GRIFFON – ὸ θεός ὸ βασιλεύς (2020)REVIEW

For those confident enough to claim their word history, name him Jupiter in script and worship duly. Replace the heads of auld Gods so that their statues would dignify bearing his proud face. The abomination in gold, wherein self-granted Gaius‘ thread of madness unto singular, severe demand of apotheosis borne conflict and certainly his own desolation as the lion’s statue usurped its target temple. Torn down gleaming in spectacular fashion we are served the consequence of the tyrant and self-appointed God via at least thirty stabs to his death. French melodic black metal quintet Griffon plants their focus upon the blasphemies and political faux pas, from various perspectives, of Caligula as a major second half of this their second full-length album since forming in 2012. ‘ὸ θεός ὸ βασιλεύς’ (‘o Theos, o Basileus‘) is not a glorification of ‘God’ but a reference to the emperor’s ascent to politically appointed God status beyond death, a position he’d insisted upon before his life was severely shortened. The picture they’ve painted is not exclusively concerned with this topic but the greater narrative of the Parisian group is most clear within the parable, mulling over the sometimes treacherous and sometimes beneficiary rule of “God-given” men over empire.

This is not the first time Griffon have concerned themselves with topics of religion, zealotry, and Jerusalem specifically but it does prove to be the most effective realization of their intended narrative thread to date, using several acts of kings, emperors and empowered converted to illustrate their irregular and oft destructive rule over men. Of course none of this would be particularly engaging if the band weren’t a peculiarly regal beast to behold, representing a modern take on late second wave French black metal that is sure to please fans of bands such as Artefact, and Aorlhac as well as Cor Scorpii (see: “Abomination”). This’ll make a bit more sense considering the project includes members of Geisterfels and Moonreich, each of which connects late 90’s French black metal ethos with some manner of triumphant melodicism or modernism. Griffon is just now reaching a higher benchmark of quality and thematic insight with this latest album but they’d arrived upon sound concept with their first EP (‘Wig Ah Wig‘, 2014) already showcasing classically influenced rhythms expanded upon via their debut full-length (‘Har HaKarmel‘, 2016). You’ll likely see this sense of rhythm referred to as “baroque” or medieval influenced melody but this is just as easily seen as influence from pagan black metal throughout; Besides, the entirety of ‘ὸ θεός ὸ βασιλεύς’ doesn’t necessarily rest in one place thoughtlessly, or for the sake of imitation or niche. Their split album with Darkenhöld (‘Atra Musica‘, 2019) did a fine job of presaging these expanded horizons, this album delivers an utmost polished realization.

Alright, I can plaster distinguished molding across its high concept artistry all day long but for the sake of some reductive critical thought the first impression isn’t immediately impressive when it comes to any Griffon release. Yes, a track like “Damaskos” is flashy with its symphonic black metal feeling and well-woven ascending soloing but once the hammer of the drums begins to express itself in preparation for dramatic centerpiece “L’Ost Capétien” the face value read will be fairly common for anyone who’d paid close attention to European melodic metal during the late 90’s/early 2000’s. It isn’t until the songs begin to wear their own character and the lyrics are rolled out and studied that Griffon begin to reward the time invested. “Damaskos” is the foreshadowing moment, an entrance into the cryptoporticus of the piece via the conversion of Saul of Tarsus (Paul the Apostle) on the road to Damascus, wherein a vision of Jesus would blind him for three days before a miracle restored his sight. They’ve not simply told this story but referred to three accounts in the old (and new) testament and written them in ancient Greek. You’d have to study this intently, cross-checking translations (which are not reliably automated) from ancient Greek to English to even begin to parse where these quotes were taken from and what they’d been alluding to. Not only that but, it becomes important to reflect and find the continuity of theme from this point.

Eh, who has the patience to find meaning in Bible stories? Perhaps some vital French history is in order, then. “L’Ost Capétien” finds us in opposition to the Holy Roman Empire circa 1214 with the Battle of Bouvines, wherein Philip II of France (Philippe Augustus) the “god-given” ruler would win a key victory that would not only establish the territory of France but also lead the British government to limit the rule and reach of the crown. At this point the puzzle of ‘ὸ θεός ὸ βασιλεύς’ only becomes more clear with some attention paid both to the subject inferred and in the actual language of the piece. There is some pride in this arena-sized black metal song but it also appears to provide framing for a larger thought on men delivered to the people as ‘Gods’ for the sake of independence just as often as much as it highlights the life’s work of a brutal religious zealot who killed thousands in the name of God. “Régicide” then serves us the heart of the issue on a bloodied platter drawing a line between democracy usurping the ruling class, the ruling class driving itself out via corruption and then the people destabilizing themselves over lost national identity. The lyrics are actually not elegant at this point and some true disgust comes via the vocals on this piece. How these lyrics read in translation is somewhat vexing, I’m a pretty rudimentary reader in terms of French but it isn’t clear if a political stance is made, at least nothing particularly clear on Side A of the album beyond the ranting declarations on “Régicide” including “death to…” dualism, ignorance, rich man’s greed, rulers and murderers. This is expanded upon by three extensive quotes… And you’ve gotten the idea here, each piece has its own intrinsic value via the lyrics alone and in some ways the presentation of those themes is almost more interesting than the music itself.

From that point the narrative is focused on the aforementioned theme of Caligula‘s insistence that he be worshipped as a God, detailing the story of Jewish persecution by his order and the desecration of the Holy of Holies with a golden statue in his image. Dramatic as this theme is it’d taken some time to understand the perspective of the lyrics shifts with each song on Side B. Alright then, enough of the theme and the grand event it creates with symbolism and narrative, how are the riffs? Well, this isn’t that sort of record. If you are a fan of post-Windir projects or heavily melodic French black metal such as Sühnopfer and Véhémence there are more than a few songs on this ~40 minute record that’ll hit that spot with a bit more restraint and certainly more boastful use of keyboards. Things do occasionally speed up and reach an Ancient Rites level of regalia, a supreme level of excitement that lands just short of Old Man’s Child-esque pomp (see: “L’Ost Capétien”) on more than a few occasions but this is by virtue of instrumentation and some related thematic choices. These moments bring some vital energy to an album that is diverse, dynamic and intelligent in its advance yet none of this ends up making ‘ὸ θεός ὸ βασιλεύς’ particularly memorable as an experience.

Thrilling in motion and forgotten like the tide as the moon rises, it’d been difficult to recommend Griffon‘s latest album until I’d dug into its unclear sense of purpose. If you’ve no mind for translating ancient Greek and French in general I figure the mood of most pieces still speaks to themes of grandeur, religion and suffering well enough. There are solid melodic black metal pieces here in a distinctly French style, all impressive works that appear as would-be classics liberated from the overpopulated late second wave and given culture and insight beyond. The experience is above-average but not especially original or divergent so, a moderately high recommendation with some room to grow as it matures in mind over time.

Moderately high recommendation. (70/100)

Rating: 7 out of 10.
TITLE:ὸ θεός ὸ βασιλεύς
LABEL(S):Les Acteurs De L’Ombre
RELEASE DATE:October 23rd, 2020
BUY & LISTEN:Bandcamp [All Formats]
GENRE(S):Black Metal,
Melodic Black Metal

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