The general quality and inventive spirit of extreme metal today sees new higher standard set month by month yet there seems little hope for ‘legacy’ artists from the 80’s and 90’s to maintain relevance as they age and begin to force their own hand down left or right path. Though they’ve branded their thirteenth full-length ‘The Heretics’, the awkward self-parody of Rotting Christ‘s latest record is merely held together by the glue of a status quo they’d created decades ago. As a die-hard fan since 1996 there is undoubtedly an observable cyclical pattern of reinvention that would sustain this legendary Athens, Greece based black metal project but as the releases grow fewer and further between there is absolutely no reason to become sentimental in reflection upon the anniversary their thirty year history. Sentimental and musically trite it is, though, as Rotting Christ soften their edges in recreating the most sincere moments of their past note-for-note in most cases. Coming so close after their two disc ‘Their Greatest Spells’ retrospective last year it is simply too coy to bring such bland and heavily narrated a look over their otherwise magnificent shoulders.
In the mid-to-late 90’s there was no better entry point into black metal than the melodic black metal of Rotting Christ. They were dark, defiant, and powerfully heretical majesty with unforgettable ‘hooks’ set like gemstones upon sulphur crown. Purchasing ‘Triarchy of the Lost Lovers’ gave lesson, a revelation, of unique instrumental technique and flourish possible within extreme metal without becoming a smarmy gothic mess. Beyond that the reissue of ‘Thy Mighty Contract’ (1993) in 1997 would coincide with discovery of underground greats like Varathron, and the record itself continues to inform my taste in black metal today. It would also be a time where Rotting Christ would reinvent themselves as a commercial extreme metal band using Gothic rock/metal guitar hooks to pull the masses unto their surreal blasphemy from 1997 until 2004 when they’d so completely worn out those ideas.
‘Khronos’ (2000) was a criminal act for my own taste but ‘Theogonia’ (2007) was a fiery rebirth that shed old skin as the band moved from Century Media Records to Season of Mist, it would appear that the French label would give Rotting Christ the gifts of freedom and time to create their best selves and take great chances. ‘Aealo’ (2010) was epic and compelling, such a grandiose stylistic turn that you’d be a fool not to appreciate what a bold choice it was; It was straight up bad but it was something new and unheard of previous. As a fan this is where I felt their live shows really began to take a hit in terms of quality because they were ‘playing to a stadium’ regardless of what venue they were in and I’d more or less stopped attending despite generally loving ‘Κατά τον δαίμονα εαυτού’ (2013). Where am I going with this? I began to ask myself why I was an active fan anymore with the release of ‘Rituals’ (2016), and haven’t been able to shake that question since.
Upon first firing up ‘The Heretics’ I immediately knew that it was not up to the conceptual standards of the three albums previous, instead it would collect those elements and diffuse them with a sort of greatest hits of guitar work from the 90’s. “Vetry Zlye [Ветры Злые]” pulls so directly from their ’96-’99 period of guitar lick focused songwriting that it sounds like an amateur dark metal band ripping them off, which is actually incredibly common. “Heaven & Hell & Fire” does invoke the post-‘Theogonia’ songwriting sense but resembles a B-side from ‘Rituals’ with a guitar solo seemingly meant to invoke “Cold Colours”. At this point I’d understand if you’re enough of a fan to enjoy this sort of self-referential songwriting but, that isn’t what Rotting Christ has ever been and it seems to go against the core ethos of their legacy. Chances are the twelve years removed from ‘Theogonia’ will serve ‘The Heretics’ well in terms of reigniting interest in their waylay’d fandom though I am irritated as a more attentive fan. “The New Messiah” appears to sonically reference ‘A Dead Poem’ (1997) but in returning to that album, it is an inferior musical statement. As negative and reductive as I’ve been it isn’t without any love on my part as a longtime fan, I am perhaps more invested in what is referenced rather than the seeming simplification of ‘The Heretic’. It’d make sense to acknowledge that my irritation comes from expectations of new and interesting sounds, not from a need to pan self-reference entirely. Nostalgia be damned, seriously.
Therein lies my own admitted zealotry in response to what will be sermon and glorious entry to the less devout. The last thing I want as a fan is to see such a pillar sour in comfortable legacy but, it doesn’t at all matter if ‘The Heretics’ pleases me and I suppose what interests me more is the intention of Tolis today. In fact his intentions were explicitly to make a good Rotting Christ album and not reinvent the wheel, not to ‘change the world musically’. Personal spirituality, aging, and specifically a pointed interest in the Middle Ages drive a record that is a snapshot of Sakis Tolis today as he reflects upon the last three decades. How this translates to me as a listener is awkward because I believe Tolis is happier today more often than he is not, and he only composes dark music in the appropriate mood. Without convoluting my rambling analyses any further, ‘The Heretics’ is essentially a first sign of a musician becoming more sage and perhaps his legacy trails behind him accomplished but… also tiresome in its weight. Therefore if you just want ‘just’ another Rotting Christ album he’s given it to you, if you want a shedding of skin, a burning and passionately gymnastic extreme metal record: Leave it to the kids anymore, I guess. Very mild recommendation. For preview “Heaven & Hell & Fire” is the obvious single, “The New Messiah” is the most pleasant nostalgic moment.
Dimming, this sacred fire. 2.75/5.0
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