Septicflesh - Codex Omega
I fundamentally disagree with the idea of blending death metal and symphonic arrangements, not only because it reinforces that tired equivalency your typical Headbanger’s Journey-educated metalhead will burp up to justify blasting Cannibal Corpse at all hours (“If Bach were alive today, he’d be playing metal!”), but because it’s a cheap, smug shortcut to “classing up” your Cannibal Corpse cover band without putting in the effort. What counts as “orchestral” and “symphonic” has been so debased by Bleeding Through-aping metalcore bands that don’t know they’re aping Bleeding Through, and mangled by so many more fourth-generation deathcore bands, that even the exceptions to this rule have an uphill battle against a well-earned prejudice: if you say your band is “classically” influenced, you probably have a keyboardist in a poorly-fitted silk shirt skulking around on stage, and the chance you’re worth the time is slim at best.
Septicflesh are not that, at least. They can actually play their instruments, have grasped what constitutes classical music by actually listening to it, and have even made use of full, honest-to-God orchestras in the past for authenticity. They are, or have tried very hard to be, the real deal. Although I was unimpressed by both Communion and The Great Mass when I listened to them years ago around the time of their respective releases, and have still not had my mind changed by Codex Omega, I continue to hold Septicflesh in a much higher regard than probably makes sense, but which I base solely on the fact of their competence. If there is a band capable of finding the median between classical and metal, Septicflesh have the best chance.
I don’t think Codex Omega finds that median, and to tell the truth, I don’t think any metal band ever will, for reasons that the album unwittingly makes clear: the electric guitar was never meant to be a team player. It’s an instrument that demands attention and will get it at the expense of every subtler instrument you put in its way or try to drape over it. When I hear it in the context of a symphonic arrangement, try as I might, I cannot help but think of the Trans-Siberian Orchestra cover of “Carol of the Bells” with Kirk Hammett in all its heavy-handed, cringe-inducing misguidedness. You cannot force the sounds of a metal band and the sounds of an orchestra to cooperate without having one overwhelm the other, or worse, without compromising both for the sake of a neutered mess. As with Fleshgod Apocalypse, the other decent band in the style, the tension frequently breaks, generating these incredibly weird juxtapositions of swelling strings over runaway blastbeats, death growls over tuba, or nasally vocal harmonization over tremolo riffs, sometimes all in the same song.
I will give Septicflesh credit for managing to create, and even sustain, a particular atmosphere of unpredictability over the course of Codex Omega, in spite of all the tonal friction; and I will also give them credit for a production job that, while overdone, maintains a clear distinction between all the instruments in play. This is the best-produced album of the now three Septicflesh records I’ve listened to, also blasting any Fleshgod Apocalypse record I can think of out of the water. But I cannot ignore how every fleeting moment of symphonic grandeur is sabotaged by the mere presence of a distorted guitar, no matter how well-played; and please don’t get me started on how ridiculous that choir sounds over a thundering staccato riff at the end of “The Gospels of Fear.” The reverse is also true: as great as Septicflesh can be when they indulge their death metal side, as in the first minute of “Trinity,” the orchestral arrangements invariably wreck the mood.
“Martyr of Truth” does nothing but exacerbate the problems with this style of metal. An eleven-and-a-half minute behemoth of a song devoted to their orchestral side, it’s a piece of unadulterated bombast that obliterates whatever subtlety manifested on previous songs, where Septicflesh work to balance the metal and the classical instrumentation. It has many segments and utilizes many instruments; it even mimics a patient build-up by inserting a lot of rests in the first three minutes, but the song simply lurches from climax to climax thereafter, drawing emotional beats in primary colors: bursts of trombone, deep bass rolls, clarinet stabs. It’s a classical song written like a metal song, but the excitement and verve gets hopelessly lost in translation. It’s followed by the equally pompous “Dark Testament,” concluding the album on a note of exhausted excess...unless you’ve got the deluxe version, in which case you’ve subjected yourself to another five minutes of this nonsense with an orchestral redux of “Portrait of a Headless Man” from earlier. By tacking three long, metal-free songs to the end of Codex Omega, Septicflesh seem to contradict what I thought was the point of their music, tacitly admitting by the placement of these tracks that the genres they have ambitiously tried to fuse for ten albums (!) are not meant to be mixed, and work better (though perhaps not that much better) apart.
I am not an authority on classical music, and I don’t listen to it with any sort of regularity, but it seems to me that a band like Septicflesh should, by now, transcend comparisons to gimmicky Trans-Siberian Orchestra singles. The introduction to this review was facetious--there are much more deep-seated problems than odious fan culture with the notion of blending classical music and death metal. Neither can be played straight the way Septicflesh try time and again to do, and it requires so much compromise and inorganic writing to make the two halves meet that the end result defeats the purpose of trying at all. It seems to me that the appeal of metal is in its competitiveness, in the way every instrument wars with the other, vying for supremacy; and that the appeal of classical music is in the opposite virtue of harmony, of cooperation and teamwork. These are incompatible ethics; and if the above is an oversimplification of a far more complex idea, then I assure you that Codex Omega is, too.