This makes a dozen studio albums for Austrian black/death metal legends Belphegor and it has an uncharacteristically subdued title for them. After all, this is the band behind memorable titles like Necrodaemon Terrorsathan, Goatreich - Fleshcult and, of course, Bondage Goat Zombie. The Devils just doesn't have the same oomph to it. Fortunately, that oomph is still there when it comes to the music, at least for the most part. There's an abiding patience to the opening title track that feels out of place to me and it returns a number of times throughout the album, but Totentanz nails its groove immediately and the album is off and running.
Belphegor is only two people nowadays, founding member Helmuth on lead vocals and guitar and Serpenth on bass and backing vocals, as he's been for over a decade and a half now. The drums are provided by a guest musician, David Diepold of British deathcore band Cognizance, among others. They bulk up with a second guitarist on tour, but Molokh apparently doesn't appear on this album. That makes them a kinda sorta power trio, I guess, and I've always found it fascinating to hear the depth of sound that only three people can conjure up. That goes double for a band who delve into black metal so deeply, that trio being responsible for the wall of sound we hear.
And there's some deep black metal in Totentanz, which is a glorious blitzkrieg of a track that feels like it simply couldn't be generated by three musicians. Sure, two of them have double duty but it seems like there are a lot more than two voices in play and a lot more than three musicians. Their layering of vocals, or whatever it is they're doing here, is the primary reason it feels deep, but the songwriting helps too. Glorifizierung des Teufels is seriously stripped down in comparison, plenty of it told with acoustic guitar and growled vocals, but it gets notably choral. It feels like a piece of operatic music adapted into an extreme metal framework, all the way to the strange narrative bit at the end for a female voice crying out in English in what may be a sample.
Those may be my favourite two songs here, as utterly different as they are, and they point the way to the other highlights of the album that are either fast and frantic but with a memorable groove, though only Kingdom of Cold Flesh attempts to match Totentanz on that front, or imaginative and bursting with dynamic play, a standard approach here. The songs that don't do much for me, such as that title track, are those that don't do either. The ones that do both and occasionally more are still growing on me after quite a few listens.
The most obvious example is Damnation - Hollensturz, which wraps up the first half. It has a frantic section here and there, especially during its bookends, and I love those. It has dynamic sections as well, where it bounces back and forth between calming and heavy. And it adds a fascinating ethnic vocal in its second half that doesn't sound Austrian at all, more Turkish (it returns on Creatures of Fire, just as tantalising). Yet this has also some of the patient bits that sometimes lose me, so I'm thoroughly enjoying it but I'm stuck in two minds about whether it ranks up there with Totentanz and the fascinating Glorifizierung des Teufels.
I'd have liked more frantic pieces but I'm happy with the dynamic play and the choral mindset that mixes the mild black shriek and rich death growl but layers them for effect with clean vocals which conjure up images of a choir of monks joining in song with a couple of demons. Virtus Asinaria has this and Ritus Incendium Diabolis too, almost reaching a plain chant behind the crunch. And this is enough to make me wonder if The Devils is a metal oratorio. It doesn't feel like full on opera so I'm not visualising the whole performance. It's pure music.