The Porcelain Throne: Rotting Christ (The Early Days)

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Rotting Christ (“RC”) is a legendary band, one who is largely responsible for putting Greece on the map of black metal significance.  While many bands play Greek black metal and some even did it a bit before them, RC is the unquestionable king of them all. Their longevity, consistently excellent quality, and ever-evolving style comfortably place them as the most influential Greek metal band of all time.

RC is also very prolific in both recording and performing. Not like Vardan or Striborg prolific, but prolific by the standards of musicians with any sense of quality control. Over the course of their 32 years, they’ve released four demos, six splits, four EPs, three live albums, thirteen full-lengths, and numerous compilations and boxed sets. They’ve toured all over the world, playing over 1,500 shows. Not without incident, mind you. With a name like Rotting Christ, they have encountered some community resistance from time to time, including cancelled showsdeath threats, Dave Mustaine refusing to play with them, being detained in Georgia (the country) as Satanic terrorists, and the funniest of them all, a Republican US presidential candidate calling them an anti-Catholic “homosexual musical group” wrapped up with fellow purveyors of evil Madonna and Sinead O’Connor.

Despite the controversy and terrorism, RC lived on. And on and on and on. During that long history, bassists, rhythm guitarists, keyboardists, backing vocals, and even bagpipe players have come and gone. But the core of RC has always been the Tolis brothers, Sakis and Themis, with Themis on drums and Sakis handling literally everything else. He writes the songs, the lyrics (post-Triarchy), mixes, masters, and plays every instrument that hasn’t been assigned to a session musician or (always temporary) bandmate. Though “hardest working person in music” has a lot of competition, Sakis is one of many with a viable claim to the throne.

And Sakis is really what sets RC apart from the endless ocean of black metal acts. Unlike his contemporaries in the lightless North, Sakis never tried to be the fastest, iciest, evilest, bleakest, corpse-painted demonic spirit to ever call hell a home. Nor did he vie for the crown of most technically accomplished with highflying feats of fast fingering. Instead, he focused on writing compelling, well-structured songs filled with something almost no other black metal band had or has: soul. This motherfucker writes melodies with such beauty and phrasing it makes the guitar weep. For a teenage kid in the mid-90’s discovering black metal and having no innate ability to process emotion, that meant and still means everything to me.

Before I start (and if you haven’t figured this out already), I am an unabashed fanboy. There are only two people in the music world I want to meet: Fenriz and Sakis. I love all of these albums equally like they’re my children.  As a father, I recognize that my children have flaws and sometimes I may be disappointed in choices they make. So even if I say some negative things or want them to just move out of the goddamn house, get a job, find a stable relationship- anything!- it comes from a place of love. My sweet, sweet RC, I will always be there for you.

Because RC’s discography is so vast (we’re doing EVERYTHING with a new original song on it) and no one wants to read 5,000+ words in one post, this project is divided into three parts. Part One, this post, goes into the development of RC’s sound from their first demos to one of their crowning glories, Non Serviam. Part Two addresses their work on Century Media Records, consisting of a goth period transitioning into more experimental industrial sounds. Part Three will cover the current era on Season of Mist, from one of the best records of all time in Theogonia to the (*ahem*) not as good last couple records. So without further ado, I present to you Part One of the wonder of the Earth that is the RC discography.

 

Leprosy of Death Demo (1988)

Decline’s Return (1989)

Split with Sound Pollution (1989)

Satanas Tedeum Demo (1989)

Split with Monumentum (1991)

RC began in 1987 or 1988 after the Tolis brothers and Dimitris “Jim Mutilator” Patsouris changed the name of their former band, Black Church. Like most early black metal bands, their origins were not in black metal. The Tolis brothers came of age in the midst of a thriving punk scene in Athens, Greece. Without much experience or any training, they decided to form a band. But to begin, they needed an instrument so, naturally, the Tolis brothers stole money from their mom to buy a guitar and blamed the theft on their dad. This didn’t go over well between the parents. No matter, as Sakis said, “They had some fights about this, but I had my guitar.”

Although Sakis had a guitar, Themis didn’t have drums. To make do, they practiced in their rooms with Themis banging on pillows and, when they recorded, used the studio’s electronic set and a drum machine. They didn’t have a drum kit for another five or six years and didn’t record with one until 1996.

Eventually, they were able to save up enough money to record. But like most bands of limited means and limited experience, early results were not great. Their first two demos, Leprosy of Death and Decline’s Return, are rehearsal recordings of what seems to be some kind of grindcore. It’s difficult to say because the recording more or less sounds like a garbage disposal interpreted by a harsh noise project. Grindcore continued through their next release, a 1989 split with Sound of Pollution entitled “The Other Side of Life,” but this time with semi-audible production. The most noteworthy aspect of this split is that Jim Multilator and Sound Pollution’s Spiros Papanastassatos would later form Varathron.

After the grindcore tapes, the story of RC truly begins with Satanas Tedeum, RC’s first dip into black metal. Like most first-wave black metal bands, RC channels Bathory, Venom, Celtic Frost, and Morbid but at a mid- to slow-pace mixed with some doom passages. Tracks like “Feast of the Grand Whore” and “The Nereid of Esgalduin” introduce haunting, keyboard-generated choir elements that will become more prominent as the band progresses. Some of the more furious portions of the demo have a dark and murky feel that almost sounds like a precursor to the bestial black metal/war metal of Blasphemy’s classic Fallen Angel of Doom, which would be released the following year.

The split with Monumentum features one track, a re-recorded version of “Feast of a Grand Whore” with more prominent keyboard work and thinner production that feels like listening through a door.  The demo version is a lot better.

 

Passage to Arcturo EP (1991)

The building blocks for RC’s distinctive style continue with some development here, but the influences from Celtic Frost’s To Mega Therion and Morbid are still strong. Like Celtic Frost, the pace is slower and with more death metal and thrash concepts (sometimes sounding like early Metallica more than anything). It’s a far more primitive expression of RC, including some time miscues and straightforward, workmanlike riffing that lacks the expressive phrasing Sakis would develop. Yet, if you squint really hard, you can see the budding RC flowers in tracks like “The Mystical Meeting” and “Inside the Eye of Algond,” which flash some melodic touches from the lead. Overall, Passage to Arcturo is a somewhat backward, dark first-wave black metal EP that RC starts improving upon the following year.

 

Ade’s Winds Demo (1992)

Ade’s Winds is a two-song promo RC sent out to some bigger labels to try to get a contract. Passage to Arcturo was self-financed and distributed on Decapitated Records, later known as Unisound. At that time, Unisound/Decapitated was a fledgling record label and one of the only, if not the only, label focusing on black metal from Greece and Italy. With new small labels comes no funding and limited exposure, RC wanted a little more, and they found it. Both Osmose and Deathlike Silence, Euronymous’ label, wanted them. They eventually decided on Osmose for their initial release. Apparently, Euronymous wanted to release a RC/Burzum split sometime in the future, but he and Varg had a bit of a falling out and he died.

The demo features the first RC tracks that will fully realize its early style: trad-based rhythm guitar playing simple staccato, palm-mutes combined with melodic, clean leads, keyboard overlays, mid-paced beats, and Sakis’ unique vocals (falling somewhere between dry-throated growls and gravelly screams). Both songs, “Fgementh, Thy Gift” and “The Fourth Knight of Revelation (1 & 2),” will carry over onto RC’s first full-length, Thy Mighty Contract.  Thankfully, they were re-recorded.  There’s a lot of clipping here from a massively overdriven bass.

 

Thy Mighty Contract (1993)

1993 was a huge year for the emergence of Greece as a hub of second-wave black metal. RC’s compatriots Varathron released His Majesty at the Swamp, Necromantia released Crossing the Fiery Path, and Thou Art Lord released the Diabolou Archaes Legeiones and a split with Ancient Rites. But most important of all, and the record with the biggest impact, was RC’s Thy Mighty Contract.

This was the first and only album on Osmose. RC recorded it in Storm Studios in Athens, which was too small for a real drum kit, so they ended up using electronic pads in conjunction with recorded samples. It makes for a unique sound that is not quite live drums but also not the programmed disaster some other second-wave bands were putting out at the time (see e.g. Burzum s/t).

Since almost no one heard Ade’s Winds outside of potential record companies, Thy Mighty Contract was the first time the metal public heard RC’s signature style, and what would later be known as Greek, or Hellenic, black metal. Although plenty dark in tone, the bright melodic leads offer a counterpoint and give the sound a warmth not found anywhere else at the time.

Thy Mighty Contract offers two different expressions of RC from the very beginning. The opening track, “The Sign of Evil Existence,” is the more aggressive side. It begins with eerie keyboarding giving way to palm-muted power chords syncopated with a blast beat and accented with melodic flourishes at the end of each chord progression. Necromantia’s George Zaharopoulos (or “Magus Wampyr Daoloth” if we’re doing fake names) provides the driest rasp vocals I’ve ever heard on the track as well as backing vocals on some others.

Second track, “Transform All Suffering into Plagues,” introduces my favorite expression of RC. Sakis’ leads dominate the open and close, delivering soulful melodies highlighted with vibrato pinch harmonics, bends, or slides and augmented with ethereal keys, with darker, heavier chords filling the middle portions. Another album standout is “Exiled Archangels,” which shows a blend of the straight-forward aggression of the opener with the more heavily melodic tendencies that make RC so special.

While Thy Mighty Contract was an impressive full-length debut, it pales in comparison to…

 

Non Serviam (1994)

Some albums in life that are so personally significant that you not only know every song and note but you know where you first heard it and where and when you bought it.  Non Serviam is one of those for me.  I love every second of it.

After Thy Mighty Contract, RC and Osmose parted ways on acrimonious terms. The bad blood lasted for years, with Osmose threatening to never re-release any of RC’s material Osmose owned. RC moved to Unisound, which, unfortunately, did not improve record label relations. Like with Osmose, this was another bad fit and RC was unsatisfied with their experience. Other than rumors, the details behind the dissatisfaction are a mystery as Sakis has been tight-lipped about the breakup. Regardless of reasons, this would be the only full-length album on Unisound.

But what a record it is. Non Serviam takes the fundamental style of Thy Mighty Contract and ratchets up the musicianship and song writing. Sakis’ lead work from this album and follow-up, Triarchy of Lost Lovers, is at its highest concentration of soul. From the solo work on “The Fifth Illusion” to the mournful start of “Wolfera the Chacal” and “Morality of a Dark Age” to a muted melody delivered from deep space in “Saturn Unlock Avey’s Son,” the leads deliver powerfully evocative passages that elevate every track beyond the standard second-wave fair of the time.

The beginning of Non Serviam’s “Fifth Illusion” is particularly noteworthy because it will become an established trope opening on three other albums and several other songs. The basic elements of the Non Serviam Opening™ are usually a short single motif chord progression followed by a furious explosion of blast beats, staccato riffing, haunting keyboards, and a growled/rasped battle cry. Keep an eye out.

If there is anything negative to say about this record (and there isn’t so stfu), it would be that the sound is a bit antiquated, both from a production and songwriting perspective. Since the loudness wars, there haven’t been many modern records mixed and mastered with this much sonic space to spare. The overall sound simultaneously allows you to hear every instrument clearly but also feels too thin. Additionally, in between Sakis’ stellar leadwork, the basic palm-muted chugs can become tiresome to some, even though those people are wrong. RC would remedy both of these issues after the next album.

That’s it for Part One of the Rotting Christ Experience. Stay tuned for two more installments of more information than you ever wanted.

Band photo via.

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