Although the term ‘symphonic metal’ has become commonplace over the last few decades and (for those in the know) usually evokes bands such as Nightwish, the notion of ‘symphonic death metal’ seems almost oxymoronic.
With its typically uncompromising speed, guttural vocals and bludgeoning riffs, death metal and classical music may seem unlikely bedfellows. Yet, especially since 2008’s comeback album, Communion, Greece’s SepticFlesh have become one of the central purveyors of a sub-genre that carves a path between sweepingly grandiose orchestral music and ferocious, in-your-face riffage.
Modern Primitive, their first album with Nuclear Blast Records, sees the band largely stay on the path that they have created but incorporate a few subtle twists and turns.
With producer Jens Bogren once again at the helm, the orchestral sections that are composed by guitarist Christos Antoniou are central to proceedings on this record. In fact, as with its predecessor, Codex Omega, it could be argued that the most memorable melodies on this album are those created during the orchestral sections.
First single, Hierophant, is a case in point. The dramatic violin hooks that are at the forefront of a song depicting a mystical and ritualistic narrative bury themselves in the listener’s brain, almost replacing the guitar as the central means to compel the audience to raise their fists into the air.
Likewise on Coming Storm, which is arguably the album’s most captivating track, it is the urgent melodies of the orchestral string section that then mesh with gloriously gargantuan guitar hooks that provide a moment when the hairs on the back of the neck stand up.
This is not to say that the orchestra totally steals the show on this record. Uninitiated beware – this is still a thunderously heavy album that uses the grandeur of an orchestra to turn up the power.
Neuromancer possesses the most memorable guitar riff on the album. A stuttering, chugging monster of a riff, which is sure to be a hit with fans when performed live, is front and centre in this song.
In a similar way to album opener, The Collector, Neuromancer also makes use of instrumentation that is typically associated with Greek folk music, with a 12-string guitar and mandolin utilised to help convey a lavish soundscape in the build up to the song’s stirring climax.
For this writer, the record overall is their most consistent to date. Tracks like A Desert Throne, resonate more with each repeated listen; its terrifying warning of ecological destruction brought home beautifully with a barrage of Gojira-like machine gun riffing and lilting, almost arabesque orchestral melodies.
My only minor quibbles are that, aside from Neuromancer and Coming Storm, there are no truly memorable guitar riffs. I had hoped for something that may match the majesty of crowd favourite Anubis for its sheer ability to worm itself in the listener’s brain (a bit like Khan’s pets in Star Trek II).
Jens Bogren’s pristine production showcases the band’s grand narrative visions in a suitably evocative manner. In particular, his ability to tone down Kerim “Krim” Lechner’s aggressive blast beat drumming and Seth Siro Anton’s gruff, heavily accented vocals so that they do not overpower the mix makes this a more accessible offering than the likes of previous scorchers, The Great Mass and Titan.
Yet, at times, I did find myself wanting something that would smash me in the face in only the way that the first verse of The Vampire of Nazareth from The Great Mass can. In this regard, perhaps what is lost in places by the continued integration of symphonic and folk elements, is SepticFlesh’s ability to use their orchestral sound as a counterpoint to truly terrifying death metal.
It is a fine balance, indeed, and one that I am looking forward to seeing the band continue to navigate on future releases. For now, however, SepticFlesh have created a record that will thrill their fans and create new converts. Modern Primitive is a magnificent achievement from a band who should easily be as acclaimed as the likes of Behemoth and Gojira.
Modern Primitive is out now via Nuclear Blast Records. Purchase from Bandcamp.