For over 30 years, Rotting Christ have been the purveyors of Hellenic black metal. The Greek legends are among a collection of bands who built a unique sound that reflects a proud nation amongst the Aegean and Ionian seas. Three decades is a long time as a functional band—let alone one so prolific. With roots planted in raw black metal and grind, to hear something so melodic and grandiose as their 13th full-length album, The Heretics, shows adaptation. It exhibits growth and maturity without sacrificing their original vision.
Sakis Tolis, one of Rotting Christ's founding members, was a teenager when demos like Leprosy of Death and Decline's Return came out. Now, he's approaching 50 and a family man. There's a lot he has to do these days and the emotions that influenced the early work isn't as prevalent now. "It’s very difficult to compose when you are grown up," Tolis states. "I don’t have that anger anymore. I’m 47, I have a lot of things to do like pay bills and do paperwork and that bullshit. I spend time with my kids. This keeps you away from composition. I am an artist and I want to be an artist, but I have many other things to do as well.”
It's getting late in the evening in Athens and Tolis spent much of the day working and completing other interviews, yet he sounds gracious for the chance to talk about The Heretics and his music over the years. "Making this music—I don’t have a lot of money, but I feel very rich. When I play on the other side of the planet, all over the world, I see smiles in the crowd when I play. That alone makes me rich,” he says with a peaceful and almost reflective tone.
Tolis has enjoyed a significant amount of underground success at the helm of Rotting Christ. Though with a moniker like this, it's easy to see how the band can draw ire from people not invested in metal. Tolis recalls a recent incident in Russia, “When we played in Russia last year, in Moscow, and we got to play after we negotiate with promoters to not play as Rotting Christ. They threatened to end the show if they saw something that was offensive to their religion."
These instances have sporadically happened over the years, but have never fully derailed the band. In fact, they only make Rotting Christ stronger and more vocal in their approach as champions of free speech and democracy—the right to have such an evocative namesake. "We are here to fight for freedom of speech," Sakis proclaims. "Maybe we don’t follow the same paths or believe the same things, but we must respect other people’s ideas and faults. This is the model for us. Rotting Christ will always be on the front lines fighting for freedom of speech.”
He ponders on the notion a little longer, stopping the train of thought to say, "You know? We’re not extreme anymore. I think we say what we have to say in a very polite way now. We can have a conversation and expand our ideas. This is a democracy—democracy was born in Greece, in Athens where I live, so I have to fight for this idea.”
Rotting Christ is certainly not extreme in how they convey their message anymore. However, they are still very much extreme when it comes to songwriting. On The Heretics, Tolis calls on, not just his words, but the words of heretics that have come before him. Lucky full-length #13—objectively, some of their best work in over a decade—draws inspiration from a number of great and notorious philosophers and writers like Nietzsche, Shakespeare, Voltaire, and Poe. The album opens on a tone-setting quote from Fyodor Dostoyevsky that says, “Since man cannot live without miracles, he will provide himself with the miracles of his own making. He will believe in any kind of deity even though he may otherwise be a heretic, an atheist, and a rebel.”
“The path I chose all those years ago is quite heretical. It’s against the flow," Tolis admits. "It’s something I think we have in common with the people quoted on this album. They were always categorized as heretics. Now they sound like prophets. I think more or less we follow the same path—I’m not talking about just me either, but people who like extreme metal. We have something in common with those people.”
This is a sentiment spread throughout The Heretics, it permeates Rotting Christ's trademarked Hellenic style. It's a style built on traditional metal riffs and Greek folk. Lately, thanks to Tolis and other members of the community, it stretches into touches of melodic, symphonic, and gothic metal. On The Heretics, in particular, melodic riffs and galloping drum patterns carry this message of religious freedom and individual thought.
Individual verses on the record, whether they be the featured quotes or Tolis lyrics, pierce through the arrangements. They burst with cerebral and well-thought rebuttals to insular ideologies like Greek Orthodoxy or extreme denominations of Christianity and Islam. One such track entitled "I Believe" is an homage to New Age Greek author, Nikolas Kazantzakis, who Tolis shares a lot of parallels with. Kazantzakis traveled throughout Europe and saw various cultures and religions and began to challenge and question the ideology of the Greek Orthodox Church after what he observed. Tolis and Rotting Christ have done the same through their world tours.
“With [The Heretics], I wanted to add something to what all of these people said instead of extreme things like 'Fuck Christ.'” He simply states. As the years pass by, the canonical message and aura of Rotting Christ remains the same. Yet, it's a matured Tolis who realizes that as his world changes so does his musical output. The delivery has altered, but it's still Hellenic black metal. "With [The Heretics] and the early demos, you feel the same atmosphere. That is very important to me." Tolis remarks. It could not be truer.
The album builds and builds through strong and ornate arrangements. Album highlights like "Hallowed Be Thy Name," "Vetry Zlye," and "I Believe" are artfully concocted. The fist-pumping "Fire, God, and Fear" is sure to be a staple in live sets. They all culminate in the explosive finale, "The Raven." Tolis describes though Poe's masterwork doesn't necessarily fit the religious themes of the record, he was very much a heretic for his time. He also simply enjoys Poe's writing.
Ultimately, The Heretics stands as the best Rotting Christ album in over a decade. Sustained success like this comes from years of trial and error, diligent work, and dedication to the craft. Additionally, and maybe most importantly, the success comes from an understanding of the genre, what it yields, and how to harness it. Black metal for Rotting Christ has always been about freely spreading their message. It's never been about fame or finances. It's about the spirit of the music—singing about what you believe and echoing the experiences one has had. Sakis sums this up in a wondefully succinct way, "If you want to be rich and have money, play pop music. If you want to be rich in your soul, play black metal.”
The Heretics arrives on February 15 through Season of Mist.