Formative Septic Flesh: lessons from the apotheosis of Hellenic metal

It’s not hard to see why Greek extreme metal is currently undergoing a renaissance. Whether it be latter day Varathron or Medieval Demon, Katavasia, Caedes Cruenta, Synteleia, the rich melodicism and unabashed melodrama of this style has spread well beyond the borders of Greece itself, growing into a significant pillar of modern metal. The cross appeal of this style pivots on a trade off between its broad accessibility via memorable melodies, its allowance for rich orchestration, its mix of harsh black metal textures with older influences from the 1970s, and the room it leaves for virtuosity without compromising its focus.

But while there’s no denying the early achievements of the big three in Varathron, Rotting Christ, and Necromantia in laying its foundations, it is perhaps through the lens of symphonic death metal that we can truly understand the unique stamp that Southern Europe in general was able to bring to extreme metal of the 1990s, as a rich and angular counterweight to the frigid winter metal taking shape in Northern Europe.

Horrified and Nightfall certainly made prototypical inroads into this form, but it is through the first three LPs from Septic Flesh that we witness the culmination of what Greek metal was capable of in the 1990s. The other big hitters of Athenian metal could possibly lay claim to a more distinctive identity, a slicker compositional framework perhaps, but few strived to be quite so comprehensive and ambitious in their sonic profile as Septic Flesh of this era, few set themselves – and for the most part achieved – such a lofty ideal. (And few – besides perhaps Rotting Christ – were so inappropriately named).

Counter intuitively, it is their debut ‘Mystic Places of Dawn’ that is perhaps the most fully realised artefact of this vision, with ‘Έσοπτρον’ and ‘Ophidian Wheel’ each expanding on different elements found within the debut. The former being the marked gothic doom metal current that runs through Septic Flesh’s DNA, borrowed from early Paradise Lost and My Dying Bride, and the latter the galloping melodic metal so common to Greek artists, reaching back to NWOBHM bombast and supplementing this with a degree of gravitas and what us Northern Europeans are wont to call “exotic mysticism”.

Conceived in the mind of Sotiris Vayenas, and brothers Christos and Spiros Antoniou, ‘Mystic Places of Dawn’ is a difficult album to articulate verbally. Containing elements of early gothic metal, doom, melodic death metal, and marked traits borrowed from their black metal contemporaries, it’s hard to quite believe that this was released in 1994 when listening back to it today. But what really sets it apart is not the marshalling of these unwieldy and viscous styles into something so cohesive and unified, but just how confident it is in its willingness to be totally unpredictable.

The hidden stylistic puppeteer at play here, allowing this iteration of Septic Flesh to achieve what they did, is a pronounced progressive streak running through their work, one made all the more remarkable given that they were working with a decidedly unproggy instrument to anchor these pieces: a drum machine. But these are studied musicians – Vayenas was trained as a child in classical violin before picking up a guitar, Christos would go on to study composition at the London College of Music and work with orchestras in Greece, Slovakia, and Prague – who even at this time were more than up to the task of manipulating their fluid and spontaneous style around the strict limitations of programmed percussions.

The music is notable not just for its rich orchestration, its manipulation of counterpoint, ambitious key changes, and bizarrely idiosyncratic melodic wanderings. It is also striking just how at ease it is with its own identity as enthusiastically, almost naively, theatrical music. It is steeped in mythology and legend, embodying this aesthetic with little self-aggrandisement. This is perhaps because their musical chops are more than able to meet the moment required for such an ambitious vision. All the regalia, the pageantry, the fanfare, all is safely contained within compositions that retain their focus, drive, and bombast in spite of the plethora of intricate moving parts contained therein.

For the follow up, 1995’s ‘Έσοπτρον’, Vayenas was essentially left to steer the ship single handed, composing, arranging, and recording material practically on the spot in the studio. A mixture of Greek tragedy and Vayenas’ own imaginings in the fantastical, despite Spiros still being on hand for vocal duties, – and designing the cover art – this is for all intents and purposes a Vayenas solo album. Texturally the album is every bit as rich as its predecessor, but the compositions are more linear, their logic is easier to follow, the riffs and various ornamental guitar refrains bleed out of the compositions as pleasing yet nuanced earworms.

This blending of Greek tragedy and myth with personal rumination is a product of Vayenas having almost total creative freedom over every aspect of the work. It also makes it the most depressive and goth driven album of this triptych. ‘Έσοπτρον’ may not be a fan favourite, but there’s no denying that it manages to contain the same unbridled ambition of ‘Mystic Places of Dawn’ with a degree of focus, darkness, and infectious melody somewhat lacking on the next chapter ‘Ophidian Wheel’. Vayenas confessed to near total burnout following the deeply personal experience of creating ‘Έσοπτρον’, so it was with some relief that he greeted the news that Christos would return to Greece and Septic Flesh for their next album, along with some ideas of his own.

1997’s ‘Ophidian Wheel’ may be their most focused album at the time of its release, but the jagged eccentricities are stripped back to allow for a more bombastic yet austere iteration of orchestral melodic death metal. Elements of NWOBHM fanfare shape a good portion of the riffs, alongside a more self confident swagger to the death metal elements. The bizarre symphonic tangents are no longer so closely integrated into the metal tracks themselves, instead finding themselves penned into three instrumental interludes across the album. Vocalist Natalie Rassoulis was also recruited to provide clean accompaniments, transforming many of these pieces into compelling duets. This supplements the bright, heavy metal swagger of these tracks with a gothic fragility, bordering on Dead Can Dance-esque mysticism on tracks like ‘Shamanic Rite’.

‘Ophidian Wheel’ was final proof, if proof were needed, that Septic Flesh were still able to outshine any comparable acts of the era. The charming quirks may have been peeled back for the sake of a more direct and traditionally epic thematic package, but the sheer confidence and fluidity with which they brought this version to bear is a monument to behold.

Given the backwards evolution across these three albums, they are perhaps best enjoyed in reverse chronological order. ‘Ophidian Wheel’ as the joyful child greeting the day with cheer, reverence, and wonder, evincing boundless energy and hints of experimental ambition. ‘Έσοπτρον’ as the despondent adolescent, unpacking a distinctive melodic character nevertheless tethered to a profound and deeply felt despair at the world, as the promises of youth are gradually betrayed on contact with reality. And finally the synthesis in ‘Mystic Places of Dawn’, which manages to contain both the light and the dark working in harmony with one another, with lavish orchestration and rich progressive instrumentation serving as midwife to the this fragile union.

And with this Septic Flesh managed to articulate the real potentials of Mediterranean extreme metal as a counterweight to the brash statements of black metal emanating from Scandinavia at the time. They may not be the favourite for many fans of Hellenic metal. Some may mistake their boundless early sonic ambition for lack of focus, clunky and unwieldy when measured against what Varathron or Horrified were achieving at the time. But those willing to look past their almost abrasively theatrical aesthetic edge, rooted in a profound desire to engage with ancient mythology and personal exercise in the fantastic, will be rewarded with one of the most unique and playful corners of 90s extreme metal.

Lastly, we should probably take note of the legacy – or lack thereof – of these albums. In the mid-1990s, when these young Greeks were at their most fertile, death metal was moving away from such mythological abstractions in favour of “realism”, otherwise read as its co-option into alt and groove metal and its preoccupations with street level immediacy. Or else it was disappearing into ever greater abstractions on the esoteric, think the tech death of Gorguts or the distanced academia of Death at this time. The sincere world building project of metal that engaged with fantasy and mythology began to look decidedly naïve, or worse, was popularised in ever more bolshy and Disneyfied iterations of symphonic metal.

It’s hard to even perceive how equivalent works to these first three Septic Flesh albums would be possible in today’s landscape, at least not without it being drenched in irony, self-deprecation, or a knowing wink to the audience. Septic Flesh of this time are an example of an artist that situated themselves as active players within the narrative of history, refusing to be mere commentators, they had a horse in the race, a genuine interest in how the narrative developed.

Today’s artists all too often disconnect themselves from the process of narrative formation by attempting to detach from their craft through humour or irony. This is culture referencing itself and not the external world as we experience it. To truly engage with the intoxicating broth of genuine artistic discovery leaves one vulnerable, fearing at best the tag of naivety, at worst, absurdity. A condition and paralysis perhaps best articulated by Raphael Alecto at Hessian Firm:

The lack of an immediate meaning inherent in the social structure or even external reality at large leads to that condition that sociologists and psychologists have collectively diagnosed us in our times…This being a general feature of our current civilization, it inevitably affects the artistic process as well, since it is no less than self-expression at the most immediate and primary level. Contemporary art, which is frequently conceptual, usually takes on a self-aware and sometimes self-deprecating form, from consumeristic pop-art triumphantly accepting its quality of a product to satirical versions of past works or something aptly titled “artist’s shit“. It’s as if any artistic gesture innocently resembling older forms, like a simple landscape painting or a still-life is instantly derided as “naïve”.

A genuine study of albums such as ‘Mystic Places of Dawn’ engenders not just a deep sense of nostalgia, a wistful “why isn’t music like this anymore”, but also the revelation that to some extent, if metal is to survive it has no choice but shed its current cynicism and embrace the inner child once again. Not in any revivalist sense of resurrecting music of a more innocent time. But as a rediscovery of the artistic process as an urgent and exhilarating project of self-enlightenment, not a mere collection of snide cultural signifiers cloaked in the veneer that it’s “all for show” or overburdened with scenic in jokes. The message of these albums is a warning as much as it is a promise.

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