Remember when Therion was but a mere death metal act? I do. I came in on their 1991 Of Darkness debut, which was simplistic Swedeath with nary a hint of the symphonic metal monster the band would evolve into. By 1993s Symphony Masses the transformation was well underway, with neo-classical influences merged with opera and chamber music. From there the band embarked on increasingly esoteric flights of musical fancy, releasing double albums and 3 album conceptual arcs. After a 5 year hiatus, the madman Christofer Johnsson and his crew of musical misfits have returned in a big way with Beloved Antichrist, a TRIPLE album metal opera with 46 tracks running over 3 hours in length. Yes, this is essentially Swallow the Soprano, and it’s every bit as artsy fartsy as you feared, with numerous vocalists, endless interludes and more movements than a terminal dysentery ward. It’s yacht metal for the Lincoln Center set and the only album in recent memory to qualify as a lifestyle choice. But can you dance to it?
No. Nor can you easily digest it. This is metal opera with a soft “m” and a hard “O,” forsaking the extreme elements Therion dabbed in over the years to focus on a classical approach. Vocals are exclusively operatic, and the accompanying music is rarely aggressive or heavy. The story is based on Vladimir Solovyov’s 1900 work, A Short Tale Of The Antichrist, which centers around a charismatic man who may be the Antichrist, working to subvert all the modern religions and bring Satanism to the filthy masses. Basically The Omen set to music, you’d expect fury and flames, but this is not that. As disc one charts the course with “Turn From Heaven” you’ll hear traces of early Tristania and Leaves’ Eyes with soaring female vocals and densely layered choral work. It’s lush but we’ve heard it done many times before. Things drift along lazily in this fashion, with multiple male and female vocalists moving in and out. “Signs Are Here” offers extra bombast and aggression (with a soft “a”) and makes me think it should be on the soundtrack of the 1984 Dune movie. When the vocalist representing Satan appears on “Bring Her Home,” his “evil opera man” vocals are so ridiculous they make me burst out laughing, and I’ve been walking around the Hovse ov Steel imitating him for a week, much to the dismay of Madam X. There’s a big “Luke, I am your father” moment on “The Solid Black Beyond,” with the father being Satan and Luke being the Antichrist, but those Satanic opera vocals are as evil as a hamster wearing a top hat, which neuters the dramatic impact considerably. Things don’t go full metal until track 12, “Anthem” where the music erupts into a Euro-power gallop akin to Stratovarius with the opera birds and choral segments trying to keep up. It’s very Broadway feeling, but it sort of works, as does disc closer “Nothing But My Name” due to a more restrained, less opera-intensive delivery.
Disc two starts off promisingly with the dynamic pompousness of “The Arrival of Apollonius” where metallic riffs coexist alongside orchestral swells and overblown vocals. “Night Reborn” keeps the energy going with meaty metal riffing and backing music reminiscent of Dio‘s “We Rock” until the opera troupe step on the fun like a juicy bug. “Temple of New Jerusalem” is the project’s “single” and I can see why. It has a more palatable mix of metal and opera than much of the rest of the album(s) with a few fairly memorable moments. After that however, it’s back to the opera mines to toil in opulence and grandeur. Disc two may be heavier with more elements of metal woven through the doily cloth, but much of it is still very soft, remote and difficult to connect with.
The third disc opens with “Shoot Them Down!” which offers one of the most metal moments on Antichrist; a greasy metal riff from the 80s that will grab your attention. Then the vocals arrive and Nightwish falls in Middle Earth. The men’s choir somberly intoning “shoot them down” is as metal as your community church choir taking a swing at “The Trooper” but much less amusing. “Beneath the Starry Skies” blends these elements better, with enough metal attitude to carry the vocals without feeling too forced. “Burning the Palace” is consistently aggressive with some nice solo-work, but it’s too long at over 8 minutes, and “My Voyage Carries On” is the fastest but it’s not particularly engaging. The most endearing cut is the short, sad duet “Seeds of Time,” which carries some actual emotion.
The biggest issue with the entire package is the absence of hooks and truly memorable moments. It’s uniformly well executed and super classy, but very little of it sticks. “Temple of New Jerusalem” has many of the good moments tucked within its 4 minutes, leaving the other 2 hours and 58 minutes largely devoid of earworms. This makes Beloved Antichrist impressive on a theoretical level, but curiously uninteresting and hard to engage with in practice. It’s all high art and ambition without the fun and danger of metal, despite a theme of Satanic plots and global conflagration. It wants to be taken seriously, but the very nature of its theme and delivery make that impossible. And to be blunt, it’s a real slog to get through. I doubt many will make it off the first disc before breaking. I wouldn’t have were I not oath-bound to complete this review1.
The individual vocalists are all talented (yes, even the Satan guy), but the steadfast commitment to opera singing brings down the entire project. It’s just too much of the same thing for too long. Borrowing a page or two from Ayreon or Avantasia and injecting vocal diversity would have done wonders. Hell, just getting Jørn to sing a few lines would up the fun factor by 500. Instead it’s opera on opera on opera and by the fifth track (of 46) you’ll already be pining for something else to happen, and it never, ever does. Christofer Johnsson is a musical force, playing guitar and keyboards and doing the arranging, and I am sure this is the culmination of his life’s work, so it kills me to not enjoy it. But honestly, I just find most of this eye-glazingly dull, despite the massive talent involved.
How does one score something like this? It’s all super professional and the music is certainly impressive, but how can something this excessive and over the top be so boring? Therion made a name for themselves creating dizzying, avant-garde soundscapes, and that wild, creative genius just doesn’t show itself often over these 3 long hours. Ultimately, it all comes down to Steel‘s Essential Theorem of Metal, which goes something like this: Metal and high brow music can only get so close before a violent counter-reaction occurs. Beloved Antichrist is the singularity at the epicenter of the resulting implosion; both the most and least metal thing ever recorded, it cancels itself out and consigns the entirety unto oblivion. This was the most grueling review in my AMG career both because of the ungodly length and the fact there’s so much talent and ability here, but it doesn’t go anywhere I want to follow. In short, less is more and Antichrist is tough to belove.