There was a time when The End Records could do no wrong. Agalloch, Green Carnation, Antimatter, the label churned out a stream of genre-defining albums by metal bands large and small. So confident was I in their curation that I set upon buying practically every release The End Records put out, at least until the wheels fell off and the label debased itself by churning out mainstream dreck. But it was fantastic while it lasted, and Sombre Romantic, the 2001 debut record of Adelaide-based Virgin Black, was one of the early successes that left an indelible impression with its contrasting cries of doom and operatic embellishments. After their follow up, 2003’s Elegant… and Dying, the band embarked upon an ambitious undertaking: a trilogy of albums, a project that would see the second and third records being released a decade before the first of the three would finally be finished in 2018. So here we are, 10 years late and comprised solely of classical orchestral music, Requiem – Pianissimo emerges into our modern landscape naked and exposed. Virgin Black better hope their audience still has the stomach for wanton ambition.
You likely did a double-take when you read the words “solely… classical orchestral music,” thinking that there must be a scabrous riff or two lurking between the timpani. You’d be wrong as Requiem – Pianissimo is devoid of even a skerrick of heavy metal. Several bands have flirted with classicism like The Red King and Elend, but they still left traces of extremity, ensuring that an iota of metal remained. Not here, as Virgin Black have structured their triptych so that each album represents a facet of their sound: the first pure classical, the second, Requiem – Mezzo Forte, doom and classical, and the third, Requiem – Fortissimo, pure death/doom. The three records are meant to be consumed as a whole, meaning the absence of metal on Requiem – Pianissimo is balanced by the excess of heaviness that follows on parts two and three. The reality, however, is that few will swallow three hours of music in one sitting. More importantly, Requiem – Pianissimo must be judged on its own merits, decoupled from any external crutch.
I will say my first impression elicited a twinge of disappointment as the absence of any guitar meant missing out on Sesca Scaarba’s (formally Samantha Escarbe) memorable and unique lead work. In fact, the excision of any and all metal elements was a sore point, so conditioned was I to distorted chords and bellicose shouts that I struggled to lose myself in the music. This soon passed and I began to accept Requiem – Pianissimo for what it was, a dark and brooding classical lamentation. “Dies Irae,” with its choral of bruised color invoked a feeling of slipping into a peaceful oblivion – like slit wrists in a warm bath. There’s an ominous tone to the music, in particular the Latin chanting from both the soprano and tenor on “Kyrie Eleison,” made all the more menacing by the strings that swing low and sharp like Poe’s pendulum. Terror, misery, sorrow; my senses palpitated a staccato jig, yet I found an odd serenity wash over me every time I listened to Requiem – Pianissimo, each session a wallow of tar and shadow.
Satisfying, but the album has its faults, most notably the superfluous final two cuts that follow the moving 11 minute epic of “Lacrimosa (I Tread Alone).” The track would have been the ideal capstone, instead the record was stretched out by the meandering “Pie Jesu” and, ironically, the forgettable “Remembrance.” Comparisons are not easy, and while Virgin Black draws upon classical works the record lacks the sprawling grandeur of Verdi’s Requiem or the solemn anguish found in “Una furtiva lagrima” from L’elisir d’amore by Gaetano Donizetti. A fairer inflection point would be contemporary soundtracks for TV shows and videogames, the type that chop their composition on the mirror of modernity. The work of Nobuo Uematsu is the composer who springs to mind, his neo-classical creations for the Final Fantasy series and others are infused with his rock and metal sensibilities, an approach mirrored by Virgin Black. Finally, I would be remiss to not mention the sterling production on the album, a rich yet detailed feat that balances cohesion with raw power.
I have stated my satisfaction with Requiem – Pianissimo yet its justification as a metal album is harder to articulate. The language typical of the heavy metal critic falls short here: there are no riffs to nod the head nor solos to stir the soul. Pondering this conundrum, I remembered a conversation I had with a young classical musician at a hi-fi store I worked at several years ago. Noting my tastes, he stated that he saw little difference between classical orchestral music and heavy metal as both genres were compositionally dense, cacophonous and executed by highly skilled musicians. Requiem – Pianissimo hews to metal by spirit if not the letter of the law and while Virgin Black took a great risk with the record the final product is a qualified success. The trilogy is now complete. Where the band goes from here is a tantalizing prospect.