A greedy and mercilessly tempered little man who was as round as he was insufferable, the late Cangrande I della Scala was a noble and a land-greedy pissant in reality but thanks to his commission of the great Dante Alighieri he’d be a small name made bigger by his inclusion within a great work. By 1329 Cangrande had spent the better part of twenty years conquering the greater boroughs of the Venice area, finally holding long contested Padua and easily toppling Treviso thereafter. In late July he’d paraded as a great winning warrior through the associated territories staking final claim and, as records would curiously speculate, Cangrande would drink from contaminated water and die just four days later. His beauteous tomb encased him for a full six hundred and seventy five years ’til his body was famously unearthed, his organs were miraculously preserved and thusly examined showing the all to clear sign that the brutish and unimaginably rich noble had actually been poisoned with a very potent dose of foxglove (digitalis). There he wretched as the room spun around him for a few short days, shitting uncontrollably and becoming deeply yellow in the eyes. Cangrande would have died delirious, losing control in every sense and seizing out his final painful breaths. The shaking loose of whatever personal pain or poison within popular Italian symphonic death metal band Fleshgod Apocalypse that had built between 2011 and early 2017 would reach the point of purge for the artists involved and allow for some self-exploration as the band would shuffle their presence and pull from a quintet back to their earliest days as a trio. ‘Veleno’ is not a return to the sound of ‘Oracle’ (2009) but an entirely different fifth full-length from the band.
Thought they’d sucked out the poison in 2017 the wound that’d heal beyond would find founder and key songwriter Francesco Paoli (Coffin Birth, ex-Hour of Penance) stepping down from his impressive seat at the drums and back on vocals/guitar. Die-hard fans might remember he had been in this role for the early years of the Rome based outfit including their first demo, album and EP. Though there was mass trepidation among fans that Fleshgod Apocalypse wouldn’t sound the same or be written differently because of this paradigm shift in the line-up, it quickly becomes clear that Paoli has incredibly similar register and plenty of experience as frontman in firing up ‘Veleno’. If anything the style and structure of this new record pushes back towards ‘Agony’ (2011) while balancing in slightly more technical death metal and dark metal elements. The result is a far more accessible than the pompous, overly ambitious ‘King’ (2016), while also simultaneously showcasing ornate and somewhat memorable compositions. If there is a space between pre-2008 Behemoth, modern Dimmu Borgir and the satisfyingly neoclassical flex of Cor Scorpii it is surely occupied by the Fleshgod Apocalypse of today.
To be clear ‘Veleno’ is a death metal record build up to be symphonic and operatic much like it seemed was the ambition with ‘Mafia’ (2010) EP before the band would begin to write the symphonic composition first and then integrate guitars later. This won’t feel like an old Nile influenced record as some are wringing their hands hoping for but instead I’d suggest that Fleshgod Apocalypse have written one of the more brutal symphonic metal albums of the last decade or so. It might not completely warm the dry husk of old technical death metal fans but I’d figure most of those types had left beyond ‘Agony’ anyhow. It was clear that the band needed to adapt and change drastically to remain with any artistic integrity so at the very least I think they can be commended for finding a practical way to still feel as big as a quintet despite the album being realized as a trio.
When I say drastic changes have been made, I don’t think I’m at all overstating the state of accessible metal mutation witnessed within ‘Veleno.’ A quick flip to “Monnalisa” reveals a dark metal track that combines the piano driven compositions of the last few ballad-heavy Amorphis records with the whispering gothic hum and guitar prowess of Rotting Christ circa ‘Sleep of the Angels’. As adventurous as ‘King’ had been as a big, bawdy concept ‘Veleno’ is very much a reintroduction to the world stage for Fleshgod Apocalypse that finds them finally filling the ‘mainstream extreme’ metal shoes they’d been ill-fitting for a couple of albums. The split in line-up changes might’ve directly allowed this change of pace by proxy rather than intentioned in the sense that whatever downtime they’d not scheduled between ‘King’ and the follow-up was given some months to regroup, rethink, rewrite and conceive an album with deeper symbolism that is refreshingly not pure nihilism.
The lead single, “Sugar”, and its grandiose music video accompaniment is an entirely appropriate window into where Fleshgod Apocalypse are today both sonically and personally as it deals with the subject of heroin/opiate abuse. Paoli does not glorify or romanticize the pain of addiction but depicts it as a damning curse that hits like a lightning strike and spreads rapidly as a plague that shouldn’t be swept under the rug, so to speak. It is an angered patronizing of the sick that perhaps shows its depth only if you sit with the lyrics and focus on Paoli‘s enthusiastic ‘brutal’ vocal delivery, which I’d say is actually more effective than the last couple of rounds from Tommaso Riccardi. The theme of poisoning and toxicity fittingly runs throughout the veins of ‘Veleno’ as the lyrics deal with the fake, the cheat, the liar, the addict, the destroyer and the sycophant through metaphoric prose that all appear fueled by very personal frustrations. It is both cathartic as a weird mix of operatic, symphonic, and death metal textures swept together in very technical and fastidious arrangements that aren’t simply ‘neoclassical’ but damned near prog-power metallic at times.
Whether I gave Fleshgod Apocalypse my full attention as ‘Veleno’ played or not it’d end up being enough of a spectacle to get it either way. Though the piano pounding death operatic battery of it all would become exhausting, there is no doubt these Italians remain energetic, impressive and compelling in the works they create. I ended up losing the plot as I would take a break from ‘Veleno’, though, as there are several memorable highlights there are just as many pieces that serve to simply keep the furioso going. Adventurous technical-progressive death metal fans who aren’t afraid of some catchiness will find some heavily detailed guitar and keyboard work here to needle over, perhaps some of the projects most complex runs to date. I’d approach a record like this for its catchiness, feeling and couldn’t care less about technical flair or hammering brutality unless it was integral to the experience. This is where I’d disconnect with Fleshgod Apocalypse a bit as the spectacle does eventually overtake the passionate songwriting and it becomes a great piano-crashing burst of flame and furor that eats some of its depth for the sake of spectacular showmanship. Maybe I’m getting a bit old for all of the brutal bombast but, at some point I’d found myself wondering what an album of songs like “Monnalisa” would sound like and if that might be the growing strength of the band moving forward.
Taken as is, and across perhaps nearly twenty non-challenging listens, ‘Veleno’ is a modern and uniquely presented return to the world stage for this brutal-yet-bold Italian death metal project. The future is bright for the popular act as this record shines a light upon many redeeming directions the future might hold while still eclipsing the standards the band had set for themselves previous. Though my tastes probably align a bit closer to their earliest beginnings I still greatly appreciate the imaginative and exuberant progression on display here and despite losing what most folks had felt were very key staff. They’ve prospered and delivered in the face of ruin and for that I can give high praise and moderately high recommendation of ‘Veleno’. For preview the given singles are “Sugar” and the anthemic “Carnivorous Lamb” but I’d suggest “Monnalisa” and the (‘Passage’-era) Samael-esque “Pissing on the Score” as unmissable tracks.
Howling before the kill. 3.5/5.0
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