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Charting the course of the black metal genre is like plotting the movements of civilization upon a world map. Various climates and ethnic groups, governments and religions, all play their parts in shaping its sound. Few cultures could seem so naturally inclined towards the medium as the Greeks, whose ancient and celebrated history and mythology is ridden with tales of good and evil, pagan adulation and cautionary parables. The jealous acts and trials of the Gods. The fall of Titans. The vast and compelling Underworld. The Odyssey and the Iliad. You just can't beat the source material. And no study in the form could be complete without first examining its progenitors: the foremost (and to date, most successful) of which is known as Rotting Christ.
Formed in 1987, the Tolis brothers evolved their style from a primitive, churning hybrid of death and grind to what most people recognize today as their unique breed of atmospheric black. The starting point for this transition was arguably the Passage to Arcturo EP, which abandoned some of the raw and crushing of their demos (Satanas Tedeum, etc) for a more measured and plodding territory, keyboards and brief ambient passages used to highlight the ritual mysticism of their occult lyrics. This is still a fairly primitive recording, and in fact the production does tend to work against its overall quality, but its all in accordance with the broader vision these gents had set for themselves.
Contrary to their peers to the far North in Scandinavia, this band's musical roots do not always draw upon the expected sources. You're not going to hear a lot of Venom, Bathory, Hellhammer or Mercyful Fate going on here. In fact, the guitars have a lot more in common with the 80s thrash of Metallica, only slowed to a crawl; mutes and melodies conjoined into pendulous, thinly produced rhythms, barely strong enough to support the gruff and lascivious weight of Sakis Tolis' vocals (aka Necromayhem), which pose another distinction from the rasps and howls of Norse pioneers Burzum, Mayhem and Darkthrone. His bark has a lot more in common with the band's death metal roots than Attila Csihar or Varg Vikernes; and this, coupled with the grisly band name, brought a lot of initial frustration into attempts to categorization.
Passage to Arcturo is somewhat enjoyable, and it very clearly sews the roots that the band would later perfect through albums like Thy Mighty Contract and Triarchy of the Lost Lovers. The use of airy, ethereal keyboards against the march like step of "The Forest of N'Gai" or the graceful, lamenting guitar melodies of "The Mystical Meeting" lends credence to the band's epic riffing syntax, but they do have a cheesy feel about them certainly dates the album. Themis' (aka Necrosavron) drumming leaves something to be desired, with only the simplest of beats being laid out against admittedly primitive riffs, but in truth its the boxcar production that gimps the beats more than any lack of skill. The bass is interesting, especially "Inside the Eye of Algond" where it trails off merrily against the muted rhythm guitar. But the tone is a bit too plunky.
Really, the entire EP sounds as if it were being played at you straight in a rehearsal room, with the band lacking for the viral energy of their later accomplishments, but this is the worst thing I can say for it. The lyrics are cool, especially "The Old Coffin Spirit", but the riffs are usually hit or miss territory. Once or twice in each of the (longer) metal songs, the guitars and keyboard will flow into something wondrous that sparks the imagination, but this material is not without its weaker, filler segments. The first two full-lengths are hardly shining examples of production, but both are able to develop the ideas here into more tangible tracts of immersion. Passage scrapes by for its nostalgia, and for its important place in the Greeks' inevitable, inescapable pantheon of ideas, but its been surpassed time and time again.
Greece—still shocking the narrow minded populace by flaunting nude statues, continues to add to this conservative world dilemma once again with a morbidly compulsive metal group this time around from the late 20th century. One so mystical they make Merlin look like a birthday party magician, and one who's name draws a further divide by shaking up even more numbers, which is so bluntly called "Rotting Christ." There's just no reading between the lines on that one.
R.C. imports their first EP with inventions of this and borrowings of that from developing techniques and styles in extreme metal ranging from savage designs of death metal to looming creations of black metal. The production on 'Passage to Arcturo' was recorded through analog devices, as well as the demo before this 'Satanas Tedeum,' with this sounding the better quality of the two on the CD versions of each released in the nineties.
The band sets themselves apart with shifting differences from their own death metal past. Their riffs here rely less on straight brutality but instead combine some heavy inducing guitar lines combined with melody: layers of harmony intermix with palm mutes and distortion to make an ugly produced but strangely graceful amalgam of notes, essentially morphing this distinctive style and atmosphere of music for the band. Another accent to add subtitles to a foreign output is the bass, luckily for us it is easily read and the acting stands out vibrantly. It's played clean using some separate rhythms alongside the guitar and is heard just as loud. Essentially the lack of or minimal use of EQ settings here cause you to 'really' hear how hard or soft he strums that bass of his; it's much different sounding than with polished or pristine production jobs where the bass is level or flatter.
When you have heavy instrumentation you need a vocalist who can lug the weight. Necromayhem (Sakis) for the most part adds a distinctly deep and growled voice, and at certain points he attaches some extended higher tones to heighten a particular section and also experiments with spoken words between all of his obscured and mysterious tongues. To keep that skull of yours focused on the beat, Rotting Christ placed the drums a little louder in the mix than the guitars. The drum sound is rough around the edges but each are heard somewhat evenly as far as low budget recordings go. His speed varies from something like a thrash beat to medium and slower parts. The most stand out feature of his drumming is all of the double bass he generates, and some of his other fills are about as simple as a couple of snare rolls here and there with other various and basic hits around the drum kit. To even further their dark and bewitching vision, Rotting Christ included a slight amount of keyboards. They are basically used as a tool to intensify where the song is headed. For instance, you'll hear simulated strings and some higher pitched choirs wrapped and entwined with the other instruments. The fifth song even has slowly played piano mixed with a distorted guitar placed more in the background as clean vocals narrate overtop.
One of the predicaments with 'Passage' is the production and some of the mixing. It's one of those outputs where the song writing for the most part delivers but the recording itself is to certain degrees not up to snuff for the type of layered and introspective tunes they were presenting. For instance, sometimes Sakis's vocals are hidden because they are so deep, the hi-hat might not be heard during a crucial point, or the guitars come across as slightly fuzzy and at times easily fade when strummed, but on the other hand they do have a good deal of moody sounding reverb. It can be a combination of the band and the production that makes them sound somewhat "loose" at points; basically not every instrument lines up all of the time, though compared to the musicianship of 'Satanas Tedeum,' it's definitely a noticeable improvement and is yet another "push" to shaping their sounds. For the most part each instrument is accounted for, even the bass guitar which can get neglected in bands, especially some later black metal groups; the drums are for the most part audible with the kick drum volume raised, the keyboards are used seldom and only when needed, and the guitars have some dual layers to show complexity. So there was emphasis put into this, and I'm sure they were somewhat held back by budget constraints and not everyone would have known how to record the style of music back then even with the band just finding out what they're capable of themselves.
I had someone show this to me first before listening to their full length records that came out after this EP here. And with the production on those, it actually took me a few spins to get into the cleaner recording quality, and by now I definitely appreciate them. Though specifically for the person who's heard their first couple of albums already and not this yet, 'P.T.A.' is going to be different sounding and not as symmetrical with a few things coming across as frayed and somewhat rough around the edges. With their song writing I like the balance of "light" and "hard" the band presents, being somewhat catchy, atmospheric and heavy all at the same time. The mixture of some of their death metal past with an early participation of second wave black metal turned into a keepsake for me since it is still at a somewhat innocent stage, not aping this or that, but coming up with their own style and nudging extreme metal at that point forward.
This is Rotting Christ's first EP and was their first release which gained them more exposure in the underground.
It's rather difficult to describe the sound of this EP, but I guess it mainly consists of a big dose of early Black Metal with some oldschool death metal elements. Sakis has not quite developed his trademark vocals yet, his growl is deeper and his lyrics are rather indicipherable.
There is no bad track here, but there's also only one definite standout track, which is "The Old Coffin Spirit". It features a fine share of good riffs, especially the opening riff stands out.
After the opening riff something happens = the main problem of this EP. The transition between Black and Death Metal riffs doesn't quite work out here. The second part of the intro riff in "The Old Coffin Spirit" sounds like great early BM but suddenly a DM riff appears which completely destroys the mood and atmosphere of the song.
Only a couple of bands are able to pull off a great mixture of Black/Death Metal (Belphegor & Behemoth come to mind) and Rotting Christ weren't quite the band for the style.
Still, this is a good release, especially for a very young band(they only existed for about 4 years at the time)
Recommended for all Rotting Christ fans who are interested in the band´s roots.