Over the course of nearly three decades, Rotting Christ has perfected two distinct modes of playing. The first, typical of their lo-fi roots and more ascetically mixed later albums like 2002’s Genesis, is blastbeat-driven black-metal belligerence. The second is increasingly their raison d’être: majestic, midtempo death marches. Blastbeats, guttural shrieks, and tremolo picking are still the fundaments, but demoted to texture and punctuation amid gloomy synths, choirs, and sometimes a tsampouna or two. Rituals finds the band firmly in the latter mode. Within seconds, the album launches into a sustained stentorian rapture. It’s undeniably stirring, but also pretty same-y. By the second or third spin, it’s hard not to wish for some of their rawer, more varied side.
Like 2013’s Κατά τον δαίμονα εαυτού, Rituals is pitched as a tour of Satanic rites from around the world. These aren’t, however, the campy, discordant Black Masses as approximated by Venom, Roman Polanski, and countless dime novels. Rather, the album’s 10 tracks are galloping, grimdark anthems. The devotional verse quoted in the title of opener “In Nomine Dei Nostri” is repurposed as a barrel-chested war cry. Rotting Christ is as stoked on the devil as any of their contemporaries, but the Greek band’s epic m.o. aligns them just as closely with the battle-scarred folk metal of Ireland’s Primordial and Finland’s Wintersun. Suffice it to say, Rituals sounds the way Warhammer concept art looks.
Hellenic allusions are especially well-represented in the album’s loose restaging of the Ascension as a surrender to darkness.
Rotting Christ isn’t shy about their polyglot high-mindedness: Latin, Aramaic, and ancient Greek are among the dead languages spoken; Baudelaire, Blake, and Euripides are quoted at length. Hellenic allusions are especially well-represented in the album’s loose restaging of the Ascension as a surrender to darkness. Rituals is, in short, a work of historical pageantry, ostensibly aimed at the brain and gut equally, and the band backs up their blasphemy with what seems to be an authentic interest in Christian literary tradition.
But for all the well-read posturing, Rituals is pretty simple stuff. Every song is structured by some combination of war drums, church bells, tribal chants, and power chords, layered with synths and pedal effects. The endpoint is always an all-hands-on-deck heroic din, and the way there is always linear and plodding; if ever an album begged for proggy detours, it’s this one. Frontman Sakis Tolis has shown a knack for hooky melodies before, but Rituals often feels like it’s riffing on the same rote four-note figure over and over. It’s no surprise two of the album’s most tuneful songs are the covers that end it: “Tou Thanatou,” from Cretan folk singer Nykos Xilouris, and “The Four Horsemen,” of Greek psych-prog expats Aphrodite’s Child.
And yet, redolent with a battlefield’s worth of phony resonance, the booming hurly-burly is undeniably a bit of cathartic fun. Rituals knows how to set up even if it never quite pays off: Drummer Themis Tolis stokes tension with carefully placed double-kick bass, and the folk instrumentation throughout fosters ample atmosphere. Lead single “Elthe Kyrie” stands out not only for its urgent hook and Olympian guitar solo, but also for actress Danai Katsameni’s wrenching portrayal of the filicidal Agave during the verses. It might not be entirely reasonable to expect a nuanced disquisition of temptation from Rotting Christ, but “Elthe Kyrie” suggests they could at least write with a bit more depth.