The Porcelain Throne: Rotting Christ (Century Media Era)
At the end of Part One, we left off at Non Serviam, a jewel in the crown of these Greek black metal kings. Now, we’re on to the oft-changing middle years on one of extreme metal’s major labels, Century Media.
After a disappointing experience with Osmose and Unisound, RC began shopping their wares to new labels who would give them the exposure and international distribution they wanted. RC put together a three-track demo, Promo 1995, which featured songs that will eventually make their way onto the next full-length. The production is extremely rough with sub-primetime performance, including some timing issues. But the quality of songcraft can be heard through the noise and would eventually land them a deal in the extreme metal big leagues with Century Media.
The Century Media years were very good. The increased production budget and quality yielded strong results, allowing RC to express a fuller sound while still providing sufficient room for each instrument to be heard. Bookend albums on the six-record deal, Triarchy of the Lost Lovers and Sanctus Diavolos, are some of the best music RC made. A Dead Poem, Khronos, and Genesis are no slouches either, with each exploring a different tone. Lone weakness, Sleep of the Angels, finds RC repeating the softened sound from A Dead Poem but with diminishing returns.
So with that, let’s get into the details.
Triarchy of the Lost Lovers (1996)
Being welcomed onto the big stage also had another challenge: RC had a massive task in following up their best record to date. How did they do that? By making it again! Although some believe this is RC’s first goth metal record, I don’t share the sentiment. The mood of Triarchy is noticeably more melancholic and there are more slower-paced tracks, but the style of Non Serviam is largely unchanged. This is a second helping of trad-based black metal riffage punctuated with beautifully evocative leads.
The slower nature of the album was contrary to the biggest then-trend in black metal, which was in the midst of a speed war. Satyricon, Marduk, and Dark Funeral had all released searingly intense classics. Norwegian gods Immortal were playing so fast they were frequently accused of speeding up their albums. Then there’s Triarchy, casually sauntering in at a casual pace with a tray overflowing with delicious melodic canapés.
And why should anyone be in a hurry? A blazing attack just isn’t important to the atmosphere RC creates. Like Non Serviam before it, the secret sauce in Triarchy isn’t in the aggression; it’s in the soul. From opener “King of a Stellar War”, a staple in RC live shows, to closing track “The First Field of the Battle”, RC translates a variety of emotions through its journey while Sakis works the frets. The apex of said work finds itself on “Snowing Still”, a stirring lament of a mother weeping over her dead child and told from the perspective of a brother haunted by his memory of the scene. The mournful accompanying melody and solo overflow with sorrow in harmony with the narrative. It gives me goosebumps every time. Don’t miss it.
Triarchy also finds RC exploring a groovier side of black metal in sister tracks, “One with the Forest” and “Diastric Alchemy”. This isn’t the type of thrashy grooviness you’d expect from bands typically found in the groove metal genre. It’s a slower tempo swagger sure to get the mopiest goth boys and girls doing that disaffected, lethargic sway thing. RC will get even groovier in the next few albums as gothiness increases to dangerous levels.
From a personnel perspective, Necromantia’s George “Magus Wampyr Daoloth” Zaharopoulos is no longer with the band and Sakis takes over keyboard duty. This is also the last album with founding member and lyricist, Jim Mutilator, who left the band for a normal life running a record shop. Moreover, this is the first record with Themis on a real drum kit (that’s good!) but the cymbals could use more life (that’s bad!). The snare is good and sharp, though, (that’s good!) but the kick drum is reminiscent of punching a side of beef (that’s bad!). Other than the drums, the production is a step up from Non Serviam, delivering a cleaner sound with sharper distinction between instruments. Even with the improvements, it’s still a sparse production and we’ll have to wait until the following album, A Dead Poem, before it fills out.
A Dead Poem (1997)
While the Norwegian scene was battling to be the first band to riff fast enough to tear space-time, there was a countervailing gothic trend among some of the more established metal bands, especially those on Century Media. Labelmates Moonspell and Sentenced were all turning, or had turned, in that direction. The big Peaceville bands had jumped in head first. It was a goth world and we were just living in it. So break out your eyeliner and black pants adorned with useless metal accessories because RC joined the goth madness.
If there is any argument about whether Triarchy is goth, there’s none here. Before pressing play, the shift is immediately apparent from the logo and album art. The classic RC ragged logo is replaced with Ye Olde English script and the album art is prime goth fodder: a monochromatic picture of a statue. And just look at that band photo in the header. Look at it! Skin tight shirts and one has mesh sleeves for fuck’s sake. They’ve got all the goth trappings. So what about the music?
It’s good! Well, it’s good depending on your expectations. A Dead Poem is a major break from RC’s early sound. The guitar tone is crunchier with more power chords, the keyboard is more prominent, the production is fuller, and the song structures and arrangements are more complex, albeit employing a traditional verse-bridge-chorus format. Where Non Serviam and Triarchy relied on creating emotion through lead work separated from chugging portions, the emotion here comes from a fully developed understanding of varying volume, speed, and intensity to build tension towards a climax. The lead and rhythm portions are well-integrated and develop together within each song. It’s a large jump in RC’s musical maturity.
The downside, if you see it as such, is that it’s a softer, “mainstream” album that isn’t really black metal anymore (they started getting billed as “dark metal” around this time). Even though RC was never particularly aggressive compared to their contemporaries, A Dead Poem jettisons almost all aggression they had. There’s nary a blast beat to be found. Instead, RC blends a contemplative, atmospheric mood with some uptempo, groove-centered riffs.
Although A Dead Poem‘s softer approach may cause a few folks to run away screaming, it’s a winning combination to me. Every song on the album is a carefully crafted success and some, like the opening trio of “Sorrowful Farewell”, “Among Two Storms” (feat. Fernando Ribeiro of Moonspell), and title track “A Dead Poem”, are great. While I wouldn’t rank A Dead Poem among the very best couple RC albums, it’s in the tier right below.
Before Sleep of the Angels released, RC tried to whet the public’s appetite with a short EP featuring “Der Perfekte Traum”, throwaway “Moonlight”, and several live tracks. Now, “Der Perfekte Traum” is a fun song. Sakis is doing his best Rammstein impression with a goofy vocal-fry goth voice sung all in German. Who wouldn’t love that? The “Moonlight” track, though, idk idk idk. A Dead Poem‘s approachable mainstream sound was justifiable because RC wrote a bunch of good fucking songs. But when that same sound is used in tracks that aren’t catchy or compelling, you get “Moonlight”.
If you were hoping Sleep of the Angels would be more “Der Perfekte Traum” and less “Moonlight”, you’d be disappointed. This is a record full of A Dead Poem B-sides with the addition of Sakis sprinkling in his goth voice here and there. It’s a soft, non-confrontational sound teetering perilously close a collection of “radio-friendly” tracks you might hear if a radio exec could approve a band named Rotting Christ for airplay.
Although the album as a whole is fairly forgettable, there are some solid songs. The aforementioned “Der Perfekte Traum” is a classic mainstay of live shows. “After Dark I Feel” captures the best of RC’s softer side with a catchy groove and a chorus that will get stuck in your head for days. Title track “Sleep of the Angels” breaks out the wah pedal for a nice swirling effect underlying a lackadaisical groove. “Delusions” is also a good enough track that RC borrowed the opening riff for “Art of Sin” on the next album, Khronos.
Overall, Sleep of the Angels is RC’s second weakest album (hello, Rituals) and best enjoyed with individual tracks on a playlist. On to greener pastures.
For the second time in the Century Media era, RC revamps their sound by returning to their black metal roots while still evolving forward. And thank God because Sleep of the Angels 2 would have been…unwelcome.
The overhaul begins with injecting industrial sensibilities into the album with driving semi-automatic rhythms, percussive, chunky, palm-muted staccato riffs, and occasional mechanized clean leads. The industrial elements don’t permeate every aspect of the album nor are they as experimental as, say, Dødheimsgard‘s 666 International, which released the previous year. You won’t hear deep bass, distorted vocals, or other heavy electronic staples of pure industrial. The flavors are more subtle and found mainly in rhythms and guitar techniques. Opener “Thou Art Blind”, “You Are I”, and “Fateless” are some of the best examples of the industrial side of the record. “My Sacred Path” also brings a fresh take to the industrial side by blending a hammering four-on-the-floor beat with the same swirling wah effects found on “Sleep of the Angels”. It’s a pretty neat combination and a more effective use of the wah than on the previous record.
Other than the industrial features, RC also tweaks the guitar tone, which shifts from a heavier, crunchier sound to a more traditional second-wave tone falling somewhere between Darkthrone and Satyricon. They use this tone to greatest effect in one of RC’s most traditional sounding black metal songs in album closer “Glory of Sadness”. It’s a gorgeously moody proto-atmoblack track with cold, forlorn tremolos, soaring solos, and tension-release dynamics.
Interestingly, Khronos is the only RC record without brother Themis’ involvement. The album features only Sakis, journeyman keyboardist George Tolias, and Norwegian session drummer Jan Halvorsen (who also played session drums on Old Man’s Child around the same time, another Century Media band who also recording at Abyss Studios). I couldn’t find any sources explaining Themis’ absence. So, Sakis, if you’re reading, hit me up. DMs are always open.
The ragged original logo returns! After re-imagining their sound on the last album, Genesis builds and improves on the ideas presented in Khronos while bringing an element that has been missing since Non Serviam: energy. There is a palpable and driving urgency to Genesis that had laid dormant during the morose early years on Century Media. It feels alive.
One of the main forces behind the vitality behind the record is Sakis’ experimentation on the frets. He utilizes a combination of quick hammer-ons/pull-offs with natural harmonics and start-stop rhythms to create an even more industrialized sound than found on Khronos. The most fascinating example of this combination is on “Call of the Aethyrs”, which is almost computerized in its machinations and features harmonic beeps that sound like being on a spaceship in an old sci-fi movie. Opener “Daemons” plays a variation on the theme with layered melodies over the top of keyboard-generated, dissonant choral wailing to produce the darkest track on the album.
Genesis also introduces a new trope to their repertoire through ritual invocation songs, a style that will continue to the present day. Essentially, the RC ritual invocation centers on repetitive chanting for a chorus, usually in Latin, beseeching evil and whatnot while tension builds through the supporting music behind it. These songs don’t entirely rely on chanting-tension because, let’s be honest, that would be insanely boring. RC changes up the approach enough with tempo shifts, multiple chord progressions and solos to keep it engaging. Check out “In Domine Sathana” to get a feel for the style.
Now that the main changes are out of the way, let’s get to the strengths and weaknesses because Genesis has a high ceiling and a low floor. The second half of the album is incredibly good starting at the aforementioned “The Call of the Aethrys” and ending with the choral-infused beauty of “Under the Name of Legion”. In between, you’ll find “Dying”, a crushingly passionate meditation on mortality, longing, and impermanence. It builds on a base rhythmic chug concept by layering evolving melodies, increasingly intense drumming, keyboards, and vocals, and a massively soulful solo on the crescendo. Along with “Snowing Still”, “Dying” is a mandatory hit-you-in-the-feels song for anyone out there feeling their world crumbling beneath them.
So how about those lows? Well…RC thought it might be a good idea to start off a few tracks with spoken word portions, usually with a spooky vocal effect to level up the gothiness. It was, in fact, not a good idea. Spoken word is always a dicey proposition but when there are anguished-teen lines like “Beyond inconceivable agony, to the dark tunnel of pain”, just leave it on the cutting room floor. Then there’s “Release Me”, the only song in the RC catalog that I skip every time. From the opening keys that sound like a pre-recorded Casio melody to the the haltingly metered chorus, it’s a disaster from the start. It’s only saving grace is being the second shortest song on the album, clocking in at 3:51.
But even with the missteps, Genesis is a very good album demonstrating growth and evolution. While not an essential album in the RC discography, it set the stage well for the coming onslaught of top RC material.
Sanctus Diavolos (2004)
With Sanctus Diavolos, the final album on Century Media, RC enters a period of four consecutive very high quality albums, peaking at Theogonia and plateauing through Κατά τον δαίμονα εαυτού before entering a decline phase with the two most recent albums.
Sanctus Diavolos is the culmination of RC’s Century Media experience, intermingling the complimentary essences of goth and industrial into the darkest record of RC’s career. From the industrial side, RC carries a heavier shipment of pounding rhythms, samples, knob-twiddling electronics, keyboards, and even some deep bass drops. They pair this with a thick coating of gothy live choir work (the same choir used by Septic Flesh with arrangements by Chris Antoniou of said band), baritone cleans, a few syncopated rhythms, and meloblack-ish tremolos scattered about. The result is an apocalyptic ordeal that explodes with sinister ill intent.
The ferocity begins with a fiery Non Serviam Opening™ on “Visions of a Blind Order”, which discards the usual introductory chord progression to get straight to business. From there, it’s good tracks as far as the eye can see and each with a distinct personality. The Sanctus Diavolos platter has an assortment of tasty tunes from which to select. You’ve got the black hole of industrial darkness in “Tyrranical”, crunchy melodicism of “Athanati Este”, the calm creepy atmospheres of “Sanctimonious”, and the ritual invocation closer “Sanctus Diavolos” (which also includes some rolling wah pedal work set to return on later albums). Hell, they even threw in a rollicking thrash attack in “Serve in Heaven” because why the fuck not.
There isn’t much to nitpick here. It bangs from start to finish and is one of the top records RC made. Unfortunately, Sanctus Diavolos gets overlooked because it precedes Theogonia, which we’ll get to next time. But you, dear reader, don’t need to make that mistake. Throw on this exquisite slab of darkness until we return with the final segment in this Porcelain Throne series, the Season of Mist years.
Band photo via.