Nuclear Blast Records/Universal Music Australia
Reviewed By Michael O'Brien
When I was first introduced to long-running Austrian blackened death metal act, Belphegor, via their sixth full-length album, 2006’s Pestapokalypse VI, I went on what could best be described as a years long binge of their material. But as time went by and new releases arrived with steady regularity, my interest in the band waned in direct proportion because it swiftly became clear that Belphegor had settled into a sound and were basically going to stick with it. What was initially fresh and new had devolved into being predictable and unexciting for the most part, in other words.
With my Belphegor fatigue in full swing, 2014’s Conjuring the Dead was a welcome surprise. Whilst it didn’t do much to alter the well-established formula that I’d come to find to be a drag over preceding releases, it managed to skirt around that by offering up material that was stronger than had been present on the previous couple of albums. At the time I reviewed it, I wondered if Conjuring the Dead marked the beginning of an upswing in Belphegor’s output, but album 11, Totenritual, demonstrates that the upswing was shorter lived than one might have hoped.
The best way to describe Totenritual is to say that it's Belphegor being Belphegor, warts and all. In practice, this means furious blackened death metal with lots of Satanic imagery thrown in for good measure, which isn't the worst thing in the world, and as album opener “Baphomet” plays out, there's even a bit of comfort to be had in the familiarity of it all. In fact, despite the fact that there aren't any surprises here, there's an impressive level of ferocity at play (see “The Devil's Son” for a prime example) that makes any quibbles about freshness subside. For a while at least.
By the time “Totenkult - Exegesis of Deterioration” rolls around at position five, the album's top-heavy nature becomes apparent. Much of what follows from here on in falls into the OK but far from exciting category, with a tendency towards mid paced material that effectively kills all of the momentum built up by the preceding songs, putting the brakes on the album. It appears as though the back half of Totenritual is meant to offer a more atmospheric counterpoint to the blistering front half, and if that were the intention behind it then I can certainly respect that, but it’s a shame that much of it is just so underwhelming and sometimes almost boring.
From a performance perspective, guitarist, vocalist, and last remaining original member, Helmuth, once again brings his dependable best in both departments - as history would dictate he would - but the real standout performance for me is from the band’s latest recruit, drummer Simon Schilling. While he may be far from being the flashiest drummer or the drummer with the most distinctive of playing personalities, the dude can bang the shit out of his cans with the best of them and his proficiency and speed bring a lot to the table with respect to the overall heaviness of the album’s material.
As disappointed as I am to have to say it, Totenritual is an album that’s just as often good as it is predictable and uneventful. While its quality never dips below decent, this just isn’t enough to carry it over the line for me, even with the first handful of songs being as enjoyable as they are.
Belphegor have demonstrated a number of times over the years that they’re capable of writing truly great albums, and I’m pleased that the hunger to continue to do so still appears to be fully intact, but they just weren’t able to bring it all together for me this time around, unfortunately.