Sound — 9
The momentously titled "King" is the fourth album by famous/infamous Italian death metal group Fleshgod Apocalypse. Since having exploded into the metal market with 2011's "Agony," Fleshgod immediately set themselves their own niche in the world, one that awakens every so years to obliterate your senses in all of the best ways possible.
Starting as a more straightforward (if undeniably extreme even by extreme metals usual range) brutal death metal group, their debut "Oracles" had this classically-derived musical edge to it that set it just a little bit apart from the contemporaries of the time. But when they released the "Mafia" EP in 2010, the shift into the classical arts became deeper and more violent. Including the now-mandatory 3-and-a-bit minute piano piece at the end of every release, "Mafia" introduced the tenor capabilities of bassist Paolo Rossi. The sudden inclusion completely changed the dynamic of the EP, making the band significantly more emotionally potent... Which is a weird sentence to use when talking about a death metal band, but whatever. This also lead to them including the player of said piano piece, Francesco Ferreni...
...And a year later, they released "Agony." Utilising the rich catalogue of influential classical composers ranging from Mozart, Wagner and Rachmaninoff (to name but a few), "Agony" is one of the most important examples in the (admittedly) rather broadly termed genre of symphonic death metal. The arrangement and blending of classical elements and extreme metal basically turned the album into its own opera.
"Labyrinth" was a bit more of a refinement on "Agony," having better production, better song-writing, slightly mellower direction and much more of a dynamic focus with it's second half. It did feel a little bit unfocused at times but still felt true to the established sound of "Agony."
"King" could perhaps be said to be the best combination of "Agony" and "Labyrinth," with the diversity of the latter and roiling intensity of the former. While there are more singularly slower tracks such as the monolithic "Healing Through War," "In Aeternum" and "The Fool" fully capture the grandeur and power that a name like Fleshgod Apocalypse properly conveys.
Now while it is true that since "Mafia" the technical aspect of the guitar/basswork has gradually been toned down somewhat, most likely in an effort to help instruments blend properly together. Not to say that playing these sorts of riffs at these tempos for these lengths of time isn't a bad feat, and if anything, baseline Fleshgod Apocalypse would still be demanding enough to fall into the technical death category. It's just a slight shame that the emphasised, technical guitar harmonies from "Mafia" and "Oracles" are absent.
But refocusing on the production and mix this time around, "King" is definitely the best album they've made in those regards. The guitar and bass are distinctly audible without getting lost in the mid range blur of the orchestral elements, the drums aren't the extremely overpowering threshing machines that they were on "Agony," the clean vocal elements are given their proper spacing and the balance between the numerous other instruments allows for each to breathe. This may not seem like much, but when a band writes this sort of material with this much ambition, getting the near-perfect mix is some sort of eureka moment that will have an impact on every other album attempting the same.
But as it stands, there's not so much that committed non-fans will be tempted by, save perhaps the gigantic vocal melodies and softer moments (such as "Paramour (Die Leidenschaft Bringt Leiden)") and maybe the dynamics of songs like "Cold as Perfection" and the darkly dissonant "Syphilis."
Lyrics — 8
Vocals have been an interesting part of Fleshgod's sound, with all members having contributed in some way or another each album. The main vocalist is Tommaso Ricardi, who's throaty gurgle has been the mainstay of Fleshgod since their debut. But here's the kicker, in that drummer Francesco Paoli is also an accomplished vocalist himself (he was the vocalist for BDM band Hour of Penance for a while) and so is lead guitarist Cristiano Trionfera.
Utilising all these harsh voices adds so much more depth and impact to the main vocal lines that Fleshgod manages to become distinctive entirely based on vocal patterns alone. Let's not forget Poalo Rossi's position either. As the emergent tenor on "Mafia," the wonder was if they were going to continue down that path at all on "Agony." Now that "King" is here and Paolo has matured in skill, the vocal lines are some of the best they've put to tape.
And finally, let's not forget the soprano sections of long time contributor Veronica Bordacchini, who is every bit the soaring valkyrie her vocal image projects.
Lyrically, "King" is based on a concept, one that took a considerable amount of time to adequately describe, so it's best explained by Tommaso himself:
"The King in this album represents the brave part of ourselves: the one we should cultivate to become strong and rise again from this Dark Age. He's the only positive figure of this story - a man who has integrity and love for the values and truth that we all should hope for ourselves. All the other characters in the court represent the fears that can lead us to make everything worse. They try to affect the King's decisions for their own advantage and hope for a loss of power, regardless of the suffering they're going to create for their own world and people. As we already said when we presented King to our fans, we should all hail the King who lives inside every one of us."
It's as gloriously fitting as it appears to be for this sort of sound, although perhaps the technique/projection of these themes from Tommaso is not an easy thing to digest or decipher at first.
Overall Impression — 8
It's interesting to see how different "Oracles" is to "King," both almost feel like different albums by different bands. The thing is, the progression is noteworthy for just how well it's been implemented and for how the classical, orchestral ideas have moved from different form to different form.
Overall, "King" is the bands most refined and mature release to date, still being as ridiculous as their original work but with a bombast that surpasses their previous 2 albums in ambition.
Songs to look out for: "In Aeternum," "The Fool," "Cold as Perfection," "And the Vulture Beholds," "Gravity," "A Million Deaths," "Syphilis," "King."