The concept of the virtual band is hardly a novel one anymore. The first was arguably Alvin and the Chipmunks all the way back in 1958, though it was Gorillaz who popularized the concept. Metal has dipped their toes in the idea a few times as well, most notably with Dethklok from Adult Swim’s Metalocalypse cartoon. Yet something just feels different about Belzebubs, a new virtual band formed around the webcomic of the same name by Finnish author JP Ahonen. The comic is high quality in and of itself, mixing black metal tropes, an Adams Family theme of a dark and weird yet loving family, and a Calvin & Hobbes sense of adorable bubbly slapstick. But comics and music are extremely different media. How serious can we take an actual album by the bumbling ink-drawn band?
Seriously serious, that’s how! JP has cleverly decided to keep the humor to the comics and videos, playing the music straight, and pulling a LOT of metal cred into the project. Mastered by none other than Dan “The Man” Swanö, and featuring guest spots for ICS Vortex (Arcturus, Dimmu Borgir, Borknagar,) Lindsay Schoolcraft of Cradle of Filth and others, Belzebubs quickly show they are not fucking around. Though the actors behind the band remain anonymous, vocalist Sløth sounds suspiciously like Niilo Sevänen of Insomnium,1 and the swirling melody present in the riffs suggest more of their members may be involved. So we’ve established Belzebubs is no joke, but is the album any good?
Fuck yes it is! Pantheon is chock-full of a highly addictive brand of melodic blackened death with symphonic elements, reminiscent of early 00s Dimmu Borgir. “Cathedrals of Mourning” starts off strong with pulsing riffs over a bed of swirling symphonics, including Schoolcraft’s background vocals (in her comic persona Skvllcraft.) The balance between harshness and melody is struck well, with driving tremolo and Sløth’s harsh but articulate rasp contrasting subtle bass and diverse drumming. These top-level performances never waver across the album, from the straightforward thrasher “Blackened Call” to sprawling epic “Dark Mother” and occult, darkly romantic “The Werewolf Bride.”
The songwriting, however, is the true strength of the album. The album is wonderfully diverse, each track having a face of its own. “Nam Gloria Lucifer” truly puts the fires of hell at your shins, but it’s followed by the folk-laden “The Crowned Daughters” which includes clean singing and smells strongly of Wilderun. The tracks themselves have excellent flow as well, including a few twists and turns, mixing a more traditional verse-chorus structure in some of the earlier songs with a gradually more progressive approach on the second half. There’s few weaknesses to be found at all, only “Dark Mother’s” stream-of-consciousness structure is consistently hard to grasp and the self-titled grand closer overindulges in the outro symphonics, going on a several minute atmospheric orchestra binge that feels unnecessary. But both are minor annoyances and don’t approach tarnishing the album. I can be brief about the production: it’s Dan. You already know it’s great.
Honestly, Pantheon of the Nightside Gods wouldn’t have been my first thought when listing true top-tier meloblack this year, not by description alone at least. A webcomic metal band putting an album into the real world? As much as I love webcomics (shout out to Sam and Fuzzy and Gunnerkrigg Court!) I don’t generally expect their artists to know much about music production. I’ve never put much stock in Questionable Content‘s creator Jeph Jacques’ instrumental post-metal side-project Deathmøle. But maybe I should, because Belzebubs demonstrate in glorious blackened splendor that origins don’t matter. If a virtual band has talented songwriters and gifted musicians backing it, wonderful things can happen. And with Pantheon of the Nightside Gods, they absolutely have.