I want to start off this review on a different foot. You see, in 2016 I reviewed Rituals by Greek black metal institution Rotting Christ, and I was not kind. As someone who jumped on board the Rotting bandwagon after 2007’s incredible Theogonia, I noticed Sakis Tolis, his brother Themis, and company repeating that grandiose, come-at-me-fucker, battle-ready style with diminishing returns on every album after that. I called it out both in the review and its comments section that a change of course, or at least a needed spike of adrenaline, could do wonders for the band. Even more so, exploring different motifs and tempos, not to mention lyrical ideas, would also help. But after listening to The Heretics for a solid week, I realized I was wrong to call Rituals a boring album at the time, and I want to apologize for that…
…because if ever there was a soundtrack to wheel-spinning and rut occupancy, The Heretics would be it. I hope that you liked “Fire God and Fear”1 and “The Raven,” two of the album’s preview tracks, as they’re the best The Heretics has to offer. To be fair, they’re not bad songs. “Fire God and Fear” evokes a somber atmosphere, and features one of the album’s best lead guitar melodies, few as they are. “The Raven” closes the album out, taking a few notes from My Dying Bride, slowing things down but once again building up a great atmosphere. But as noticed on Rituals, Sakis and company have been repeating themselves with too much regularity, and never has it been more evidenced than on The Heretics, and it even does so within the context of the album itself.
How bad are we talking? “Hallowed Be Thy Name” (no, not a cover of the legendary Iron Maiden song) sounds like a carbon-copy of Ritual‘s “देवदेवं (Devadevam).”2 “I Believe (Πιστεύω)” gives “Lok’tar Ogar,” once the ultimate of throwaway bonus tracks from Rituals, a run for its money with Sakis talking over a blast beat, some guy chanting a hymn, and one repetitious riff without any variance whatsoever. But the worst offense lies in the lyrics. See, The Heretics is a concept album, paying tribute to the famous pagans, atheists, and other non-believers and freethinkers who would go on to shape our world artistically. You wouldn’t know that from listening to the lyrics themselves. In fact, here’s a fun drinking game: grab a bottle of your favorite spirit (ouzo, Jameson, or whatever), and take a shot every single time Sakis rhymes “fire” with either “desire” or “empire.” You will be suffering from alcohol poisoning by the time “Hallowed Be Thy Name” rolls around (which is track #4, for those at home), and possibly quite dead by the time The Heretics ends at just under 43 minutes.
There is nothing on here that builds up, hits its stride, and explodes in a powder keg of glory like “Enuma Elish” or “Elthe Kyrie.” Nothing on here shines with godlike awe and power like “Santa Muerte” or “Gaia Tellus.” It’s just one song after another that sounds like a band punching in a formula, saving it as a template, and plugging in keywords and phrases in hopes that they will generate the same punch. Add to that a squashed Jens Bogren mix, and The Heretics, with all its references to fire and passion, finds itself lacking in both. This is the sound of a legendary band going through the motions.
I never imagined saying that about a band with a rich 30-year history behind them, crafting such gems like Non Serviam, Triarchy of the Lost Lovers, and Theogonia. I feared in my review of Rituals that the worst had yet to come, and those fears are now confirmed. Rotting Christ gave us so much over the years, and I will never downplay their accomplishments or triumphs. They absolutely deserve their place in the pantheon of black metal, but The Heretics is as phoned-in as it gets.