He died for you, will you fight to the death for Him? — As civilizations were absorbed and educated citizenship became a matter of caste men naturally ceased to mistake the ruling class for Gods in earnest. To unite the world under one emperor no longer appeared possible by military force alone and it’d long taxed the peak of all great empires to rely upon the duress of the soldier’s boot-and-blade to get the war-seized polis to submit. There’d been no effective enough pagan altar renamed, neither ritual adopted nor sophist’s ideation explored with sufficient allure to convince those indoctrinated by force to give up their beliefs… ’til popular enough martyrdom brought conviction to the argument and spread like wildfire. In truth, the ruling class in Rome fell to public education, but not before the spread of Christianity (a byproduct of education, nonetheless) had given would-be rulers a taste of its ability to convert and sustain the will of the people. ‘Cross. Deny. Glorify.‘, the third full-length from Nantes, France-based death metal band Athanatheos is the latest chapter in their conceptually driven presentation which tasks itself with revealing the long-usurped religion as the cult of greed, death and power that it has been throughout the history of the western world. Instead of endeavoring to “kill the thought on Christ” they’ve chosen a beautifully telegraphed route from reactive pre-year zero origin to the deadly corruption of power the true history of the Christian religion took within its first four hundred years. This album in particular takes us to the turning point from persecution to mainstream Christian supremacy in the era of the First Seven Ecumenical Councils ~323-392 C.E. and as the scenery becomes more elaborate so does the band’s increasingly illustrative style, careful not to woefully overstep the bounds of pure death metal action any more than they’d have to in depicting their grand vision.
Athanatheos is the vision of musician Samuel Girard who’d begin his noted career in death metal leading Ill Divine, a fairly typical band from that early-to-mid 2000’s era where the new standards set by Morbid Angel and Immolation alongside brutal death vocal techniques informed their sound. As far as I know Girard‘s own project, Soul Rejected, formed in the mid-2000’s and produced a demo CD-r (‘Soul Injected‘, 2008) which acted as the basic building blocks of aptitude that’d soon become Athanatheos. The vocal cadence and somewhat technical guitar compositions met up for a brooding, crawling sort of aggression that will feel natural to both ‘old school’ minded lurkers and folks who understand the 2000’s death metal paradigm from a broader world view. A full decade of work justified the impressive quality of composition, style and general attack on their debut full-length (‘Alpha Theistic‘, 2012), a self-released venture which has gone on a bit underrated likely due to its modest self-release, though the record still holds up for its austere riffcraft and blackened nodes which eventually ramp up into a surprisingly grand vision it has gone on a bit unappreciated since the band released zilch over the course of the next eight years. In 2017 Girard joined up with Jérôme Mahé to form the quite underrated Ad Vitam Infernal and in 2018 most of Athanatheos‘ line-up moved on to their own project, extreme thrash metal group Oaken Skull. I mention this because it was clear that the time in between had not been dormancy but rather the patient work of a large concept album was being carefully developed.
The concept is a tough thing to tackle for the sake of not sounding reductive while also keeping it brief. Rooted in historicity but kept down to earth by way of an Atheistic point of view the major argument of Athanatheos‘ work serves as a teleological reading of Christianity, clarifying exactly how it’d developed beyond a radical sect of Judaism amongst the downtrodden to a death-obsessed religion that would become the harbinger of doom for humanity. You may very well be best served exploring this idea within a studied and contextual read of Der Antichrist from Nietzsche as a good starting point, as this band’s general appeal relies on the idea that you are not a passive listener and should be willed to read the goddamned lyrics; At this point the sentient among us have realized that faith is a frightening hindrance to the mind of the individual and their civic notion, certainly not any true savior but an infectious cause people can be quickly convinced is worth dying for — The notion of “freedom” and forgiveness in a cruel caste-dominated society is an opiate et stimulant which can only lead the plebian toward one of two fates, self-destruction and societal destruction, the target is whichever they’d value more. Granted that interpretation is just me vaunting a bit for the sake of the theme being an exciting exploration from a unique point of view, that which is historically/academically bound without being obnoxiously interruptive of the wilding gloria of the past.
The way I see it ‘Alpha Theistic‘ had been the intended first chapter, I mean it even starts with Genesis, eh, but it’d felt like a preamble when I’d first stepped into the grand, dramatic great work that was ‘Prophetic Era (Or How Yahveh Became the One)‘ (2020), a record which I’m not sure I had noticed back when it’d released. This is where the impact of Girard‘s idea found its expressive voice and the point where the overall instrumentation had sophisticated enough to illustrate these ambitious lyrical themes and multi-faceted characterizations available. Clean vocals, Gregorian chant inspired chorales, hints of doom and Hellenic black metal began to seep into the not-yet cinematic register of what was otherwise a death metal band still informed by the peak of late 90’s/early 2000’s death metal and its freed rhythmic structure by way of black/death metal permutations. The ‘Eskhatos‘ EP which released about six months later, originally as part of a split LP, would appear to either be an extra half chapter’s worth of ideas or simply a contained interstitial exploration of martyrdom which’d explored slower pacing, some of which is quite over the top in its use of keyboards which doesn’t find its sonic equivalency on ‘Cross. Deny. Glorify.‘.
The involved and smartly writ concept of ‘Cross. Deny. Glorify.‘ sets the events of the album during the reign of Constantine as the Roman emperor declared circa 323 CE that Christianity be tolerated. This served as the catalyst for Christianity to spread and in the span of three decades the militant intolerance of the Christian faith had spread, quickly becoming the tool of crooked inheritors of power and the new state religion to be enforced upon the people. The irony might be lost on some but the hypocrisy shouldn’t be as we see that the moment the Christian faith took hold of its first significant power in Rome that it’d only spread doom and intolerance from that point. Of course the verbose and austere presentation of Athanatheos says much more and in a more artful way than my vague summary does. The narrative here is a set of letters writ between three generations of Romans (a soldier, a merchant and a philosopher) where they detail the societal decay and increasingly ruthless enforcement of the Christian religion which’d occurred between 323-393 CE. — All of this is conveyed through strident, sophisticated death metal which still has the organic movement and fiery bombast of the aforementioned classic forms but with a render that offers strong personalized character, a righteous balance of what has always worked in death metal and how it can be translated in a modern sense of readable yet ‘epic’ dramatic narrative. For having long represented themselves so well as a thinking man’s death metal band no doubt ‘Cross. Deny. Glorify‘ finds the right balance of creatively rich presentation and exposition that will hopefully inspire many to take a closer look a their inspired lyrics and admire the work that has gone into bringing meaning, purpose to their aggressive craft. This declaration of “No trends, no compromise, only pure vision.” from the band certainly carries serious weight with all of this in perspective.
Yes, they’ve got riffs. — Seeing as how this artist was as influenced by the late 90’s death metal pinnacle as much as they were by the first five or so years of the post-millennial black n’ brutal era the percussion is adventurously set and the riffs are slung at a moderately high rate. We should avoid sidestepping the verbose nature of Athanatheos‘ vision and how quickly this generates a unique voice in terms of vocal cadence and phrasal rhythms to match. Before we consider the more obvious innards influencing their ambition, we can at least momentary think of groups like Third Storm who are forced to extend the syllabic count of their musical vocabulary to match run-on sentences, leading to a strangely woven set of statements overall. No matter how percussive, wrathful or indulgent they might want to be in the realm of aggression all of it comes in service to songs which read as letters between poetic fellowes in this case. In plainest terms, there are a lot of lyrics to get through and this means the major success of ‘Cross. Deny. Glorify.‘ isn’t an either/or situation in terms of lyrics/music as we find their arrangements set to convey the sense of unrest and outrage shared among generations, a severity of subject matter which suits the jagged and ornately snaked-out riffcraft of this record.
“They Are Spreading the Pestilence” is the sort of song an overly ambitious artist might write in their demo era and eventually peel it back to a more reasonable number of statements per song and, yes, that is a compliment. Though we cannot consider this a “catchy” record due to the conversational high rate of fire of the vocals it is yet easy to admire just how elaborately stated every piece of this record is even compared to the stylized density of ‘Prophetic Era (Or How Yahveh Became the One)‘. It seems like we’ve stepped up to a Kronos, (early) Kataklysm or Anata-era piece to start as the call-and-response tarantella at the ~45 second mark as Athanatheos‘ guitarist repeats its glorious riff twice in succession ’til the song is soon lost in a spiral out of that riff into ten more, trudging away. Each piece has its cinematic tangent to some degree, be it a congested inward arc or a meandering fade out in contemplation.
Drumming from Antoine Poisson (Soulslicer) is ‘prescribed’ in feeling wherein the percussion of this record is neatly set, tightly bound to its hinges and generally stiff in its structural movement which lends a sort of progressive tautness in walking, sometimes racing from one idea to the next. This can work for and against certain pieces: “Witness” in particular works quite well with this tighter shaping as it is essentially a galloping groove metal piece at its core whereas a more finessed piece (such as “Cred Quia Absurdum”) isn’t given to full flight due to its hammered-at nature, only really taking off due to its chorales and altogether imaginative composition; The ‘epic’ hand of the album meeting up with the machine precise metering of its movement is initially stifled by the sheer density of ideas found on the first ~four or so songs on ‘Cross. Deny. Glorify.‘, being tied to staccato post-millennial death gallops and blasts of ‘old school’ feeling death metal exaggerations. In this way the interplay between percussion and rhythm guitar is extra-emphasized to the point of mind-numbing synchronization on certain pieces (“They Are Spreading the Pestilence”) but do eventually diversify beyond that initially congested gait.
Generally speaking, the more expressive pieces intensify along with the narrative where the tumult of “The Cross” creates a narrative arc which is complete by the time the more resolute “The Witness” arrives deep into the second half. “The Silent Oblivion” should naturally be a bit of a climax of realization, a grandest peak before the finale of the record. At this point everything from mid-90’s Ancient Rites to ‘Envision Evangeline‘ have come to mind in terms of the overall register of the album, perhaps not the musical content itself but the stretching of the artist in scope which is attempted beyond the already ambitious storytelling of Athanatheos‘ previous works. In this case continuity is effectively upheld and the finale even more charged than expected as the ~13 minute “To Glorify” boasts a full page of lyrics compared to the half page each song before it, featuring multiple characters represented including the pagan resistance, chorales of the ruling army, and final declarations from Aurelius Ambrosius, the Bishop of Milan. This reaches an imperfect sort of tragedian lilt, that of ancient theater rather than death metal as we reach the final point of the album and this is the only point where the tone of the full listen struggles to nail down the severity of its point.
Sure, as underground death metal art which is thoroughly ambitious one could forever parse where they could’ve gone more over the top or, in my case, consider where it could lean into broader death metal vernacular as a whole to reach its narrative goals but one must give credit to Girard for containing this narrative into a readable and contiguous voicing which is consistent with his work since 2012 while still keeping it at under an hour long set. ‘Cross. Deny. Glorify.‘ is not a flippantly presented hobbyist sketch but a deeply considered third chapter, arguably the most important chapter in terms of the history presented and its implications for “western” society, which makes the best yet case for the whole undertaking; Of course this marriage of intellectually stimulating characterizations and dramatic presentation by way of elaborate dialogue won’t be engaging to folks who want (and expect) nothing more than a few neat riffs and a growl from death metal. Athanatheos are presenting death metal music stretched beyond its core purpose, a transformative version of the craft which demands one’s full attention to address with any earnest response. And to the point that it will stretch many listeners into the expected “all or nothing” response where the full listen may overwhelm the interest of folks who are not looking for music which requires readership, investigation, or prior knowledge of history and philosophical theorizing (particularly French and German realms in this case). That said, if you are here for the riffs and you don’t mind quite over-active vocal performances which have a ton, I mean pages of lyrics to get through the value here should be obvious enough as the austere yet brutal dance of the record reveals itself. For those willing to engage… this’ll prove a thoroughly repeatable experience which explores and stretches the narrative boundaries of traditional death metal to an admirable level of craft which is yet readable and engrossing. A high recommendation.
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