea of mixing death metal with classical music, but Italy’s Fleshgod Apocalypse have made a damn good job of making it work. Now onto their fourth album, they’ve carved out a niche for themselves by successfully blending the drama of their homeland’s opera and baroque music styles with the crushing and complex brutality of technical death metal. They’re on the cusp of crossing over to the metal mainstream and, thankfully, King is a strong enough album to make this a reality.
A concept album about an ageing ruler trying to maintain order and integrity despite the negative influences of various figures in his court, King is presented like an opera, with 4 different vocalists delivering a mix of death grunts, clean male vocals, operatic soprano female vocals and spoken word passages against a diverse sonic background. Anyone already familiar with Fleshgod Apocalypse will know that they are not a band to do things by halves. The mix of symphonic and death metal elements works well because neither aspect diminishes nor compromises the other; this album is just as heavy as it is orchestral. This is a band that clearly has a larger affinity for and knowledge of baroque, romantic and classical music styles than many so-called “symphonic metal” bands. The music on King doesn’t merely consist of sticking a few synth sounds in to back up the guitars; there’s piano, harpsichord and dramatic string flourishes that make it sound like you’re actually in a king’s court in the 18th century!
Highlights in the album’s first half include “The Fool” and “Cold as Perfection”. Classical elements are prominent on “The Fool” with drums and guitars playing catch-up to lightning-fast violins and harpsichord, and is a prime example of how well Fleshgod Apocalypse blend clean and harsh vocals, with Paolo Rossi and Tommaso Riccardi duetting with devastating effect. Lead single “Cold as Perfection” is perhaps the album’s high point. A mid-paced doom-laden number, with a star turn by guest soprano singer Veronica Bordacchini, its ferocity is not diminished by its slower tempo, and it defiantly shows that the humble piano has a place in extreme metal; providing a brooding atmosphere to a highly technical degree, keyboardist Francesco Ferrini plays in a way that might convince other death metal bands to recruit a piano player too!
In the second half, we have “And the Vulture Beholds”, a relentlessly intense track that is also one of the more technical and emotive pieces on the album; top-drawer musicianship from everyone here. And the penultimate track “Syphilis” is where the operatic aspects are most evident; with another great performance from Bordacchini, this track is dramatically and apocalyptically climactic, with every member again on top form.
Some fans will no doubt have reservations about this album though. While King is overall an engaging listen, it is not quite as technical as some of Fleshgod Apocalypse’s earlier work; on most tracks, technicality takes a backseat, as creating the right atmosphere to fit the concept seems to be the priority. There’s also a distinct lack of symphonic elements on some tracks, such as “Mitra”, which will displease some. Then again, this is counteracted by the two pieces of pure chamber music: “Paramour” (an interlude at the album’s midpoint) and “King” (which serves as a coda at the end of the album). While I think these simple pieces maintain the rest of the album’s drama and intensity (there’s no denying they show off the high calibre of Bordacchini and Ferrini’s respective talents), I can imagine some people feeling irked that a death metal album would dare to contain tracks featuring no metal elements whatsoever.
In a year that’s already provided its share of great metal concept albums (such as Avantasia’s Ghostlights and Dream Theater’s The Astonishing), King sits nicely alongside them, even though it might not quite satisfy all fans of Fleshgod Apocalypse’s earlier work. If technical, brutal death metal is your thing, you’ll probably prefer some of the band’s earlier albums. But if you’ve ever wondered what kind of music Vivaldi or Mozart would make if they had metal in their day, then look no further. King is an idiosyncratic blend of classical music and extreme metal that should hopefully attract many new fans. Fleshgod Apocalypse have shown that they have great ambition; wider acclaim and prominence surely awaits them.