For any great extreme metal band that emerged in the endlessly fertile ground of the early 1990s, two fates usually awaited. You either became well-known enough to become semi-famous or revered as influential, or you appeared for a time and generated a limited but dedicated following. As you'd expect, there are way more bands in the second category than the first, including dozens who created brilliant albums, but whose names don't stand out among giants like Carcass, Darkthrone, At the Gates, Entombed, and Morbid Angel. I'd argue that God Dethroned is one of those bands.
If you're unfamiliar with this Dutch band's extensive back catalog, their debut 1992 album is a solid offering of dark death metal, but the first three albums after their initial reformation in 1996 show them really shine: The Grand Grimoire, Bloody Blasphemy, and Revenous. This era saw the band craft a uniquely violent-sounding variation of melodic death metal. It was essentially a mix of Necrophobic, North From Here-era Sentenced, Naglfar, Dawn, early Dark Tranquility, and The Crown (particularly from their Crown of Thorns-era). Much like The Crown, the band would hone their sound to a more refined, modern-sounding death metal beast on albums like The Toxic Touch and the more recent set of albums dedicated to the First World War.
According to the band's mastermind and sole founding member, Henri Sattler, the band's fans strongly wished for God Dethroned to go back to the occult and anti-Christian themes of its older work. It seems Henri and co. were ready to move on as well. For Illuminati, the band "embarked on a journey to unearth secret religious societies, photograph scenes of erotic derangement (a riff off of Hieronymus Bosch’s “Garden of Earthly Delights”), feed jealous angels, tell tales of forced evangelism, detail demonic frenzies, and, of course, covet the spawn of Satan." There's a lot to cover there! Indeed, the band's style takes many shapes here, with inspiration borrowed from all corners of the metal universe.
The strongest aspect of Illuminati is God Dethroned's effort to take the listener on a varied and dynamic sonic journey. There are echoes of the band's late-90s output, but they come encased in the shell of the more polished later years in terms of the production and guitar tone (similar to what Kataklysm does nowadays). One very well-executed addition is the clean choral vocals on songs like "Spirit of Beelzebub," bringing a fresh flavor to the listener's palette. It also gives the songs an extra ounce of catchiness to help make them more memorable. Other strong moments include "Satan Spawn," "Book of Lies," and the thrillingly brutal "Blood Moon Eclipse."
Many critics like to lament how "old" and "tired" occult themes are in metal nowadays. I'm not sure if this is what they actually think, or if they just like how smart and "adversarial" it makes them sound when they say it. Themes like the ones God Dethroned explores here are compelling in that they aren't bound by one place and a set period of time. They'll always be relevant to the human experience. It's what made it so easy and natural for the band to return to these themes after burning themselves out on songs about mud and trenches (they probably could have just left well enough alone after Passiondale). Though the lyrics to the title track are a little too on-the-nose obvious and could have used a second draft.
Illuminati is a well-constructed conglomeration of metal styles and is varied enough to make it worth spinning from back to front. The main drawback is that it's a little too clean sounding, and could have benefited from a harsher, rawer sound to make the riffs, screams and snare hits stand out a little more. I get what Henri meant when he said: "those of you who expected us to go back into a raging frenzy of endless blast beats and buzzsaw blade guitar sounds better beware." He can't just take the band backward completely, and I know he was going for a "big" sound, which is definitely evident here. I would have liked that approach dialed back just a bit, but that's not a slight against the excellent playing and songwriting evident all around here.
Favorite songs: "Spirit of Beelzebub," "Satan Spawn," "Book of Lies" and "Blood Moon Eclipse"