Fleshgod Apocalypse is well known in these parts for having produced a debut album that I worship and two albums since then that I don’t. Back in aught nine, the band released Oracles, which was a neoclassical death metal record unlike anything I had heard. The songs were intense, with intricate, artful, and beastly guitar work. Unfortunately, while songwriting was excellent, the drum sound on the record was a bit like reading a great Russian novel IN ALL CAPS; high art, ruined by someone’s inability to capitalize properly. 2011’s Agony was a better produced record than its predecessor in some ways, but the band undermined its own sound by moving all the interesting melodies and ‘riffing’ to the orchestras. When they returned to correct this problem on 2013’s Labyrinth, the master was so bad that all attempts to rectify earlier missteps were voided by the static of clipping master.
Twenty-sixteen sees these Italians back in action with their third Nuclear Blast release. And finally—FINALLY!—Nuclear Blast got them someone with the production chops to handle their sound. Jens Bogren helmed the mixing board for King and he does an excellent job of balancing the orchestral samples with the band’s acrobatic and brutal death metal riffing. Particularly of note as that for the first time in the band’s careers, the drums sound good. Francesco Paoli’s drums are heavy, frantic, brutal, and blessedly well-mixed. Even more importantly, Bogren’s mix—and remember, he also produced Turisas’ last two records, both of which were loud, but well-balanced—finally manages to hit that perfect, nuanced middle ground where the sick riffing of the guitars and the interplay with the orchestras work.
King is a record that is defined by its songwriting. While every release the band has put together since Oracles has been a concept album, the total composition has never been as cohesive as King. From the introductory swells of “Marche Royale” and “In Aeternam,” it’s clear that Fleshgod Apocalypse has worked hard to make sure that each song is perfectly constructed. The amount of subtle variation—the kind one would expect of a band truly influenced by the greats of Viennese classical music—are frequently on display; the subtle time and tempo variations in “Healing through War,” the way the harpsichord, orchestra and the guitars play off each other on “The Fool”; the blend of riffy melodic death fretboard gymnastics with powerful choirs on “And the Vulture Beholds”; or the gorgeous use of Bordacchini’s voice on the moody “Syphilis.” And while I might be alone with this, I’ve loved Paolo Rossi’s clean vocals since their debut on Mafia back in 2010. Combined with the whole variety of sounds the band uses, King is far more than a neoclassical Hour of Penance; it’s a masterclass in blending death metal energy and power with sophisticated composition.
Frequent readers will know that I don’t intend to insult the band when I say that they’re developing into a death metal [Luca Turilli’s] Rhapsody [of Fire]. King is nothing less than operatic; epic, well-composed, dramatic. But each song stands on its own. While I haven’t been given lyrics or liner notes, the album sounds like a tale of woe and despotism with a story clocking in at an hour long. While most of the album is made up of chugging death metal riffs and Viennese classical-influenced riffing, the band uses a 2nd soprano (Veronica Bordacchini from unsigned In Tenebra) on “Paramour (Die Leidenschaft bringt Leiden),” “Gravity,” and “Syphilis.” At first I found the opera soprano jarring—”Paramour” isn’t an aria, exactly, but she carries the song with only a piano accompaniment—but her performance has developed into a key strength of this album to my ears. Her vocal timbre creates variation and tension in the storytelling, and she also voices correspondence between the paramour and the King in question. Voice overs? Why yes, Fleshgod and [Luca Turilli’s] Rhapsody [of Fire] do seem to share some ideas about drama and storytelling…
The old guitarist, songwriter, and producer from Iron Thrones one time told me that the goal of production is to be invisible—to get out of the way of the music. No band’s career and output has exemplified this more clearly than Fleshgod Apocalypse. King finally succeeds, allowing the listener to take the sound at face value and appreciate the deft songwriting and powerful vision behind the music. Getting Jens Bogren involved, in my opinion, was a sign that the band knows this, too. King is still heavily compressed—Bogren isn’t known for his full dynamic range masters after all—but the balance is good and it sounds good despite sacrificed fidelity.1 I’m extremely curious to hear how the vinyl master of this record sounds, because I anticipate that the fidelity of the orchestral samples and more dynamic range with the pianos and vocals could lead to a sound which is genuinely even more powerful than King already sounds. And ultimately, in Bogren’s deft hands King shines in a way that would never have been possible if it had been produced by most anyone else. This allows the 60 minutes of operatic death metal to pummel, twist, turn, and immerse the listener. And when finally given that opening Fleshgod Apocalypse did not miss the mark.