With numerous genres of metal often sharing many stylistic principles, distinguishing one genre from another can prove somewhat difficult at times, and this is even more true when taking into consideration the existence of fusion genres, such as blackened death metal or death-doom, that aim to straddle the sometimes very thin line between two different genres. As such, coming across a metal band that incorporates stylistic sensibilities from numerous genres under the metal umbrella into their sound, consciously or not, is far from unusual, to the point that such groups may, at this point in time, very well outnumber those that strive to adhere to one style and one style only. This being said, however, what’s considerably rarer are bands who, rather than mixing all their stylistic influences together into a single sound wherein the differentiation between each genre that went into its making is rather blurred, pull from an eclectic array of stylistic sources, but nevertheless maintain clear-cut distinctions between each of these genres, and multicultural Christian metal outfit Fleshkiller seem to fit the bill for such an act. Formed by Ole Børud, known for his work with experimental Christian metal group Extol and various other metal and non-metal side-projects, and Peter Dalbakk of unblack metal band Vardøger, Fleshkiller are somewhat of a Christian metal supergroup, with later additions to their line-up including Elisha Mullins of Christian tech-death act The Burial, Ole Vistnes of avant-garde jazz and metal collective SHINING and gothic metal troupe Tristania, and Andreas Skorpe Sjøen of progressive rock and metal project Umpfel. Although now lacking vocal contributions from Dalbakk, the wide-ranging musical backgrounds of Fleshkiller’s members, from the metal world and beyond, has naturally lead to a similarly diverse sound on their debut record, entitled Awaken. However, although the group’s sonic palette is a colourful one, instead of mixing all these colours up into one kaleidoscopic hybrid and painting with broad strokes, Fleshkiller prefer to focus on the fine details, with the singularity of their sound arising from the extent to which many of their stylistic influences exist side by side without always necessarily crossing into one another’s territory. Fleshkiller could loosely be defined as progressive death metal on Awaken, with there being a definite influence from Opeth evident throughout the tracklisting, but this only offers a glimpse into the broader sonic themes at play across the album, with there being occasional interpolations of complex djent passages that evoke the likes of Animals As Leaders, as well as cues taken from the triumphant theatricality of a group such as Ghost. Add in the odd dash of thrash or black metal that is thrown in for good measure, as well as the compositional prowess of progressive powerhouses ranging from Yes to Textures, and Awaken amounts to one of the most multifaceted metal records of the year thus far, all whilst Fleshkiller transcend merely being a sum of their parts and pen an impressively definitive identity for themselves by just their debut.
As early as the album’s lead single and opening song, Parallel Kingdom, Fleshkiller are flexing their compositional muscles in full view, whilst proving themselves perfectly capable of naturally working in their eclectic stylistic underpinnings with fluency, as the track transitions seamlessly from the bright power chords that bolster Børud’s victorious, inspiring battlecry to the tangled fretwork that teeters between tech-death and djent, as Mullins offers up some cutthroat shrieks and gravelly growls. Striking an effective balance between melody and brutality comes as a prerequisite for any melodic death metal outfit, but Parallel Kingdom witnesses Fleshkiller seemingly test how far apart they can stretch the two ends of this equilibrium. With Børud’s sung sections carrying a choral quality to the way in which his vocals are so lusciously layered and heavily harmonised, whilst the balance of low-end and high-end in the guitars creates a rich, resonant sound that really plays up the epic presentation of this passage, in contrast with the stop-start blast beats and bursts of blistering guitar tapestry that accompany the ferocious snarls of Mullins’ delivery, Parallel Kingdom plays out more like a patchwork of passages from a heavy metal opera and a tech-death tune that are nevertheless seamlessly interwoven, showing no snags in the thread that ties the entire piece together. Indeed, many of the most successful songs from Awaken are similarly sewn together in such a way as to create an impressive, variegated design of various styles and aesthetics that never clash with one another, nor impede on one another’s territory, instead coming together in a compartmentalised, but no less complementary fashion. Case in point, Wisdom burns through passages of breakneck blast beats and balls-to-the-wall black metal tremolo-picking, choppy, chugging guitar, cascades of shimmering guitar cleans, fierce, thrashy riffage and Børud’s heavenly vocal harmonies, whilst never completely committing to any single of the styles touched on during the composition, with Fleshkiller remaining evasive of ever being pigeonholed into a specific genre. This is even more true when the group pulls ideas from outside of tropes that can be found in metal or one of its derivative forms, with the diverse backgrounds of Fleshkiller’s line-up clearly influencing the songwriting at certain points across the album. For instance, it should come as no surprise that both Børud and Vistnes have been involved in various jazz-based endeavours, given the smooth, ascending fingerpicking interjected in the midst of Salt of the Earth that manages to seamlessly bridge together the palm-muted, machine gun fire riffage of the previous passage and the following section, which, despite the pummelling blast beats and Mullins’ beastly roars, captures a feeling of majesty, courtesy of the grand, soaring chords and the elegant flourishes of lead guitar. Indeed, it’s at times such as these wherein Fleshkiller’s influence from rock-orientated progressive acts, most notably Yes and Devin Townsend, are most prominently laid bare, but only insofar as these inspirations merely contribute to the bigger picture of the band’s definitive sound that consistently remains elusive to any labels that could be tacked onto them, bar perhaps the rather broad term of ‘progressive metal’.
When it comes to the ‘progressive metal’ label, however, I find there to often be many recurring pitfalls that bands categorised under this term stumble into, typically pertaining to prioritising a focus on uber-progressive, serpentine song structures that can become too convoluted for their own good, to the point of losing any sense of direction. On the surface, Fleshkiller seem like a prime candidate for a group who would suffer from such compositional problems, largely as a result of just how much they tend to pirouette between so many different genres. Yet, looking back on Awaken after just one listen, it was rather pronounced just how well the band maintained a clear sense of purpose from track-to-track, with nearly every song being laid-out with its own recurring musical themes, despite these motifs being applied to such labyrinthine song structures. If there was one complaint to be made, it would perhaps relate to the fact that Fleshkiller unveil many of their most striking tricks rather early on in the tracklisting, but that’s not to say that this affects the quality of any of the songs towards the backend of Awaken, nor is the group left with no sleights of hand to pull on the listener on later cuts, with the album, as a whole, being very well structured as to never lose the listener in its meandering mesh of all manner of motifs. Secret Chambers, for example, stands as one of the more overtly progressive metal-leaning cuts in the tracklisting, with the elongated note value of Børud’s cascading vocal harmonies — which bear a striking resemblance to Papa Emeritus III’s singing during the verse sections of Ghost’s song Majesty — gliding above the odd time signature of the guitars’ sporadic chugging, with much of the track witnessing Fleshkiller find creative ways of integrating propulsive grooves and winding, infectious melodies into the piece’s offbeat timing. The record’s title track, although also comprised of a similarly tortuous time signature, derives its identity within the context of the record more from how expressly heavier it feels compared to the surrounding cuts, with even the dainty lead melodies that are usually utilised by the band to counterbalance the brittle, low-pitch rhythm guitar being blended far further back into the mix. Instead, much more of an emphasis is placed on the grumbling bass, the bellowing guitar chords and what stands as likely Mullins’ most guttural and stentorian vocal delivery across Awaken, whilst the latter half of the cut not only sees Børud pull out one of his flashiest solos, with abrupt eruptions of nimble sweep picking to boot, but also boasts one of the most brazenly headbang-able passages of groove-driven technical wizardry throughout the entire tracklisting. Indeed, whether it be Børud’s haunting harmonies that soar above the thrashy gallop of Evil Eclipse, the worshipful heights of the impassioned vocal melodies on True Image or the impressive interplay between Mullins’ glass-shattering shrieks and Børud’s eerie, atmospheric singing on Warfare, each track over the course of Awaken easily retains its own unique identity through Fleshkiller’s vivid artistic imagination, with the record, as a result, really rewarding multiple listens, which essentially come as a requirement if one is interested in completely taking in every detail of the album.
When it comes to striking balances, whether this be between the assortment of genres at play across the album or the place of the melodic, technical and brutal aspects of their sound, Fleshkiller prove themselves highly capable of meeting the strenuous artistic vision set for themselves on Awaken, even amidst their juggling of such a quicksilver stylistic framework and such convoluted compositional structures. Similarly, it’s not simply that the group carves out a distinct place for themselves within the contemporary underground metal landscape as a result of how many genres they manage to fit onto their plate, but each individual style is even treated with great care as to leave Fleshkiller’s hallmark on any sound that should be used to contribute to their broader artistic identity, even if the band does reveal much of the contents of their bag of tricks rather early on in the tracklisting. Ultimately, the group’s core strength arises from their versatility as much as it does their dexterity as musicians, and Awaken is sure to stand out as a metal highlight of the year not simply because it exceeds so many other records with regards to its multifaceted nature alone, but also because the band at the helm of its execution also happens to hold itself with incredible adroitness and flexibility.
The Vinyl Verdict: 8/10