- Interview by Sarah Stubbs
SYMPHONY OF THE DAMNED: Septicflesh's Christos Antoniou talks live DVD release 'Infernus Sin
Although classical music is now considered the stuffy and socially acceptable face of the industry, it’s worth remembering that operas have been banned for their questionable political overtones, symphonies have caused national unrest and a ballet once incited a riot. Often at the cutting edge of innovation and originality, music categorised as ‘classical’ and considered genteel has in the past inspired similar levels of passionate frenzy to the chaotic pandemonium of death metal mosh pits, and caused more controversy than even the most darkly blasphemous, necro and ritualistic excesses of black metal. One band that tap into the raw, primitive and often divisive energy of this most traditional of art forms are Greek titans Septicflesh, who like many purveyors of symphonic death have found fresh and imaginative ways to combine the soaring clamour of a classical orchestra with the raucous, riff-heavy brutality of metal.
During an illuminating Skype chat with Dark Matter, Septicflesh’s Christos Antoniou provided some insight into the tricky business of working with an orchestra to forge something uniquely metal. “First of all, we have to create something that has a balance between the harder, metal sound and the classical, acoustic sound.” The guitarist explains. “This is sometimes a problem because we are talking about frequencies, sometimes the metal part overcuts the orchestral elements. We try to get the darkest and lowest register and texture from the orchestra in order to play really well with the darker approach of our metal music. We’re all fans and composers of classical music, and I studied orchestral composition in England. That gives the band an advantage because we know exactly how the orchestra will sound, and it is this that creates the distinctive sound of Septic Flesh. Since Communion, when we started playing with a real orchestra, we have learned to find the right balance between the two genres.”
Starting out as a gritty death/doom act, Septic Flesh flirted with the goth genre before moving into more sophisticated symphonic territory with 2008’s standout album release ‘Communion’, a game-changer which defined the Septicflesh we know and adore today. Although the music is much more refined, the rough edges polished a little smoother, the intense fury of their violent genesis always lurks beneath the surface. The result is utterly compelling, a churning hellscape where rapid-fire blastbeats and tortured death growls meet swirling, wind-whipped crescendos and interludes of melodic majesty inspired by folklore and fantasy. “You need as an artist to progress, to try to find some new paths in order to create a fresh sound.” Christos muses, contemplating this significant cycle of changes. “During the 90s we listened to goth, Paradise Lost, but we never forgot our main style of blastbeats and melodic death metal. Since ‘Communion’, which marks the second era of Septicflesh, we evolved the use of the orchestra, became established as a symphonic metal band, and found our way to a more distinctive sound. We made mistakes, of course, a lot, but we learned from them. If you don’t learn from them you continue to make mistakes. But I believe we made the right moves and the right decisions since ’Communion’. You always have to search for new musical knowledge, because if you’re trapped as an artist and make an album that is a replica of the previous album then you have a problem. You have to always try to experiment and keep your sound fresh.” For this reason, it is often difficult to tether the blackened beast that is Septicflesh to any particular genre. “To be honest I don’t like to label our music,” Christos agrees. “Sometimes we have the inspiration to create something that has more gothic elements, sometimes more black metal, or more modern. And we were raised as kids with death metal and black metal – Morbid Angel, Celtic Frost, Death, Metallica. In fact, Celtic Frost was the first band I listened to with an orchestra. This drew me to classical music in a way, this was the route for us. These things are in our blood. But we don’t have limits. For me, Septicflesh is a metal symphonic band, but it doesn’t mean anything to me that my brother’s voice is death metal or our drums are black metal or whatever. We just want to express ourselves through our music, it’s our passion. We want to experiment and create something that is unique for us and has a vision.”
That visionary impulse came to glorious fruition last year with their incredible Mexico City gig, performed with a full live orchestra. With a new DVD recording of the entire electrifying show about to be released, Christos reminisced with much fondness on an experience beyond expression. “I can’t describe the feelings, because it’s something that happens very rarely and it was a dream come true to have this opportunity. It was amazing, definitely our best moment until now, although I was anxious and nervous about playing with the orchestra.” Despite the butterflies, the enthusiastic, uproarious and deafening reception of the crowd was more than worth it. “The Mexican crowd played an important role. As soon as we went on stage, the crowd went crazy. They were so loud, the musicians in the orchestra told us later, they couldn’t hear their own instruments in the beginning.”
This kind of anarchic live experience has its roots in the classical music that Christos loves so fiercely. His favourite artist created a work of genius so jarringly ground-breaking that its first performance lead to moral panic and riots in the streets of Paris. Stravinsky’s strikingly original ballet ‘The Rite of Spring’, with its dissonant chords, pulsating rhythms and awkward, jerky dance movements caused shockwaves and a huge brawl at its premiere in 1913, even, according to some accounts, endangering the artist’s life. “It was a big scandal,” Christos says. “When they heard the primitive sound of Igor Stravinsky, they nearly killed him.” Alternative music forms also have a history of infamy, and in this respect, classical music and metal have a lot in common. Any audacious, challenging and experimental artistic endeavour can inspire a kind of fear, that the breaking down of established structures to create something daring and new can have an impact on society’s status quo. And yet, without some shaking up of accepted systems and forms, how can we embrace creative potential and progress? Bands like Septicflesh, with their continual exploration of myriad new styles, understand this very well, and it is always those standout experimental artists they cite as their main inspiration. And the emotions inspired stand the test of time as well. Even now, ‘The Rite of Spring’ is intense, incredible stuff, depicting the ritual pagan sacrifice of a young girl who literally dances herself to death – possibly the heathen roots of the modern mosh pit. The music is visceral and immediately arresting, as startling and strange as when it was first written. “This is the work that made me want to become a composer.” Christos says. “This masterpiece for me, still now, it’s a treasure. It’s my vocabulary. It’s still so fresh, so modern. Stravinsky was so in front of others of his era that for me he’s by far the best composer.” Indeed, the spirit of Stravinsky and his characteristic madness suffuses every aspect of Septicflesh’s own unique genius, from the helter-skelter instrumentals to the swarming manic strings, the powerful reverberating chords to the sweeping sense of the theatrical.
Unfortunately, the pure unrivalled joy of a live performance of any form is not something most of us are going to experience for a while. The outlook in the UK is particularly bleak due to the pandemic, and while Greece have been more successful in handling the situation, with the government there potentially allowing live shows sometime in July. “I don’t think any promoter will risk their money just yet,” Christos sighs. “With shows that may be only 40 percent capacity – you will never know how many people will attend. Music has been affected a lot. And I don’t think having any distance between the crowd will work. Especially metal!” However, it’s not all doom and gloom. “All the bands will want to play in 2021. And we’ve been busy working on the new album – we are nearly at the end and in the Summer will rent out the studio. We were lucky that the virus didn’t affect our jobs in music because we only had a few shows planned in the Summer. I know many bands that have suffered a lot and lost a lot of money. Hopefully, with the new album ready, we will start touring again in 2021. Hopefully, the new album will be released Spring 2021. We have more to offer, more to give, we are eager to perform and to release the new DVD, and the new album. It’s going to be amazing.” Providing Covid 19 doesn’t mutate and wipe out the planet, 2021 could, touch wood, prove an awesome year for Septicflesh. In the meantime, we just have to stay safe and get through the current situation as sensibly as we can. “We’ve got to be serious and not believe in conspiracies. Thanks for supporting the band,” he adds, “even during these dark days. We will always do our best to please you.”
'Infernus Sinfonica MMXIX' is out 31st July via Season of Mist
Catch the world premiere of 'Infernus Sinfonica MMXIX' on 27th June 2020 @ 9pm CET via live stream. Grab your e-ticket HERE.