The unimpeachable philosophy of famed slam poet Robert Conrad Flynn once posited that “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” If we apply the paradigm to extreme metal, the veracity of the statement becomes rather apparent. All of our favorite genres of metal and, indeed, music are fundamentally stale. This isn’t a bitter take, it’s a fact. While we hungrily await the next morsel of genuine innovation, we sate ourselves with interpretations of reliable constants. Dutchmen God Dethroned have been plying our souls with searing melodic death metal for the best part of thirty years. Their oeuvre consists of scorching blackened passages and an adroit use of melody that never sacrifices suffering for seduction. The band returned in 2017 after an extended seven year absence with The World Ablaze, a good album armed with some particularly great songs. Now, arriving relatively hot on that record’s heels, Illuminati seeks to sow sedition by revisiting a writing style that once elevated God Dethroned to such hideous heights. But a return to roots doesn’t always herald a return to form, and even self-imitation remains imitation.
To be clear, God Dethroned have never released what could objectively be described as a bad album and Illuminati is no exception. Having completed a WWI inspired trilogy that saw the band flexing their Bolt Throwing arm, this new record seeks to return to formula. Illuminati is a consummate God Dethroned release. Satanic imagery entwines with ecclesiastical accents to reinforce the classic sound that made The Grand Grimoire and Bloody Blasphemy so effective. The writing process is clearly a comfortable one, but the band have always placed great emphasis on the riff, and this is where Illuminati differs from its predecessors. Songs like “Broken Halo” are satisfyingly atypical and Henri Sattler still employs his corrosive vocal chords to great effect. His rhythmic patterns remain intact but, somewhere along the line, his wanton riff-mongering has diluted, which alters the nature of what Illuminati has to offer.
The title track opens with rich choral samples and sets the scene for the album’s preoccupation with mid-pace. It’s a good song and its precedent isn’t always unwelcome. “Book of Lies” knowingly sticks to staggered, but fluid, tremolos for a grandiose condemnation of all things Christian, while the chorus utilizes clean vocals to accentuate the emotive tone. One melancholy solo later from relative newcomer Dave Meester and the song is a certified success. The cut is exemplary of some of the album’s more restrained writing, but it’s also a perfect wailing wall for Illuminati‘s sins. My personal favorite, “Gabriel” methodically advances with lyrics comprised of quotes from the 1995 cult classic The Prophecy. It’s immediately memorable, but by the time it rolls around, the album’s homogeneity is in full sermon. Even Illuminati‘s faster fare suffers the same fate. “Satan Spawn” thunders forth from the dying notes of “Spirit of Beelzebub,” but is redundant in its mirroring. By the time closer “Blood Moon Eclipse” and its pointless intro track “Dominus Muscarum”1 roll around, my interest has significantly waned.
Ironically, this blanket approach to riffing and increase in blackened motifs feels like a creative choice, as if God Dethroned are focusing more on the whole and less on individual songs. The result certainly doesn’t want for cohesion and none of the material feels insipid, but it lacks more than a few shades of dynamism. I’m used to Sattler and co. flaying my face with a combination of black ice riffs and venomous vocals. Illuminati sends me away with a respectable black eye, but I can’t help lamenting my abject lack of exposed skull. The discrepancy is only exacerbated by the album’s unfortunate front-loading and the production’s lacking low-end, which robs bassist Jeroen Pomper of any presence at all.
Illuminati is not a bad album. God Dethroned have clearly poured time and consideration into the writing and I can absolutely appreciate that. Unfortunately, I can also appreciate that if a band is capable of crafting music that effortlessly stomps a boot print all over my grey matter, then there’s no passable excuse to ever leave me hemorrhage-free, no matter the stylistic route the record may take. Fans like me should certainly make time for Illuminati as it still has something to offer. Just be prepared to follow my lead: Excise some vital cuts for His Dark Majesty’s Playlist On High and then let the rest roll over you, like so much cruciform chaff.