Fleshgod Apocalypse ‘Labyrinth’ Review

Technical death metal has always been a noted bastard of both the twisted, maniacal ugliness of traditional death metal techniques, and the pompous deliberation of classical disciplines. Very few bands fully realize the true neoclassical dream within the confines of death metal’s genre brackets. Necrophagist and Obscura certainly reinvigorated the metal community’s love for heavy doses of classical elements. However, in recent years, one name has resounded throughout as going above and beyond the traditional levels of classical input; Fleshgod Apocalypse’s daring blend of a churning death metal freight train and a sweeping orchestral score has captured the metal community’s attention.

While the blend of orchestra and metal is nothing new, Fleshgod surprised the world by unleashing Agony in 2011, pertaining some of the fastest, most ridiculous technical feats yet to be slapped over an orchestra. Labyrinth follows where the stellar Agony left off.

The band’s second record containing a full orchestral score, Labyrinth immediately appears to be of much wider scale than its predecessor. Where Agony had speed, Labyrinth has breadth. The songs feel as though they peak and trough far more dynamically than previous Fleshgod writing has showcased. Yes, the songs are still mind-bogglingly fast, but here the speed feels far more balanced. The writing itself is far less repetitive within individual song structures. We are no longer repeatedly greeted with the same verse/chorus layout that Agony fell prey too.

Labyrinth also includes a new member to Fleshgod’s line-up. Soprano singer Veronica Bordacchini, whom previously lent her vocal talents to a notable performance on Agony, rejoins the band in a much larger capacity this time around. She has apparently become a full member of the band, completing the line-up for their current tour cycle. Her input is extremely refreshing. Agony received a lot of flak for the heavy inclusion of bassist Paolo Rossi’s high-range clean singing. While I was personally fond of his input, this studio effort sees his clean vocals take a back seat to Veronica’s. The change is a surprisingly welcome one.

But what have Fleshgod learned from Agony? Well, the immediately noticeable change is the production value. While Agony was far from poor production, excelling far above many of its peers, it did feel a little cacophonous and confusing at times. Here, we are treated to balance. Balance and focus. The guitars are extremely clear, lacking the irritating muddiness captured on previous Fleshgod studio outings. The orchestra feels wider than ever, taking full advantage of the dynamic range to allow for far more intricate interplay between instruments. It feels far less like a death metal act competing with an orchestra, but rather a death metal act conducting one.

The guitar tone surprisingly in places harbours a resounding djenty twang, allowing the low end of the mix to remain clear and unobstructed by the tail end of open notes. This, coupled with the expert drum production and orchestral mixing, creates Fleshgod’s best sound to date. The drum production in particular is worthy of note. The balance between bass pedals and snare is impeccable.

Yes, the record sounds great, but how do the band live up to the huge silhouettes left behind by their last record? Confusingly, quite similarly. It’s hard for any band to live up to any previous benchmark they may have set themselves. Agony is quite a mountain to climb for the band. First and foremost, drumming virtuoso Francesco Paoli returns to his throne with a brand new attitude to playing: go faster. While one might expect the ridiculousness of his input to be slightly monotonous, the flow of the album expertly complements his frenetic blasting.

Guitar-wise, this album has changed direction from typical Fleshgod directions, and I feel it is one of the album’s few flaws. While the riffs are the strongest they have ever been, capturing the perfect blend of the band’s more traditionally tech death début, Oracles, and the streamlined speed of Agony, the band seems to have abandoned the art of shred. While before, Fleshgod solos were generally a technical affair, this time around they are far more simplified. The sweep picking and alternate picking runs of yesteryear are pushed aside in favour of brilliantly phrased but disappointingly slow leads. True, they are masterfully written and expertly performed. However, they seem to lack the velocity of the rest of the record. It almost feels as though, while with the record of the tracking they took the time to push the boundaries, the leads did not receive the same attention, and I personally believe this is one of the few factors marring the album. Lead guitarist Cristiano Trionfera, while previously provided some of the highlights of Agony, now takes a slight breather, it seems.

But, aside from my own complaints, the album exceeds its predecessors on all accounts. Indeed, the album’s penultimate offering, Under Black Sails, is something to be marvelled. It is an utterly breathtaking seven and a half minute list of reasons why Fleshgod should be drafted in to compose Hollywood film scores. While Labyrinth certainly won’t capture quite as many new fans as Agony did, it most definitely will satisfy everyone who’s already here. A thoroughly epic journey indeed.  – Henry