For years now, I’ve been tagging Grecian extreme music legends Rotting Christ as a “sweaty, shirtless, stadium rock rendition of their former selves.” The humour behind the above-mentioned charge may be marginal at best. However, as facetious as it comes across, the statement does possess a kernel of truth.
It’s been over a decade since Rotting Christ shifted its focus away from the raw and bestial sounds of their early year demos and 1993's debut, Thy Mighty Contract. As long as the core of the band—brothers guitarist/vocalist Sakis and drummer Themis Tolis—has railed against, refuted, and rejected organized religion and explored spirituality, paganism, and independent thought, Rotting Christ has stood for a combination of nuanced luxury spun like a helix around black metal via goth rock, melodic death metal, martial anthems and (if you listen closely) smidges of crotch-hugging hair metal.
They've really taken that bull by those horns since 2007’s Theogonia. Of course, there are those who say they sold their souls to someone Euronymous would have been pissed about them selling their souls to as far back as 1994’s Non Serviam. Either way, the band's present incarnation is as a melodic tour-de-force, proficient in writing devastating earworms with gradated arrangements without a trace of insidiousness. Their sound is richly sumptuous, smoothly opulent and, most importantly, unmistakably Rotting Christ. The Heretics marks the band’s thirteenth full-length on which they continue down the path they’ve carved. There’s no resting on laurels here. Instead, it’s about exploring and expanding upon what has been built over the course of a lifetime (or at the very least, the last six or so albums).
There’s a spoken word line in the closing seconds of “Heaven and Hell and Fire” that spells out the album’s topical focus. When Sakis Tolis intones in a deep baritone “I do not believe in the creed professed by the church…my own mind is my own church,” he essentially sets the thematic tone. Rotting Christ has reacted to religion by historically placing a boot on its throat; that symbolic imprint digs a little deeper on The Heretics. Hailing from a country in which 98% of the population proudly and loudly identifies with an orthodox strain of Christianity, you can understand their adherence to a continuing battle with the church, even if to us as listeners, the topic seems like old hat after so many songs written and albums released.
But, if this is what is blowing winds into the inspirational sails of the Solis brothers (along with bassist Vangelis “Van Ace” Karzis and guitarist George Emmanuel), leading them to create daring charcoal-hued death-grind like “Dies Irae,” then horns up! If one result is the steeple-toppling “I Believe,” in which a disparate wickedness sounds like Gregorian chants and a Satanic sermon underpinned by hypnotic second wave black metal, then right on! If building a doctrine-repelling wall around their hearts and minds means more of the absolutely fist-pumping leads in “Fire God and Fear” and “Heaven and hell and Fire,” then I implore them to keep on keeping on! And if they want to bust out with courageous experiments like a track rooted in Russian musical elements topped with operatic backing vocals (“Vetry Zlye”) or set Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven” to a melodic black metal march, bring it on! Please note that the latter could have quickly turned out to be ridiculously terrible. The fact that it didn’t is a victory in and of itself.
Sure, a couple of the songs towards the record’s back end could have been made denser and employed more layers, but one man’s yearning for available space to be filled by expertly phrased, blackened Sunset Strip guitar solos is another man’s expression of gothic, anti-religious atmosphere. Plus, it’s not like these showings of restraint drag the album backward. To the contrary, The Heretics is a statement of forward motion; maybe not sweepingly so, but strong enough to get very excited about and maybe ignite a church or two in its honour.*
*Please note that Metal Injection does not condone the burning of churches in the name of black metal. It’s already been done.