Wednesday, 21 August 2013

Fleshgod Apocalypse: Labyrinth - Review

I can almost guarantee that anyone reading this is familiar with the concept of a Rock Opera but I fancy that not too many of you are so familiar with any Death Metal Operas. Step forward Italian band Fleshgod Apocalypse who, with their new album "Labyrinth" have managed to combine the brutality and technical proficiency of Behemoth with the symphonic tendencies of Cradle Of Filth and Dimmu Borgir to create a sound that feels very unique. "Labyrinth" at once assaults the listener with lightning fast drumming, technical riffery and snarled vocals but offsets this with operatic beauty, making use of strings, horns and choirs, and this makes the album feel like a true marriage of Classical Music and contemporary Extreme Metal.  

"Labyrinth" is a concept album that details the Ancient Greek story of Theseus and the Minotaur and, as you may have guessed by now, there is a lot going on with this record. Although this album has been well-received by a number of critics I for one am not a great admirer and there are indeed a number of reasons for this.  

Usually I wouldn't start by talking about the production values as I feel that, for the most part, they don't tend to make-or-break an album for me. That being said I think a lot of my issues with the album stem from how it has been produced. I do not envy Stefano Morabito one little bit and I can only imagine how difficult a task it would have been finding space in the mix for the vast number of guitars, vocals, drums, choirs, strings and horns that he was presented with but what doesn't help matters is the level of compression present on the record. Everything is C.T.F. (as one of my lecturers would say) and this means that the instruments are all left lifeless and fighting for what little space there is whilst the songs themselves lose their focal points. The guitars, for example, are often muddy and lost and this makes it harder to differentiate between the tracks, making "Labyrinth" blend together in a way that makes the album as a whole lose my interest faster than it should.  

As I have already mentioned, there are a lot of different instruments fighting for space and it is not just the over-compression that causes this issue. I feel like a lot of the time the tracks would be improved if some of the instruments dropped back a little to let the other elements through. A good example of this would be on the intro for "Kingborn" where the drums pummel away, the guitars riff like mad and there are operatic instruments all over the place. This, for me, creates a muddy and messy sound and I can't help but think that if something dropped back to let the other instruments through then the overall effect would be better. Unfortunately I see this issue across a lot of the album. I appreciate that in Extreme Metal there are often walls of sound created with blast beats and speed picking and the like but, as Fleshgod Apocalypse are using a load of other elements on top of that, something has to give. When I compare this record to something like "Nymphetamine" by Cradle Of Filth there is a clear difference. I feel like where Cradle Of Filth seem to fuse the different elements together really well by giving space for things, whilst in some places with "Labyrinth" they feel more forced and unnatural.   

Moving on and it is clear that "Labyrinth" was written to be listened to as an album and not as individual tracks. Each song blends in to the next and this is a nice touch to keep things flowing. What I am less sure about is the overall pace of the record. I find that the first 7 tracks are very samey in that they often revert to the same wall-of-sound feel and many feature bland, unexciting melodic guitar solos that in no way do justice to how epic the themes of the album are. There are some definite attempts to vary things a little within these tracks, "Minotaur (The Wrath Of Poseidon)", for example, features a beautiful piano intro and "Warpledge" has some killer dual guitar work but overall I feel like the first half of the album blends together and becomes more boring than it should, which is a shame given the latter tracks. 

The use of a short, slow instrumental in "Prologue" leading into "Epilogue" is, in my opinion, the high point of the album. It is this variation in pace that means that the brutality that follows is more interesting. There is also the use of a closing instrumental in "Labyrinth", which features some beautiful piano work and shows that the band are able to slow things down to great effect. I would definitely liked to have seen Fleshgod Apocalypse show their slower side much more than they did. It is my personal opinion that the album pacing would have been much improved by making use of some slow, short instrumentals earlier than the 8th track to break things up a little and act as a palette cleanser to keep the heavier sections more fresh and exciting. Although things do get slightly more interesting towards the end of the record I feel that, by that point, it is too late to salvage my overall interest.   

The final aspect of "Labyrinth" that I will comment on is the vocals and, like the rest of the album, I feel like it is a mixed bag. On the one hand I think that the lyrical content is superb. Tommaso Riccardi has done a cracking job with telling the story of Theseus and The Minotaur, looking at the perspectives of both eponymous characters as well as telling the story of Icarus and much more besides. An example of the lyrics is as follows:

Torn by the lust for control he betrayed Poseidon
The reckoning arises from the sea,
For it's the land of the pain,
Falling for the guilt of the despotic Minos,
Cursed shall be the name for the rest of the days.

The use of language is both exciting and feels authentic, making the concept come alive much more. This gives a more believable quality to the songs and helps immerse the listener because of the attention to detail. What I am less sure about is the vocal delivery. I think that Riccardi's voice has grown on me over time but I am not a fan of the King Diamond-esque falsetto that seems to crop up every now and again because it seems at odds with the brutality of the rest of the record. There are some lovely operatic vocals included as well and these are used sparingly enough so that when they do feature they contrast things nicely. I would argue that the contrast between operatic and growled vocals is enough without the need for falsetto as well. As with the rest of the instrumentation there is a lot of things going on vocally and sometimes I think this works and other times I'm not so keen.

To sum up this review it is very clear that Fleshgod Apocalypse have put a lot of time, detail and effort into "Labyrinth" and there are many people that have given it rave reviews. For me, there are just certain aspects of the record, such as the compression issues and congestion of instruments, that stop me liking it as much as I could. Clearly they are very talented musicians but in too many places this just isn't allowed to show like it should. I think that Fleshgod Apocalypse are on to a good idea with the fusion of styles that "Labyrinth" expresses but I also think that it needs some refining before I can sit back and fully enjoy it. What I would say is that this record is definitely worth a listen with an open mind because there are some solid elements on show but, at this point, this album isn't for me.    



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