Fleshgod Apocalypse is a 5-piece technical death metal band from Italy. Their latest effort, Labyrinth, is a full-on concept album telling the epic story of the Labyrinth of Crete and the tragic figures surrounding it. Tracks 2 and 7 are told from the perspective of Asterion, the Minotaur, the unnatural and hated offspring of the Queen of Crete’s affair with a particularly gorgeous bull. Perhaps unsurprisingly, her husband the king doesn’t like having evidence of her bizarre proclivities hanging about, and so the monster is imprisoned in a marvelous prison, the Labyrinth. Incidentally, the Labyrinth was constructed by none other than Daedalus, father of ill-fated Icarus (Track 4); Daedalus was also responsible for arranging the queen’s tryst with the bull, and in general is probably the first example in history of a scientist with serious ethical problems.
Most of the album, however, tells the story of Theseus, slayer of the Minotaur and eventual king of Athens. After Athens was subjugated by Crete, the Athenians were compelled every nine years to send 14 tributes — 7 boys and 7 girls — to Crete to face the man-eating Minotaur for the pleasure of the Cretan king. Perhaps seeing 2500 years into the future and channeling the power of Katniss Everdeen, Theseus went to Crete as a tribute and, rather than humbly going to his doom, killed the Minotaur, freed the other tributes, and escaped from Crete. But since nobody in a Greek story can be happy, his failure to take down the black sails from his ship as he returned home resulted in his father’s suicide (Tracks 9 and 10). Thus, Theseus returned home victorious to find himself king, but at the cost of losing his father. Brutal.
Labyrinth tells a great story, and it does it with dynamics worthy of a classical Greek tragedy. The album starts kind of slow; the first two tracks come off as a bit overdone and all-over-the-place, but by track 3 you’re starting to get used to Fleshgod’s unique operatic style. The music continues to develop, reaching a peak with track 6, “Pathfinder”, which I consider to be the best song on the album:
This track is huge, both lyrically and musically, and really captures the internal struggle of a hero against impossible odds. In a classic tragedy, the highest emotional point is right at the middle, and “Pathfinder” serves that purpose well. Fleshgod keeps building the power, and even if you were a little dubious about the record at first, they’ve really won you over by the end. “Epilogue”, which covers Theseus’ father’s suicide, is pure pathos, and really is the album’s denouement. Seriously, the record feels like a play, which I think was probably the band’s intent, so kudos, guys. They should invite you to write a soundtrack for Antigone. If the scumbags in Hollywood keep remaking all my favorite movies from the 70’s and 80’s, Fleshgod has to do the soundtrack for Suspiria.
Fleshgod’s last record, Agony, was one of my favorite albums of the past few years. Their drummer, Francesco Paolini, totally slays, and even if every other aspect of their music was complete shit they’d be worth listening to just for his skills. But what I really love about this band is their willingness to take risks with their music while still staying withing their genre. I love the incorporation of wacky musical gizmos into metal, and the explosion of pagan folk metal bands over the last decade has been really fun.
But there’s only so many didgeridoo solos you can take before you want to get back to the basics — drums, guitars, vocals, and maybe a keyboard. Fleshgod pushes those instruments to their extreme limits. Their use of operatic male vocals is (to my knowledge) unique in metal. Sure, there are lots of virtuoso, classically-trained singers in metal and always have been, and indeed sometimes Paolo Rossi’s melodramatic crooning reminds me of a Geoff Tate or even King Diamond. But for the most part, actual opera-style singing has been limited to female-fronted D&D-bait bands. In this regard, Fleshgod Apocalypse is sort of like the unholy Minotaur offspring you’d get if Nightwish‘s Tarja Turunen climbed into a wooden bull and banged all the guys from Pestilence.
I also love how Fleshgod makes the keyboard a frontline instrument without sacrificing brutality. Usually keys are only in the atmospheric bits of a song — the old “intro” effect. The keyboardist is crammed into the back of the stage somewhere, or sometimes the keys are just a backing track — an afterthought. No doubt, keys and orchestration are both important and well-executed on Labyrinth and all of Fleshgod’s albums. And on Agony, it worked, godsdammit, and unfortunately it worked better than it works on Labyrinth. Probably the reason that keys aren’t featured more prominently in metal is the difficulty of mixing them with the guitars and vocals. There’s only so many sounds you can pack into the mid registers before it just turns into a jumbled mess. The engineering on Agony was exquisite — everything was crystal clear — but the guitars are just gone in most of Labyrinth‘s tracks. “Epilogue” is honestly the only song on the album where the guitars are prominent outside of the solos. And while all the background choirs contribute greatly to the epic atmosphere of the album, sometimes you kind of wish you could hear what those voices are saying… it’s all just a reverby mess down in there. It would really be wonderful to hear Fleshgod record with an engineer who really knows how to meld electronic instruments with metal — maybe Peter Tägtgren, if I might be so bold as to suggest…
But that muddiness is really a generic problem with progressive metal, and really with elaborate music in general. Real orchestras spend fortunes on acoustics to prevent it. For a band with a sub-million-dollar recording budget, it’s rare that the mix gets done right, and sometimes the deep layering is really the goal in itself. You shouldn’t go into Fleshgod’s music expecting mosh-pit ready riffs; it’s all about the epic experience. Listen to the record from start to finish, let it tell its story. And dig those fuckin’ drums, man.