It’s times like these I wonder if music ever had the power to scare people. When we listen to music, a whole plethora of emotions like happiness, sadness, anger and depression can come us and override any mood that we were feeling beforehand. We know that, when accompanied with visual images, music often defines the scariest moments in film. But as a singular medium, I have yet to find a piece of music that has disturbed me so much that I had difficulty listening to it.
This has come as a surprise to me over and over because I knew in overtaking this project I was going to have to listen to some terrifying, satanic and, ultimately, critically acclaimed metal albums. But again and again I found these albums all quite listenable, a sentiment typified by my reaction to Deathspell Omega’s newest album released in November of last year. Based on my knowledge of the band (of which there is very little as they are very mysterious), I thought Paracletus was going to scare the living shit out of me. Turns out I found it strangely charming, and liked it so much I put it on my list of best albums of 2010.
I wonder this now, because I thought for sure Septic Flesh’s newest album was going to scare me. Aside from the fact that the group’s name is Septic Flesh for crying out loud, I found the cover of the Greek metal outfit’s newest album, The Great Mass, quite upsetting. It’s a depiction of a pale bald man’s face ripped of his jaw fetal pig style while various miniaturized Greek artifacts lay at his feet, one of which holds up what is presumably his heart, blackened by who knows what kind of sickening darkness overtook his soul. At least Deathspell Omega had the decency to obscure their beast in shadows. Septic Flesh would seem to have put all their horrifying cards on the table.
Even though I have to look away when songs from The Great Mass come up on my iPod, Septic Flesh’s eighth album is not particularly scary. It has many fantastic head bang-worthy moments like first track “The Vampire from Nazareth”, but, more often than not, it’s actually quite beautiful. The group recruited the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra to play on it and it’s a valued addition, the orchestra’s involvement ranging from the decorative to the pivotal. If you wanted to gauge how relatively innocuous The Great Mass is, though, you could equate its use of an orchestra to Owen Pallett’s use of The Czech Republic Philharmonic Orchestra for his 2010 album Heartland and it would be a pretty valid comparison. The only difference is that Pallett’s frail coo is replaced here with blast beats and rancid screams. You know, little things.
The songs of The Great Mass, all of which feature The Prague Philharmonic Orchestra, practice a wide range of styles within the death metal genre, from the anthemic to the downright vaudevillian. The lead guitar line in “Rising” almost resembles power metal in its epic optimism, but “Oceans of Grey” and “Pyramid God” undercut their traditional foundations in favor of odd dalliances that only add more tension to their respective songs. In the case of the former, a standard buildup is interrupted by a plodding shuffle of remote guitar and vocal chants, working in the song’s favor by actually embodying the terror approaching just off in the distance. In the latter, a bouncy rhythm of militaristic snares and throbbing French horns disrupts the track’s similarly conventional arrangement, but is later incorporated into the mix in a way that allows the song to hit even harder.
Songs like “Oceans of Grey” and “Pyramid God” exhibit abrupt injections of gothic influence, but there are many great moments on The Great Mass that are so avant garde, they’d make Igor Stravinsky smirk. If put in the right context, the piano line that begins “The Mad Architect” could soundtrack a Charlie Chaplin film. Its presence is rinky-dink and genuinely surprising, but it’s not just used as a gimmick to grab your attention; with double bass drum and chugging riffs going off at full speed, you can still hear that piano line playing in the background. In fact, the group makes it sound so comfortable, you can almost feel the boundaries of death metal stretching around you as the song plays. Whenever the voice of bassist Seth Siro Anton appears on The Great Mass, the album instantly heightens in melodrama. His tone is nasally and frail and would be quite irritating if put as the centerpiece of The Great Mass. But, as the occasional hook or background accompaniment, Anton’s voice gives the album its own bitter ghost. Some days it’s even more unsettling than Sotiris Anunnaki V.’s snarls.
However, there are certain obstacles that non-mental fans will have trouble overcoming with The Great Mass. Anunnaki V.’s vocals are quite guttural, but, for what it’s worth, they are also often decipherable. His first line in “The Undead Keep Dreaming” sets an excellent tone for the song’s troubling subject matter. “In 1981,” he growls. “When I was but a child / I had the strangest dream / Something that still is haunting me.” The contradiction in the line between the lyrics’ vulnerability and the brash way in which they are performed makes the track all the more off-putting. In this and many cases, Anunaki V.’s vocals serve a structural as well as textural purpose. There are also female voices throughout The Great Mass that add appreciated depth to the album’s arrangements, but, to be honest, if you patently dislike metal, this album won’t convince you otherwise. Nevertheless, I’d suggest listening to it to potentially broaden your horizons. Pentagrams and lack of scariness aside, The Great Mass is another excellent release from one of the best metal bands making music today.