Italian symphonic death metal band Fleshgod Apocalypse have gone through phases that encapsulate the entire careers of normal successful artists in less than a handful of releases. Their debut Oracles was raw and promising and the follow-up, Agony, was a masterpiece that propelled them to the top of their game. However, Labyrinth didn’t take their music to the next level and some listeners were fatigued with their antics at that point, and their fourth album, King, is now anticipated but also slightly dreaded. This is readily understandable, as it is expected to be the album that either breaks the fatigue or leans further into it. What can be heard from the band on King is very characteristically Fleshgod, but also very different from how we’re used to hearing them.
Right off the bat, it’s pretty clear that, for better or for worse, King is a bit of a divergence from Fleshgod’s previous work. Not in terms of the band’s general sound but in how they approach that framework. While Agony and Labyrinth both ramped up the intensity in terms of production and orchestration backed by death metal, King takes a more subdued approach. With Jess Bogren’s production and heavier emphasis on blending symphonic elements into metal and less “everything ramped up to the max”, the focus on the band’s fourth album is decidedly different. That description deserves more elaboration though, as it comes with some benefits but also with some trappings.
The first thing to be tackled is the production, as it is both the most noticeable difference and also the one that defines the rest of the traits of the album by its nature. While on their previous work the band opted for production that was excessively loud and overbearing, on King they’ve worked with Jens Bogren, who has provided them with a sound that is quite similar to his previous effort with Devin Townsend‘s Deconstruction. What this means is that guitars are a lot less overdriven than the band’s usual standard, which takes away quite a bit of punch from them. The drumming is also similarly neutered, with the kick drums sounding a lot less prominent and the snare lacking the visceral characteristic it had on their previous work. The end result of this change in the approach towards the “metal” instrumentation is that blast beats sound a lot less heavy and generally rather weak.
Considering the one constant tool in Fleshgod’s arsenal has been tremolo-picked neoclassical riffs over fast drumming throughout their career, having that sound nowhere near as energetic and crushing as it used to be takes a lot away from the band’s sound. To compensate, the orchestral elements are a lot more prominent in the mix. While this approach gives the band more room in their sound to work with composition, it also fundamentally changes their entire identity. The wall of sound emanated by the band is a lot wider and encompassing, but more breadth comes at the expense of depth, as there are no heavy-hitting moments like “The Violation” from Agony, or “Elegy” from Labyrinth, or “In Honour of Reason” from Oracles. In these, the compressed sound, clear cut drumming and powerful guitars just hit the listener with a one-two punch and brought out the primal urge to headbang, whereas King is more of a “sit and nod in appreciation” album.
The songwriting doesn’t ignore the change in the sound, which would make the disparity a lot worse. Instead, the band have significantly reduced their technical death metal leanings and instead opted for a more symphonic metal approach. Sure, there are still blast beats and fast riffs, but whenever they occur, they’re blunted by the weak drum sound and less-driven guitars. What the band have clearly devoted more attention to is the orchestration. There are a lot of slower moments where the guitars take a step back and let the orchestra shine. The criticism towards the band’s previous work was that they always pushed everything too far, with the drumming being too extreme, with trem picked guitars accentuated by constant orchestra hits, which made listening to them rather overwhelming. This is definitely a step in the other direction marked by varied and subdued usage of instrumentation. In contrast, this makes another problem with the band’s writing more exacerbated. Since the orchestral elements always have the same melancholically kind-of-epic tone, it results in another kind of listener fatigue where the album listened to as a whole starts to lose freshness.
Throughout the first listen of the album, the more creative and proper usage of symphonics is interesting and attention-grabbing, but the lack of over-the-top epic moments which the band are known for start to drag it down. In addition, the punchline to every song being essentially the same feeling with the same setup greatly reduces the album’s repeat listening appeal. That isn’t helped by the fact that, like most of the band’s discography, the album feels way too long. On paper, the album is definitely more interesting compositionally than the band’s previous work, but that extra effort is inherently wasted by still trying to adhere to the band’s neoclassical death metal framework. To be honest, Fleshgod’s riffing was never really that interesting and it could barely carry an album by itself in Oracles, and after that album what the metal section of the band had to say was essentially exhausted. The addition of synths was keeping the band interesting, as at the time there weren’t a lot of artists doing technical-ish death metal with string sections and choirs emphasizing the rather rote drums and guitars. On King, that conceit really falls apart, as at times it feels shoehorned and the need to bring everything back to death metal takes away from the music on most songs, with “Mitra” being one notable exception because the orchestra and the band really play together on that track instead of fighting each other. The album’s leading single, “The Fool” is the closest the band get to their established sound, but as noted, these two tracks are the exception and not the norm.
Overall, King is a concerted effort by the band to develop themselves, even though the end result is quite flawed. Fleshgod Apocalypse are suffering from an identity crisis. Being a death metal band whose prime appeal was balls-to-the-walls riffing and over-the-top synths then having your audience be fatigued by how hard you push that meant they had to reinvent themselves to some extent. Trying to take a step back and focus on a more nuanced sound is the approach they’ve taken on King, but they’ve taken away what really defined them. With production that is more well-realized yet significantly less flattering to the band’s death metal roots, they instead focus on their symphonic side, but in doing so they reveal the weakness of their formula. While in early listenings the album is a lot more varied than the band’s previous work, that veneer wears off quickly as the band aren’t diverse enough to pull off being a symphonic metal band, and their death metal presentation isn’t strong enough on King to carry the album by itself. King is definitely competent, and the orchestral work is what really shines on it (in fact the second bonus disc of the album without the metal parts might have more lasting appeal), but as a metal album, and defined by the band’s previous standard, it falls flat. It’s just not as invigorating to listen to as the band’s heavier work, and it’s not novel or ingenious enough to listen to as a more progressive effort.
Fleshgod Apocalypse – King gets…