[6 February 2012]
Clandestine French black metallers Deathspell Omega are a rare breed; they have had their fair share of primitive black metal days just like most other black metal forces of the metal underworld had, and yet after only two albums of primitive black metal worship (2000’s Infernal Battles and 2002’s Inquisitors Of Satan), they were already at the frontlines of something new. They possess something so rare and different in the contemporary black metal scene that it has befuddled both their fellow musicians and fans as to whether they are secretly against Satan, or working for His glory, as usual.
This confusion is attributed to none other than the trilogy of albums recently completed by the surreptitious group, which basically deals with the relationship between Man, God, and Satan. At first look, though, it does really seem that the group could actually be peddling a new form of “unblack” metal, but given closer examination, the trilogy is really still black metal at heart—albeit a brainier brethren than most of the straightforward “Hail Satan”-ing records that spawn from the minds of ordinary black metal bands all around the world.
Let the dissection of the trilogy begin:
I: If You Seek His Monument, Look Around You
It wouldn’t be doing the band—or legion? We will probably never know—justice if I were to call the twisted and sinisterly intelligent sonic aberration they have given birth to on this album “experimental black metal”. The term is simply the closest musical expression I can find to describe this complex and amorphous entity—and honestly, if anyone reading this happens to have not heard of Deathspell Omega prior to this and just had your interest in them incited, you will have to listen to this album in its entirety after reading this review on top of researching on the band’s artistic intentions in order to be as close to seeing the world through their eyes as possible, before being part of the highly exclusive and rewarding experience known as Deathspell Omega.
Those of you unfamiliar with Latin and/or Deathspell Omega might already be wondering what Si Monumentum Requires, Circumspice means. It is Latin for “If you seek his monument, look around you,” and was borrowed from the epitaph of Christopher Wren’s tomb at St. Paul’s Cathedral.
Deathspell Omega are an extremely religious group of metaphysical Satanists, and unlike many black metal groups who merely focus on disparaging Abrahamic religions and often even overlook the religious aspect of Satanism (Deathspell Omega despises these superficial Satanists, by the way) with no greater purpose behind all that denial, they have a crystal-clear direction of where they want their intellectual dark art to progress towards. To them, Deathspell Omega is merely a means to evolve spiritually and intellectually in their divine journey to seek the Devil. They write music and release records of their works not for mere entertainment, for entertainment is just a bonus by-product of their Art that they believe is not as important as their quest in trying to understand everything around them through a metaphysical interpretation of Satan.
With such a strong sense of purpose, it is no wonder that there is perfect synergy between the album artwork, lyrics, and music. Lyrically, this record is actually heavily influenced by Catholic/Christian theology, and (pardon me, oh mighty Deathspell Omega) through the immensely restricted and bias-tinted glasses of my personal interpretation, I’d think that its subject material deals with the idea that Satan is pervading every part of our material and metaphysical realms and how Man’s relationship with Him should be one of reverence and devotion. The eerie artwork was done by an unnamed artist who is not part of Deathspell Omega, and it has a very strong literal connection to a line from the second track “Sola Fide I” that says, “The heart of a lost angel is in the earth.” Together with the poetically and religiously written lyrics, I can’t help but be impressed and awed by such a faithful and malevolently beautiful take on literature—yes, I have decided that the term “lyrics” sounds too amateurish to be used on Deathspell Omega—and as if that was not enough to make me feel intellectually handicapped and feeble, the music is of an equally malicious yet hauntingly beauteous nature.
Doom metal-paced, misty, and alien guitar tunes are dominant throughout this album, as can be clearly heard on tracks like “Second Prayer”, “Third Prayer”, and “Carnal Malefactor”, and perhaps they serve the purpose of aurally conveying the enigmatic approach Deathspell Omega are taking towards their divine quest. Chaotic and atypical old-fashioned black metal attacks à la past Darkthrone are frequently interjected between such mysterious sounding passages, and they are probably the sonic representation of the Satanic ideal of extreme disorganization within the macrocosm. If you think black metal has to avoid forms of music traditionally linked to Christianity and other Abrahamic religions, you are dead, dead wrong.
Religious chanting and even choral music are utilized on this magnum opus as well, reinforcing the holy purpose this record was made for. They can be heard most notably on the introductory track “First Prayer” and the excellent eleventh track, “Carnal Malefactor”. Musically speaking, “Carnal Malefactor” is also the most sensually pleasing track on the entire album, featuring the aforementioned mysterious guitar soundscapes in the first third of the composition, followed by serene choral singing in the style of Gregorian chants in the second third, and a shocking burst of relentless black metal aggression in the last.
This is one of those rare moments when I proclaim an album to be a must-buy. Si Monumentum Requires, Circumspice is a true piece of dark art that boldly pushes the boundaries of traditional black metal and brings it to a totally new level. In their interminable search for the purest form of Devil worship, Deathspell Omega have indubitably spawned a black metal record that most completely realizes the stagnated genre’s potential to date.
II: Depart from Me, Ye Cursed, into Everlasting Fire
Following up with the second part of the epic concept story, the French Satanic apostles continue their spiritual and intellectual quest for the Devil on their fourth full-length studio album, Fas—Ite, Maledicti, in Ignem Aeternum. Continuing where 2004’s Si Monumentum Requires, Circumspice left off, this record is part two of a trilogy of concept albums that collectively deal with famous theological matters from the point of view of a spiritually developing Satanist. As usual, the band does not let up on the cryptographic nature of their espoused ideas, as evident from their seemingly indecipherable title (again), wanton abuse of uncommon and difficult vocabulary, and the usage of provoking imagery within the CD booklet. The title is Latin for “Divine law—depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire!” and it is taken from the Vulgate translation of the Bible passage, Matthew 25:41, which reads “discedite a me maledicti in ignem æternum” and is usually quoted as “ite maledicti in ignem aeternum.”
After reading the English translation of the album’s title and looking at the now seemingly literal illustration on the album cover, those who happen to be knowledgeable about the Bible should know by now what thematic material this album is dealing with. For those who don’t—this album is basically dealing with the epochal Biblical event called “Satan’s Fall”. While the lyrics on Si Monumentum Requires, Circumspice were more religious and resembled the mass’ response to a preacher’s litany at Sunday school sessions, the lyrics found on Fas—Ite, Maledicti, in Ignem Aeternum read more like a philosophical essay. Whoever the lyricist is for Deathspell Omega, that guy is one helluva gifted religious philosopher. Narrating the spiritual journey of a person initially torn between God and Satan from an introspective first person account, the conscientious listener who bothers to peruse the lyrics finds him/herself thrust into the shoes of the character and eventually witnesses his/her gradual transition from an initially confused follower to one whom is enlightened about his chosen faith. This can perhaps be most clearly seen in the line “An exhausted fall into disgrace, famished for peace, for a mere moment of respite in dying eternities…what pleasure of inconceivable purity there is in being an object of abhorrence for the sole being to whom destiny links my life!” from the penultimate and fifth track, “A Chore for the Lost”.
Apart from feeding the listener a great deal of literary food for thought, Deathspell Omega once again proudly showcase an impeccable sense of artistic direction in their album layout design. The entire album consists of only six tracks (they clock 46 minutes, 16 seconds in total, though), and the first and last tracks share the same title of “Obombration”. Now, it turns out that “obombration” is a word that neither belongs to the English nor Latin dictionary, so did Deathspell Omega coin this word themselves? They most probably did, and they probably derived it from the Latin word “obumbrō”, which means “overshadow”, “darken”, or “conceal”. The two renditions of “Obombration” are encircled within what appears to be a blazing fireball—probably a reference to Satan’s/Lucifer’s other alternate name, “Morning Star”—and are flanked by the other four tracks on the album (each residing in their own private circles) in a diamond-shaped formation, with an intricate web of zigzagging arrows connecting them together in a peculiar manner. Visually intriguing yet thought-provoking at the same time, this piece of mini-art seems to imply that “Obombration” is the dark presence from which this record’s heavily intellectualized sonic art is born from, and which also serves as the agent that will extinguish its existence at the end until the next spin in the stereo, creating a pristine sense of thematic symmetry.
As with the previous album, there is perfect synergy between the music and the nature of the lyrical ideas presented. The introductory version of “Obombration” sets the surreal atmosphere into place with monotonous chanting followed by the familiar Silent Hill-esque guitar passages Deathspell Omega is now so well known for, while the exiting version of “Obombration” experiments delightfully with avant-garde jazz elements like atonal piano chord progressions and brass fanfare tainted with dark tonal colors, giving the record a contrasting yet atmospherically apt closure. The four tracks in between follow in the style of the standout tracks of Si Monumentum Requires, Circumspice—namely, “Second Prayer”, “Third Prayer”, and “Carnal Malefactor”—containing numerous passages of vicious black metal assaults that are frequently punctuated by out-of-this-world guitar melodies that plod along at a doom metal pace to invoke a creepy sense of foreboding. And yet they still manage to avoid sounding like fillers! Some jazz-influenced notes can be heard too, such as at a moment near the 4:00 mark on the third track, “Bread of Bitterness”.
As French-born Canadian sci-fi author and musician Dantec once said, “True art is cruel by definition.” Indeed, Deathspell Omega have successfully channeled to us yet another awe-inspiring record from beyond the mortal realms of our world, and which abides by this tenet very closely. Certainly not for those who aren’t esoterically inclined or seekers of pure sensorial entertainment, this is yet another exceptional masterpiece that will be thoroughly enjoyed by people who have obtained the elusive acquired taste for experimental forms of black metal.
III: The Holy Spirit’s Advocate
As with all good things, the trilogy finally comes to an end with Paracletus, the third and last part of the monumental concept story of the relationship between God, Satan, and Man.
The concept of a “trilogy” is such an overdone thing. Be it film trilogies, album trilogies, book trilogies, video game trilogies…we have all seen trilogies in various forms of entertainment media to the point of it becoming banal. Most of the time, trilogies are simply a type of marketing strategy to squeeze more moolah out of hardcore fans of a particular franchise that is long overdue its expiry date. In fact, when the money-gobbling parties involved in such ploys feel that they still need another penthouse in Switzerland or another spanking new Porsche, the already-cheapened franchise usually gets extended from a trilogy to a tetralogy (the Alien film franchise comes to mind) or even a pentalogy (the Final Destination film franchise comes to mind). While not as rampant in the music industry, album trilogies are still coming out every now and then, occasionally destroying the legacy left behind by the earlier albums that would probably have been better off left alone. Even the sub-culture of metal music is not spared from this phenomenon, and it is especially so for its extreme, darker, epic, and esoteric offspring, such as (but not restricted to) black, experimental, symphonic, power, progressive, folk and Middle Eastern/Asian-themed death metal. A very recent example would be Chthonic’s “Takasago Army” album, which concludes a not-so-fabulous album trilogy that has weak links between the supposedly interconnected lyrical themes present in all three records.
When utilized by serious dark artists like the ever so fascinating Deathspell Omega however, the concept of a trilogy once again gains merit and realizes its true potential as a great tool for telling stories of such grandiose and intrigue that one can’t help but feel awed by humanity’s own insignificance, even though that is supposed to be kind of insulting and degrading to our own egos and species as a whole. Paracletus is the fifth full-length studio album by the French prophets of Satan and also the epic conclusion to an album trilogy that deals with the relationship between God, Satan, and Man on a metaphysical level. The peculiar title is the Latin derivation of the Greek word παράκλητος, which reads as “Paraclete” in English and means an advocate or helper of something, usually that of the Holy Spirit in Christian mythology.
Ever so recognizable, Deathspell Omega’s album layout design is once again austere yet maliciously pristine at the same time. The CD booklet reads like an extremely thin religious text, featuring a simple layout of black words on a white background, with its one and only piece of artwork right at the very last page. They have always been renowned for using thought-provoking and malignant artwork to accompany their lyrics, and it certainly has been taken a step further on this record. Immediately underneath the front and back cover pages of the CD booklet, two curious pieces of plasticky and slightly transparent paper with different symbols printed on them are found. The first is that of a red circle encasing a snake within, and when you press it down against the next page—which has a Bible quote saying, “...anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age, or in the age to come—Matt 12:32”—you will notice that the snake-inhabited red circle perfectly encapsulates the Bible quote! The snake or serpent is a symbol often used to depict Satan, and hence, this is most probably a graphic representation of the Devil’s eternally defiant stance towards the Holy Spirit. The second is that of a crucifix with four circular symbols, three of which contain figures representative of God, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit—depicted by a bearded old man wearing a crown, a man carrying a wooden crucifix and a dove respectively—and adorn the top three ends of the cross, with God taking the highest point of the cross. The last one represents Satan (the familiar circular symbol containing a snake inside), and it sits at the cross junction of the cross, possibly an illustration of how the Devil is eternally at odds with all three sacred Christian beings. This time, when it is pressed against the next page (which is the only artwork present in the CD booklet), it seems to depict God sending lightning bolts down from the skies to strike at an already burning Satan, with Jesus and the Holy Spirit standing by the sidelines just to watch his punishment unfold. Metaphorically speaking, this is truly the essence of what it means to have a picture paint a thousand words. You simply can’t get any more surreal and artistic than this in the gloomy realm of esoteric black metal.
Lyrically, this album deals with the concept of war in Heaven waged between the Archangel Michael and Satan, and its aftermath, with Satan ending up on the losing end, as is described in the Bible. Following in the style of their previous two albums, Latin/Greek phrases are still frequently interjected between the passages of biblical-style English, but the mental assault is enhanced by the inclusion of entire lines in French this time round. It is a natural progression from the lyrical theme of the previous album Fas—Ite, Maledicti, in Ignem Aeternum, which had dealt with the fall of Satan. This coherent storytelling is well complemented by yet another piece of strange but apt album artwork—a tangle of black serpents struggling in the torturous embrace of flames set against a pitch-black background. Well, as you may probably be able to tell by now, this is an illustration of Satan (represented by a big snake’s head) and his followers (represented by smaller snake heads) being punished by God for defying Him upon the conclusion of the war in Heaven.
The music is still as every bit Philip K. Dick weird as it was in the first two parts of the trilogy, but with a much greater and welcomed emphasis on melody than brutality now. The brooding and dissonant alien soundscapes have taken center stage, with the chaotic sonic assaults relegated to more of a secondary role, possibly representing Deathspell Omega’s calm realization that perhaps Satan’s all-out attack on holy figures was pointless all along if he had already known how vulnerable he was before the omnipotence of God right from the beginning. Lines like “The nebulae in the superior sky howled like a starving hound,” “Raging winds roam over Babylon like primal chaos spread,” and “Laden like a luminous storm in which sun and lightening are prolonged,” all seem to imply such an idea, and they go hand-in-hand with the music to contribute to a frighteningly beautiful mural of an epic but disastrous battle. Personally, I find every track delectable. In fact, the entire tracklist can actually be said to be one very long black metal hymn broken down into ten parts, for they all sound structurally similar and the lyrics of the “different tracks” printed in the CD booklet do not have the track headings differentiating one song from the other at all. Another big hint would be the presence of recapitulated motifs, such as that eerie-sounding riff at the start of “Epiklesis II”, which gets recycled as the introduction to “Apokatastasis Pantôn” too.
At the end of this surreal experience known as Paracletus, do not be surprised if you find yourself a little dazed. As the occultic symbol (with the three Latin words “Vestigia Nulla Retrorsum” etched onto it) found after the last line of lyrics is trying to sadistically warn you a little too late, there is no stepping back from the mysterious abyss you had just drawn yourself into.
In the realm of contemporary black metal, the French seem to be the most “hard to get”. Whatever they are feeding their black metal musicians over there, I hope they continue doing it. Be it a standalone album or a new series of concept albums, Deathspell Omega’s next litany certainly gets one itching with curiosity and anticipation at what (not?) to expect next.
Will Deathspell Omega continue doing this Latin-suffused, mock-Christian-themed schtick? Or will they move on to discussing about the other Abrahamic religions such as Catholicism, Islam, and Judaism? In fact, trying to guess their next theme is probably futile, pointless even. They will probably just come up with something new again that will blow all of our minds once more. In the event that they do continue with this theme though, well, that will certainly be something unexpected too.