This content appears in Chromatic: The Crossroads of Color and Music. Order a copy here.
Rotting Christ: “Aeolo”[audio:http://alarm-magazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/12/Rotting_Christ_Aealo.mp3|titles=Rotting Christ: “Aealo”]
For Sakis Tolis of Rotting Christ, “There is darkness everywhere.” It’s hardly a surprising statement from a man, and a group, synonymous with the Hellenic black-metal movement of the early 1990s. From its first full-length release, Thy Mighty Contract, in 1993, Rotting Christ has defined the Greek metal sound. Today, the band continues to revise that definition. Aealo, the band’s 2010 release, delves further into the progressive elements showcased on its previous release, Theogonia, while utilizing the vocal talents of a traditional Greek choir.
Rotting Christ isn’t the only metal band using traditional folk or choral elements. Hate Forest included traditional Ukrainian elements in its 2003 release, Battlefields, and Blind Guardian added classical choral music to mixed effect. Tolis and Rotting Christ, however, have made something unique and compelling. In their hands, the traditional Greek choir becomes the groundwork for Tolis’ dark compositions. The choir on Aealo specializes in threnody — songs of mourning performed to memorialize the dead. This style is closely related to the concept of Aealo: the feelings that a soldier has when he “faces victory or death,” according to Tolis.
Yet Aealo is not a war-glorifying metal album. The record is littered with the inescapable fear of war and stories of individuals married to duty or religion. Death is not portrayed as noble sacrifice, but as a sacrifice to a corrupt state. Aealo rails against the Church, globalized, homogenized states, and all of the other unwelcome incursions that force individuals to take up arms.
The trend of black metal as an outlet for an ancient historical nationalism, as with the Norwegian black-metal scene, has had less effect on the band. It is not burning churches or calling for a return to Greek pantheism. But an anti-Christian, anti-globalization thread runs through the history of Rotting Christ, and Tolis places much of the blame for our current global condition at the feet of religious institutions.
The song “Thou Art Lord,” on Aealo, is a Laibach-esque epic featuring Nemtheanga of Primordial on vocals. “Our cause is heaven’s cause,” the chorus calls. “Soldiers be prepared, prepared / Die for an absurd law.” It is a direct indictment of Christianity as a controlling and warlike institution. “Religion, a part of globalization or not, just…sucks,” Tolis says. “It puts a limit on your dreams and is against human nature. That’s enough to be an enemy of it. I’m sure future historians will see religion as the most insecure period that humanity faced in its history!”
Aealo ends with “Orders from the Dead,” part cover, part collaboration with fellow Greek native Diamanda Galas. Galas wrote the lyrics “the world is going up in flames,” and within the context of the album, this message encapsulates the untenable, violent, and helpless world depicted on Aealo. Tolis says he had been a fan of Galas for almost two decades before the collaboration. “When I first listened to ‘Orders from the Dead,’ the idea to cover the song was stuck in the back of my mind,” he says. “When I had to compose the last song for the album, I said to myself, ‘Now is the time. ‘Orders from the Dead’ will fit perfectly with the whole concept of the album.'”
Aealo was recorded, mixed, and mastered by the band in Greece at the foot of Mt. Olympus, particularly fitting for a group so involved with the occult history of its homeland. Up to Theogonia, Rotting Christ has made its albums with the help of producers like Peter Tägtgren, for Khronos in 2000, or Fredrik Nordström, for Sanctus Diavolos in 2004. Since then, Tolis has become a highly competent producer in his own right, as evidenced by the level of production on Aealo. The low-fi quality of the band’s early black-metal releases is replaced by strong sonic clarity that maintains the immediacy and power of its purely black-metal releases. The band’s move away from its classic sound has made some fans unhappy, but Rotting Christ is still touring and making the music that it wants to make, never content to merely reproduce a sound nearly two decades old.
Though now proficient in production, Tolis finds composing to be a difficult process. Oftentimes, when a rock or metal artist is involved, composing means getting drunk and jamming until a song comes out. For Tolis, it is a process rooted in self-reflection, sometimes finding things he would rather have kept in his subconscious. “I don’t hide my dislike of the composing process,” he says. “Many times, I’m forced to face parts of my character that I would have preferred to keep hidden. I stay isolated for a long time, searching myself, and if I have something new to say to people, I come up with a new album.”
Who knows, then, what form the next release from Rotting Christ will take? For now, the only certainty is the prevalence of darkness. As Tolis says, “It is in everyone’s heart, even if some people don’t want to accept it.” And even though Rotting Christ no longer sounds as it did on Thy Mighty Contract, the band’s greatest strength is still intact: its ability to illuminate the darkness in everyone.