It must piss off BAL-SAGOTH to no end that those puffy-shirted Italian rogues in RHAPSODY get the real Christopher Lee to add narration to their albums. They'd certainly give the old ham more scenery to chew on — a good portion of the vocals on these blustery, unbelievably pretentious tracks are delivery in a haughty, Lee-like thespian intonation that must be heard to be believed. These U.K. nutters are nominally black metal, but their music has less to do with grim Norwegian forests, and more to do with painting tiny pewter orc figurines while listening to John Williams sci-fi movie scores in a Warhammer-poster-bedecked basement.
The hell of it is, while it's absolutely impossible to take these guys seriously (try reading those song titles out loud to a friend with a straight face), it's also hard to deny that they've got some serious musical ideas going on here. The record has a cinematic quality to it, with plenty of lush interludes between scorching blackened riffing and bombastic keyboards. There are some black metal shrieks in there as well, when the narrator voice isn't dictating the bloated storyline in that droll tone. The effect is both ridiculous and impressive, full of majesty and might, spiraling swirls of strings, blast beats and trumpeting horns, a heavy metal soundtrack in search of an anime space epic.
Strangely, the band's most typical black metal moments seem to be just that – typical. The rapid-fire black metal vocals seem to mostly follow the same pattern, an insistent Dani Filth-like yap-yap-yap that inevitably ends quickly, to let Optimus Prime come back in and resume telling the story in his maudlin stage whisper. The orchestral parts of the album also overshadow the guitar most of the time, although there are a few interesting riffs here and there. But BAL-SAGOTH seem most entranced by their classical side, making "interludes" like "To Storm the Cyclopean Gates of Byzantium" that clock in at five minutes and drip with choruses, kettle drums, and enough Wagnerian fervor to launch a fleet of starships.
It's been five years since BAL-SAGOTH's last album, "Atlantis Ascendant" -- an eternity in the fickle metal scene of today. It remains to be seen if the cult following who once sought their early works as pricey imports are still interested in their labyrinthine song titles and heavy-handed space war epics. For most, a little of this shit will go a long way, full immersion in the album likely to cause the sort of lethargic stupor that comes from eating too much pie. "The Chthonic Chronicles" is one of those albums to be slavishly worshiped, memorized and debated by a select few, creepily intense fans, while to the rest of the world, it's the sort of CD you're proud to have been able to hack once from start to finish – tons of respect for the integrity and single-mindedness on display here, but how often are you gonna really rock out to it?
P.S. Nothing on "The Chthonic Chronicles" tops BAL-SAGOTH's all-time best song title: "The Dark Liege Of Chaos Is Unleashed At The Ensorcelled Shrine Of A'Zura-Kai (The Splendour Of A Thousand Swords Gleaming Beneath The Blazon Of The Hyperborean Empire Part II)", from 1998's "Battle Magic". If you can believe someone came up with that song title with a straight face, I suppose it's not a stretch to convince yourself of the reality of hobbits, hyperborean empires, or hoary sentinels of Karnak, either.