The Retrosic – God of Hell

Tribune Records (TRIBUNE_003A), 2004

It’s always been a source of amazement for me that some electronic albums sound decidedly organic.  While many electro bands clearly embrace their synthetic sources – e.g. mind.in.a.box and Headscan – there are others that manage, somehow, to make their music not sound like the product of cybernetic intelligences.

The Retrosic is a prime example.  Yes, I’d still consider their music to be post-industrial electro/EBM, but the sound design is so far removed from others, it’s hard to believe that it’s part of the same genre (I would call it such, but others would surely disagree).  On paper, there’s little difference: the music is beat-driven, enhanced by twisting lines of sequences and chord-laden synths and keys.  You can dance to Headscan just as well as The Retrosic, but the feel is different; one is future-oriented slickness while the other is roughly hewn heaviness.

Not to imply that God of Hell, the third album from The Retrosic, is somehow lesser in execution or design; it is most certainly not, to my ears.  It’s crunchy, stompy, dark, heavy, and full of primal presence; just listen to the pounding beat, hypnotic bass line, snarling vocals, odd melody, and layered bell-like percussion of “Maneater” and try to avoid imagining some majestic creature stalking its prey under a smoking sky.  Like the best dark ambient, it’s incredibly evocative stuff.

God of Hell is overflowing with similar moments.  Despite its largely computerized sourcing, there’s a good deal of clearly acoustic instrumentation to be heard – pipes, wordless female vocals, Middle Eastern-style strings and horns – all of which serve to increase the album’s powerful mutated steampunk aura.  “Elysium” and “Passion (1st Sign)” evoke Dead Can Dance with their lamenting vocals, traditional percussion, and dramatic atmospheres; you don’t normally find creations like this in the realms of post-industrial.

Even tracks with a modern bent (“New World Order,” “Total War,” “Antichrist”) have a warped ancient sense about them, while the ode-like “Tale of Woe” and the bone-crushing instrumental “Dragonfire” could easily have been products of some alternate medieval dimension, a la Heimataerde.  Add the irresistible anthem “The Storm,” with its perfect barrage of bass, delicate pipe-like EBM sequencing, and fantastic vocals, and “Sphere,” a triumph of interlocking-gear vehicles steaming across an alien wasteland (it’s miles ahead of most like-minded cinematic pieces), and the album moves into a world all its own, carrying us along through its unique burnished landscape of rusted machinery, streaked by gouts of flame and boiling smoke, and populated with strange folk equally dangerous and artistic.

The album does fall prey to genre cliches.  Most of the vocal samples are unnecessary and disruptive in an album of such crafted power.  Similarly, some may find the band’s vocals – aggressive chants delivered in a rasping, delicately distorted fashion – to be at odds with the music.  I love the understated rage and menace in the vocals, however; they’re powerful without being overdone, and provides a human and thematic connection for us.  God of Hell contains a good number of songs, after all, and vocals are a vital element.  Without the vocals, ragged and growling as they are, God of Hell would lose something; they add to the primal blood coursing throughout the album.  The lyrics themselves aren’t as effective as the confident throaty delivery, mostly concerned with well-worn themes of apocalypse, war, suffering, and conspiracy, but the genre is home to far worse.  Even the slow-paced dirge “Tale of Woe” manages to avoid being completely embarrassing; in lesser hands, it would have been.  Also, the last two minimal tracks are completely throwaway, adding nothing but unnecessary length; God of Hell is better without them.

God of Hell seems to be the pinnacle for The Retrosic, as prior and following releases haven’t come close to its high level of potent creativity and aesthetic sense.  However, for this album, the band conjured a powerful and versatile vision of dark grandeur that also satisfies the high-octane demands of industrial dancefloors across the globe.  God of Hell is one of the few albums that is also able to move beyond the 4/4 foundation to provide a listening experience that surprises with its depth, variety, cohesion, and strength of songwriting.  Such albums are rare in general, but when you consider its genre, God of Hell becomes elevated to classic status.

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