Rotting Christ are an institution when it comes to black metal, defining the Greek black metal sound and are one of the longest running bands within the genre, their career spanning over 25 years since their first release in 1993. Their sound has come a long way from A Dead Poem, which was one of the first albums I heard of theirs, that album being far removed in sound from their original grind-like, black metal sound heard on Satanas Tedeum. When listening to Heretics a few key words came to mind, those being: heroic, brooding, reverend and dare I say, heavenly at times.
This album features a strong use of orchestral elements including the use of large choirs and features much more clean vocals than the previous release Rituals. These vocals seem to soar over the wash of distorted textures which aids in the epic, heroic atmosphere the album sets. If anyone is familiar with Septic Flesh, this album’s opening is reminiscent of their album The Great Mass, though the keyboards and orchestral elements are less present in the Rotting Christ album.
Heretics at times has elements that remind me of folkier types of metal such as certain power metal bands. I feel the band has built on their use of traditionally non-metal sounds; the previous album Rituals does explore some of these elements but still is quite metal sounding at its core whereas Heretics seems to have slightly more experimentation in its use of instruments and the textures it provides.
As the album begins we are presented with a pontifical mood, ambient cello and pious singing samples that sit under one of the many voice-overs that we hear throughout the album. The opening riff comes in in full force, a powerful and syncopated riff in 7/4 time that kicks you hard in the face. As the second track hits, we get the folk feel that I mentioned earlier. A sped up version of this opening riff would not feel out of place on a Wintersun or Ensiferum album. The clean vocals also mentioned become much more prominent on this track and I must admit I really like this addition to the sound. When the album gets to “Fire God and Fear”, the album really starts to peak for me. The guitar solo that kicks in towards the end of the song is blistering and in your face, taking the listener to new heights of euphoria. The following track “Voice of The Universe” is extremely compelling; the song builds up with layers of choirs and spoken vocals as the drums and guitars reach a climax. The song then powers into the epic, memorable chorus. If this song had different vocals it would sound very much like a Blind Guardian song off one of their newer releases. Maybe it’s my love of Blind Guardian that gives the end of this album such a strong presence but I find these closing tracks catch my attention more than some of the earlier tracks. The final track “The Raven” comes in strong with quintessential black metal drumming; this song has a more classic, Rotting Christ sound to it and the lyrical content (which I discuss a bit more below) is a nice aside (although not completely) from the lyrical themes on the rest of the album.
The lyrics on this album are simple but effective and are primarily critical of the Christian faith. Though for some bands this may seem like a forced yet necessary focus for their lyrics, for a band like Rotting Christ that comes from a Greek Orthodox background, one must not forget the pervasiveness of this type of culture. Though the lyrics and the founding members themselves are outspoken against Christianity— Sakis Tolis has stated previously that “we think Christianity is the worst thing to happen in human history”—the lyrics have less of an aggressively anti-Christian feel and more an exploration of philosophy, belief, paganism and mysticism which I feel helps to set them aside from the typical cry of “Satan” that can be regularly encountered across black metal albums. The lyrics also feature some vernacular with the track “I Believe” being entirely written in Cyrillic and the track “The Voice of The Universe” featuring Arabic as part of the text and lyrics. The lyrics themselves I would not call that unique or interesting but they work well in the context of the music and the theme of the album. The most interesting song lyrically would be “The Raven”, which seems to be inspired by the Edgar Allan Poe poem of the same name; and as both a Poe and Lovecraft fan, these lyrics I find much more interesting than the standard anti-religious fare. The lyrics of this song, however, aren’t entirely based around the poem and feature similar types of lyrics seen on the rest of the album interspersed with quotes from the poem itself.
Though the band has come far from their musical roots, Heretics isn’t much of a step up from Rituals, which was released in 2016. The albums have a very homogenous sound and when listening to one closely followed by the other, it is not always easy to tell the album has changed. One of the biggest differences between the albums is the more frequent use of samples found on Heretics and at face value, I would say that Rituals feels a bit heavier overall. Though Heretics kicks off with some really heavy riffage, the album has a much more lyrical sound to it as it progresses and the folk/traditional type elements I mentioned earlier become much more prominent as the album progresses. Due to the more frequent use of clean vocals, choirs, orchestral elements, Heretics has the feeling of being more produced, slightly warmer and also more mature. Otherwise, the albums are quite similar in both feel and production. This comment is not an attempt to malign the quality of the latest album but for those who are looking for bands to push their boundaries and evolve their sound, then this album would not be accurately described in that way.
Overall Heretics is a fantastic listen and no one can debate the performing and song-writing abilities of these musicians. My biggest criticism is though the album does deviate slightly from their previous release, it would be hard to say this album isn’t more of the same. They are not pushing any boundaries; however, one does not need to push boundaries to create a compelling work of art. For those looking for something more progressive or experimental, this album is not what you are looking for, but if that is not what you’re after, this album is a solid listen and for fans of the band, one not to be missed.
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