In 2009 a record came sort of out of nowhere that really took me by surprise, and frankly, kicked my ass something fierce. It was from Italian technical death metallers Fleshgod Apocalypse and the record was called Oracles. What I loved about the album, and the thing that made it so addicting, was that it was beautifully melodic and unabashedly technical at the same time. It blended these two things into what was easily the most unique technical death metal or melodic death metal record that had been released in a very, very long time. I was blown away (and still am). I didn’t review it at the time, but it made the #3 spot on my Top 10(ish) of 2009 and I have been waiting for the follow up ever since. Agony, the band’s first record on Nuclear Blast records, is that follow up and it’s a great album that bugs me.
Agony is functionally not the same band as the one that performed on Oracles. Well, the core is the same, but the band has added keyboards and orchestrations after the Mafia EP [Also, why change the logo? Christophe’s logo was fantastic! – AMG]. Adding the pianos and orchestrations gives the band a feel much more similar to Dimmu Borgir, Septicflesh or Behemoth and adds them to the lump of the pile that is orchestrated death metal. The keys and orchestrations add a pompous, bombastic character to the music that works pretty well for what they’re doing, it certainly is fun to listen to at times and adds a dynamic to technical death metal that makes it easier to stomach and adds more ups and downs. It also creates a bed, of sorts, on which the music lays. There are 8 tracks on this album, plus an orchestral intro and an piano outro that are truly beautiful. It’s worth noting, as well, that the orchestrations aren’t cheesy or poorly done, they’re similar to Mustis’s work in Dimmu Borgir in sound quality and composition. They’re quite good.
But adding orchestrations to Fleshgod Apocalypse took away the thing that made them the most interesting, in my opinion. In my discussions with other metal heads I’ve noticed that I’m one of the few people who has noticed this, but Oracles is such a beautifully melodic record and all the neo-baroque and neoclassical goodness was being carried on the guitars. This created a face raping heaviness to the world’s most melodically pleasing music. Agony hits you in the face with it (as do the faux tuxedos that they’re wearing in the promo pictures now). It’s like the musical equivalent of the “rebirth” scene in V for Vendetta, you know, where Natalie Portman’s character comes out with her arms stretched into the rain. Her character remade, like V’s had been of fire. But the directors don’t trust you to be smart enough to figure that shit out on your own, so instead they splice the two together just in case you’re too fucking stupid to notice that it’s happening.
So while everyone is going on about how this record is “technical perfection,” I ask: where? Yeah, it’s heavy. But the technicality on the guitars has taken a step back because everything interesting that was happening on the guitars has been moved to the keyboards. Is there a melody? Well hell yes there is: you’re being smashed in the face with it over and over and over and over. “HEY LOOK! WE’RE ITALIANS REFERENCING OUR CULTURAL HERITAGE!!” And that’s fine, I guess. But it leaves something to be desired by lumping the band into a growing trend (orchestral death metal), while taking away what the band was initially so damned good at.
Of course, now that I’ve got that off my chest, it should be stated that this record is cool. This is better than the new Septicflesh and anything Behemoth has done since Demigod. The clean vocals that they’ve added worked well on “Thru Our Scars” and they work well here on “The Hypocrisy” but it becomes quickly obvious that this guy is a one trick pony who is singing outside of his comfort zone. But the record flows fantastically, using the orchestral bed to segue between tracks in a way that holds the album together. This is probably Agony‘s strength compared with the previous material: it is a very cohesive and excellently written record that seems to be thematically linked. Every track is well-composed and the orchestrations and vocal variations work to separate the band from its Hour of Penance past.
I suggest that fans of the band check out this record. They’ll find some improvements (certainly the drums are less bad than they were previously) and some great song-writing that is similar to Oracles even if its substantively different. New fans interested in checking out an orchestral band in the vein of a tech death Dimmu or Septicflesh should not hesitate to check this record out. But given my expectations this album is still a bit disappointing for me. I think it’s going to take some time to get used to. And who knows, then maybe I’ll join in the ass kissing festivities. But until then: this is a great record, but it could’ve been better.