The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website


Pharaoh Overlord
6 Noel Gardner , November 23rd, 2020 09:07

Boldly unearthing the missing link between disco and death metal, Pharaoh Overlord deserve to be taken seriously – just don't call them a Circle side-project

A fixture of the Finnish rock underground, Pharaoh Overlord have long made music of great interest and depth that warrants being taken seriously, while presenting it to the world in a way that risks discouraging just that (for some, at least). The lineup of Pharaoh Overlord has rarely been fixed since they began about two decades ago, but it’s tied pretty closely to that of Circle, who by virtue of existing first – and having a larger (indeed vast) discography – are generally considered the ‘main’ band to Pharaoh Overlord’s ‘side project’. Not how they’d prefer to see it, I’d wager.

Both groups have run the gamut of styles from Krautrock to heavy metal, jazz to prog, crisscrossing in an often camp and injokey way. And while sometimes using reference points from the recognised musical mainstream, they have rarely – if ever – sounded like it. This latest Pharaoh Overlord album probably comes closer to doing that than any other. Its five songs are mostly (perhaps entirely) guitar-free – sequenced rhythms and gleaming keyboard melodies cribbing from cosmic disco, Italo, synthpop and the more proto-techno sorts of the 1970s German set, then topped off by extreme metal vocals which will likely prove divisive even to those familiar with the source.

I don’t entirely understand how Pharaoh Overlord denote their albums ‘proper’ and not: 6 is billed as their sixth full-length, but is more accurately their sixth to be titled with a number and, even if you discount the live recordings, split releases and cassettes in the rest of their catalogue, there are still several other things under this name which pretty clearly seem to be studio albums. You can trace a clean path between this new effort and previous LP, 5, released just over a year ago and the first to cut the band down to the duo who remain in place, Jussi Lehtisalo and Tomi Leppänen. It was more synth-centric than ever before, an approach they’ve doubled down on with 6, and their one-off guest vocalist and occasional label boss Aaron Turner (currently of Sumac and founder of Hydra Head Records) has ended up gracing the entire album here.

The unadulterated high-NRG synth finery of ‘Path Eternal’, which begins the LP, is adulterated half a minute in by Turner’s vocals – thoroughly uncouth apelike grunts which evolve into a mildly studio-scrubbed version of his more familiar mode of delivery, essentially an amalgam of doom, death, black and industrial metal styles. ‘Without Song All Will Perish’ is illuminated by a fantastic synth riff which will, reasonably, attract comparisons to Abba’s ‘Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!’ but equally sounds like it could have been composed for some crack disco group’s string section circa the late 70s. The singing, though, is definitely going to elicit responses of “ah, if only those vocals weren’t there,” from people perhaps imagining something they could unsheepishly play to friends or work colleagues. It should go without saying here that neither Turner nor Pharaoh Overlord are under any obligation to tailor their approach for such a hypothetical.

Elsewhere on 6, metal and synthpop aesthetics are merged with more established logic. ‘Arms Of The Butcher’ combines a deathly organ riff with an EBM-pop rhythmic framework, making the whole sound like a play for the slimiest of goth club dancefloors. ‘Tomorrow’s Sun’ measures out lyrics like, “It was only yesterday / Awoken in a cold sweat…” and draws a particular equivalence which has always struck me as there for the taking but is rarely done so, between this sort of grandiose synth music and epic doom metal.

‘Blue Light Hum’, closing the album over 14 minutes, offers the first instance of either deep bass or distortion and lends a ‘rock’ production aesthetic without the corresponding instrumentation. A keyboard part descends with blockish simplicity and some sort of ghostly ‘whoo!’s are dropped in about two minutes before the end, just about staying the right side of schlock. This release as a whole will likely prove hard work for many people on either side of the synthpop/metal rubicon, but Pharaoh Overlord have been mutating for long enough now to have a group in between who dig their strange ways of thinking.