This is a review of a live performance by The Agonist, Arkona, and Fleshgod Apocalypse that took place on November 21, 2016. Even though these bands are all currently touring with Epica, the stop in Salt Lake City, Utah was a headlining show for Fleshgod Apocalypse on one of Epica's days off. For more about Fleshgod Apocalypse, check out my interview with Tommaso Riccardi elsewhere on this site.
Since I had a lot to say about Fleshgod Apocalypse, this review addresses the bands in reverse order.
I have a friend who tells me that the bombast and energy of heavy metal has more in common with opera than anything else. I've often wondered if that was true. The musical styles are different—or are they? I'm not prepared to answer that question here and now, but let's just say that I'm intrigued.
I mention the possible tie to opera because I think that Fleshgod Apocalypse is as good a candidate as any for a dark metal operatic aesthetic. That may seem silly, but now that I've seen the band in concert, I'm beginning to see the connections to opera more than ever. Don't get me wrong, the band is clearly playing metal and not performing a full-scale opera, but there are enough points of connection that we ought to wonder if the band isn't trying to create a sound and style that is at least partly operatic. In any event, this band is easily more theatrical than I ever imagined. Even though the stage decorations weren't extensive, there was something about the entire presentation that combined the grandeur of the Moulin Rouge with the darkness of the Grand Guignol.
Similarly, the band members were dressed in costumes that resembled something from the 19th century. The style was generally elegant, something you might see in a period drama but not the typical kind. This is more like a period drama tinged with a deep darkness. Aside from the five male members of the band, Veronica Bordacchini (soprano) stands stage left, dressed in operatic garb, and sings her parts with equal portions of talent and grace. She has a strong presence and her costume is right out of an Italian opera. As I watched and listened that night, I realized that even if Fleshgod Apocalypse isn't doing opera, they are at least creating a large-scale aesthetic experience that extends its reach to concert music, literature, theater, and maybe even film. Like opera, there are many components at play here but the band brings them all forward naturally, as if they've always been there, just waiting to get picked up.
To understand the show requires a little background on the band's latest album, King. As readers may learn from reading my interview with Tommaso Riccardi, the album reflects on the ways human beings deceive themselves by falling slaves to addiction, appearances, or ambition. For the most part, these negative attributes are represented allegorically as figures within the King's court, figures such as the King's wife, his military advisors, and others.
As for the King, he represents the royal, noble, and brave side of human life, the side that comes out most clearly when we are true to ourselves and to others. But, like most people, the King faces moments of compromise, weakness, and foolishness. Much of the album rests on the ways human beings navigate the various difficulties people face when confronted with everyday life. For the most part, the concept works; it especially suits this band's overall style and aesthetic. I realize that some readers may find the theme somewhat overdeveloped or unnecessary, but it succeeds because the band is so honest and clear not only about its message but also about what they are doing musically. I realize that not everyone likes King, but, to me, it is the band's best album and a nice benchmark for other bands with similar ambitions. At the very least, King realizes the band's larger musical and lyrical ambitions better than their other releases.
On tour the band doesn't perform the entire album, but they perform enough of it so that audiences will get the idea. In addition, they play popular songs from their back catalogue. If you are lucky enough to catch Fleshgod Apocalypse as a headlining act, you'll get a little over an hour's worth of music which is awesome. To me, this band sounds great live, even better than they do on their recordings. The stage suits Fleshgod Apocalypse, especially since so much of what they are doing requires eyes and ears.
Before Fleshgod Apocalypse took the stage, audiences were treated to a solid set by Arkona, the Russian pagan metal band whose music draws heavily on Russian folklore and Slavic mythology. I'm not sure how well known Arkona is in the United States but I'd suggest that more listeners check them out. Their music is dark and interesting and isn't afraid to experiment. My experience watching and listening to the band was terrific. I was especially fascinated by Maria "Masha Scream" Arkhipova's performance. When she first took the stage, she was wearing a long robe with a hood that covered her face completely. At first, I thought she'd perform mostly in that robe but, after a few minutes, Arkhipova parted the robe and took off the hood quite dramatically. It's interesting to watch her perform. She moves about with energy and relentlessness. I thought she was an excellent frontwoman and I honestly couldn't keep my eyes off her for several minutes. Part of the reason for that is because she moves with an angularity that is initially unusual. It's as if the power of the music is moving her body rather than her own will. For those who haven't seen Arkhopova, she is small in size but she projects a larger than life persona. Equally dramatic is the fact that she is flanked by much larger men who can only be described as imposing. Arkona is a really good band and they put on a superb set.
Before Arkona, audiences were treated to a solid set by The Agonist. For many readers, The Agonist is probably best known for their former singer Alissa White-Gluz, a fantastic frontwoman in her own right. When she left The Agonist for Arch Enemy a couple of years ago, most people were surprised not only with the change but that it honestly seems to be working for both bands. The Agonist's new singer, Vicky Psarakis, now has two albums with the band, both of which were pretty good, if somewhat uneven. Psarakis doesn't have the same overall presence as White-Gluz but, to her credit, she isn't really trying to be something other than herself. Her stage presence is pretty subdued but she sings with great energy and her voice is strong. I don't love The Agonist's alternating clean and dirty vocal style but I have to give Psarakis credit for stepping into a potentially rough situation and giving it her all.
The Agonist puts on a solid show. I was especially impressed with Simon McKay's drumming and Danny Marino's guitar playing. There are times when both of them seem to exceed their own limitations and just drive things forward, taking things wherever the music takes them.
Overall, this was a terrific night of music by some terrific bands.